A case study of commercial television in India: assessing the organizational mechanisms of cultural imperialism.

Author:Crabtree, Robbin D.
 
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Some might call it a satellite invasion. Others might conceptualize it as a groundswell. Either way, the commercialization of television in India is reality. The process through which entrepreneurs---on the ground and in the air--have created and capitalized on this trend is a remarkable story. The events associated illustrate a global trend in the commercialization of mass media and of cultures. While debated from many perspectives, the majority of scholarship about international communication and the effects of media across cultures operates at either the macro-structural level or at the individual/audience level. We present this case study as an opportunity to examine the processes of media and cultural imperialism (CI) at the organizational level.

It has become increasingly clear that world media relations have changed since the 1970s when the topic came to international prominence. Straubhaar (1991) asserted that while "the United States still dominates world media sales and flows, national and regional cultural industries are consolidating a relatively more interdependent position in the world television market" (p. 56). We position this article adjacent to Straubhaar's work on Brazilian television, as it may evidence his notions of asymmetrical interdependence and cultural proximity, though we continue to agree with Schiller (1991) that this is "not yet the post-imperialist era" (p.13). As this case study illustrates, "local media forms may be implicated in cultural imperialism through their roots in the Western cultural industries" (Goodwin & Gore, 1990, p. 69).

In this essay we seek to (1) relay the experiences of Indian broadcasters who are developing a new commercial television industry in India; (2) point out some of the antecedent influences--social, political, economic, and technological forces--which have precipitated this moment; (3) provide some initial insights into the possible cultural implications of commercial television in India; and (4) position this case study within the theoretical and empirical traditions of media/cultural imperialism, ascertaining the adequacy of this paradigm to the case of India.

Media and Cultural Imperialism

Media and cultural imperialism have been used to describe a modern manifestation of colonial and imperial relationships, whereby peripheral countries are turned into markets for the cultural products of dominant nations (Schiller, 1976, 1991). This, in turn, produces a market for the manufactured goods and cultural products of those exporting nations, as well as the accompanying beliefs, values, and ideologies. Cultural imperialism has been conceptualized variously as a strategy on the part of dominant countries, a local policy on the part of receiving countries, and an effect on the people and practices in the latter (Lee, 1979). Dominant nations have clear strategies concerning the export of cultural products. The profit margin of most Hollywood films (and increasingly television programming, as well), depends on the foreign market (Jowett & Linton, 1989; Wasko, 1982). Affected nations have policies whereby they adopt foreign technology, and with it the corresponding software or programming. These policies primarily benefit the elite (Roach, 1997; Schiller, 1991). Although not easy to measure, cultural imperialism is also an effect. While the degree of demonstrated effect on audiences may be small or indirect (Morgan & Shanahan, 1997; Elasmar & Hunter, 1997), it has been hypothesized that affected countries absorb values, working styles, consumption patterns, and so on, from the exporting nations (e.g., Beltran, 1978). What is most insidious about this process is that it tends to be unilateral. Dominant countries disseminate news, information, and entertainment, while affected nations receive and absorb it without a balancing two-way flow (e.g., Nordenstreng & Varis, 1974).

Globally, there are a small number of "source" countries with the ownership of local media organizations in the hands of, or operating in the interest of, multinational corporations. Even when media organizations are locally or nationally owned, the formal managerial control can be foreign or, with similar outcomes, controlled by national elites with strong foreign interests (Schiller, 1991). While some nations, like India, have a substantial media production infrastructure, a portion of programming may still be imported from extra-national sources. Also imported are the conceptual models of media scheduling (24-hour), formatting (news-entertainment-information), genre (sit-com, drama, etc.), and production techniques (slick and high-budget production values). Not surprisingly, professional ideologies (objectivism, commercialism) accompany the programming and technology (e.g., Beltran, 1978; Varis, 1984). More recently, the conceptualization of cultural imperialism has been expanded to include a milieu of other cultural enterprises such as theme parks, shopping malls, fast food dining, and professional sports (e.g., Schiller, 1991).

