Cultural proximity and audience behavior: the role of language in patterns of polarization and multicultural fluency.

Author:Ksiazek, Thomas B.

Cultural proximity is the intuitively appealing notion that people will gravitate toward media from their own culture. In a world where diverse populations have access to increasingly abundant media environments, it has emerged as an important theoretical construct for explaining audience behavior. Despite its appeal, though, it remains a loosely defined concept that consists of many more discrete factors, most notably language. Further, research on cultural proximity typically stops short of a clear demonstration of its impact on actual patterns of media consumption.

This study addressed both concerns by analyzing radio and television usage among people from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Specifically, it used Portable People Meter data provided by Arbitron to assess language as a determinant of audience behavior among Hispanic Americans in Houston, Texas. Unlike previous research, this allowed for an examination of patterns of audience loyalty both within and across radio and television outlets.

Cultural Proximity

Straubhaar explained cultural proximity as "... the tendency to prefer media products from one's own culture or the most similar possible culture" (Straubhaar, 2003, p. 85). The concept has been used primarily in international contexts to explain the drawing power of foreign and domestic media. Scholars typically credit De Sola Pool (1977) with the original idea and Straubhaar (e.g., 1991, 2003) with elaborations of the construct.

It grew in response to notions of cultural imperialism (Schiller, 1969) and economic theories (e.g., Waterman, 2005; Wildman & Siwek, 1988) that predicted one-way flows of culture from richer to poorer countries based on superior production quality. The latter economic explanations often credit the superior quality to a "home market advantage" (Waterman, 2005), whereby traditional production centers such as the United States can justify large production budgets based on the prospect of large domestic revenues, irrespective of foreign markets. Any additional revenue recouped abroad is merely a bonus. However, as regional production centers, such as Mexico, Brazil, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, Bollywood, Dubai, and South Africa continue to grow and increasingly compete with the traditional centers of media production, these notions of imperialism seem outdated.

The emergence of regional media production is consistent with notions of cultural proximity. In order for content to best resonate with the cultural dispositions of viewers, the content and the viewer must exist in the same "cultural linguistic" (Straubhaar, 2003) or "geolinguistic" (Cunningham, Jacka, & Sinclair, 1998; Straubhaar, 2003) space. According to Straubhaar (2003) examples include: Spanish (Latin America), Chinese (East and Southeast Asia), Arabic (Middle East), German (Europe), Hindi and Tamil (South Asia), and Malay (Southeast Asia). The claim is that a Chilean audience member, for example, would prefer content produced in Mexico to content produced in the United States.

Proponents of cultural proximity highlight the importance of language in determining audience preferences for different media products. De Sola Pool argued, "people would rather see a film made in their own idiom than one with subtitles or even one that is dubbed" (1977, p. 143). Similarly, Straubhaar maintained, "At the individual audience level, competence, ability to speak or at least understand the language of a broadcast, is an important ingredient in audiences' selection of a program and their enjoyment of it" (Straubhaar, 2003, p. 82).

But language is not the only determinant of cultural proximity. Theoretically, cultural proximity has been tied to the broader concept of "cultural capital" (Bourdieu, 1984). Straubhaar conducted a qualitative case study in Brazil, during which he performed 228 in-depth interviews over a 10-year period. He found evidence of cultural proximity resulting from varying levels of cultural capital among different social classes (Straubhaar, 2003). His research suggests that a great many more discrete variables may be at play in determining cultural proximity. La Pastina and Straubhaar claim, "there are other levels of similarity or proximity, based in cultural elements per se: dress, ethnic types, gestures, body language, definitions of humor, ideas about story pacing, music traditions, religious elements, etc." (La Pastina & Straubhaar, 2005, p. 274). In addition to these factors, authors sometimes include: gender images, lifestyle, knowledge about other lifestyles, values, education, family, personal and group networks, travel, religion, and organizational affiliations (Straubhaar, 2001, 2003). Furthermore, genre proximity can influence audience preferences (Obregon, as cited in Straubhaar, 2007). For example, scholars have argued that familiarity with the genre of melodrama has allowed for the success of telenovelas worldwide (La Pastina & Straubhaar, 2005; Straubhaar, 2007). Clearly, cultural proximity is a complex notion with a great many dimensions. As a result, scholars have described cultural proximity as existing on multiple levels, corresponding to multiple layers of an audience member's identity. These include geographic, cultural, religious, and ethnic, just to name a few (La Pastina & Straubhaar, 2005; Straubhaar, 2007). Moreover, most of these factors are confounded with language, so their exact role in producing proximity effects is often difficult to sort out. All, however, predict that given access to culturally diverse media materials, people will prefer, and in turn choose, media that are more proximate.

Empirical tests of the cultural proximity hypothesis have made extensive use of television program schedules. Straubhaar and colleagues examined prime-time television programming over a 40-year span on the assumption that it offered "a reasonably accurate indication of what is most popular with the audience" (Straubhaar, Fuentes, Giraud, & Campbell, 2002, p. 11). They found that a "new kind of cultural proximity" (p. 23), comprised of international trade patterns, migration, and geography, leads to an affinity for not just local or national, but also regional media products.

Longitudinal studies specific to individual countries have produced similar results. Over time, foreign media have become less popular, and accounted for a smaller portion of program schedules relative to domestic media. In Argentina, 49% of the total programming in 1983 originated outside of the country, while only 22% did so in 1996 (Chmielewski Falkenheim, 2000). Davis (2003) studied Ecuavisa, an Ecuadorian television outlet, finding that viewers chose to watch Ecuadorian, Latin American, and American programming, in that order. The author analyzed total programming hours and ratings. Interestingly, although Ecuavisa imported more programming than it produced, its audience chose the domestically produced content. Both of these studies suggest cultural proximity at work, yet neither accounts for the specific factors that explain it.

Though most often documented in Latin American or Hispanic media studies, the impact of cultural proximity is evident in European contexts as well. Much like the studies above, Buonanno (2001) analyzed the program schedules of five major European countries and found that while television fiction of domestic origin comprised anywhere from 19-47% of total programming, it accounted for the majority of prime-time programming. Similarly, Trepte (2003) found that although the majority of fiction programming in five European countries originated in the United States, the top-rated series in each country were almost all produced domestically. Trepte attributed this to cultural proximity but did not explicitly address the role of language preferences.

The tale of cultural proximity, then, is usually told as the triumph of domestically produced media over the alien foreign media privileged in models of cultural imperialism and one-way flows. Other scholars