The actual effects of (primarily) Western media content on (primarily) "Third World" audiences has been of interest to scholars and policy-makers for almost half a century. It was the centerpiece of discussions in UNESCO in the 1970s (Masmoudi, 1979; McBride, 1984). While media and cultural imperialism have been conceptualized in great detail, and dozens of critical articles have been written on the topic, few studies have examined the degree to which the hypothesized effects are actually occurring, or detailing the specific individual and social processes through which such effects occur. The existing body of research on transcultural media effects on audiences has been inconclusive and often contradictory (e.g., Granzberg, 1982; Kang & Morgan, 1988; Liebes & Katz, 1990; Pingree & Hawkins, 1981; Salwen, 1991). Much of it has focused narrowly on educational and development project outcomes, especially in India (e.g., Agrawal & Rai, 1988; Rao, 1969; Shingi & Mody, 1976). Nevertheless, while much of this research suggests that "reductive theories which conflate economics and meaning, ownership and ideology, are outdated and invalid" (Goodwin & Gore, 1990, p. 78), they do not fundamentally undermine the cultural imperialism thesis that there is gross imbalance which has cultural, economic, and political consequences.

Media and cultural imperialism are problematic concepts for social scientific research, because they have been difficult to prove or disprove. Critical scholars generally describe media or cultural imperialism using a simple cause-effect model, focusing on the relationships between the United States' global media presence and its perceived influence on less powerful nations and cultures (Elliot, 1993; Salwen, 1991). This is ironic because research on media effects within the U.S. has long since abandoned the "magic bullet" or "hypodermic needle" mechanistic effects model.

Salwen (1991) argues that much of the critical scholarship has been ideological rather than empirical, though he cites several persuasive studies which have worked at the macro-societal level (e.g., Varis, 1974, on international news flows), and concedes that dependency theory was particularly well-suited to early explanations of the Latin American media landscape (e.g., Cardoso & Faleto, 1979). Like Salwen, Burrowes (1992) faults cultural imperialism theorists for failing to adequately examine the "Third World" audiences they vociferously defend, who instead present them as "passive, uncritical recipients of culture" (p. 7).

There is a growing body of research which suggests audiences make active choices in their viewing behavior (e.g., Brown, 1994; Fiske, 1986), and that, when given the choice, audiences prefer national or regional programming over international programming (e.g., Straubhaar, 1991; also see Roach, 1997; Tomlinson, 1991). This argument is particularly relevant to India, a nation that has one of the most prolific media production infrastructures in the world. Indian audiences have greater selection of regional and national programming than do audiences in most developing countries. Our research suggests that, while Indian audiences are presumed (by researchers, marketers, and programming executives alike) to prefer Indian or Asian programs, those programs are increasingly reminiscent of Western ones. The process whereby national television organizations can be "pressured" (Schiller, 1976) into correspondence with Western values, lifestyles, and production norms is illuminated in our analysis. While our critique of cultural imperialism is less passionate than those by the active/resistant audience theorists, this study works in the gap they identify by examining the organizational and programming decisions of a new Indian commercial television network, analyzing these processes and outcomes in relationship to the cultural imperialism debate. Whereas a meta-analysis of quantitative studies reveals negligible to small transborder media effects (Elasmar & Hunter, 1997), and critical studies posit tremendous effects (though no similar meta-analysis is available for comparison), our study works in the methodological gap of previous research. Case study research like this reveals some insidious and subtle intra-organizational mechanisms of cultural imperialism, which may not be measurable in audiences per se. It is important to reiterate that cultural imperialism does not concern effects on individuals or audience collectives alone; rather, it posits a multi-level socio-cultural impact.

Even though there is an ongoing national debate on its merits, Westernization is almost taken for granted in India these days. Nevertheless, the processes whereby foreign values emerge in a nation's culture are complex. Specifically, through the transfer of technology and professionalism, the presence of multinational advertising and the development of consumer culture...

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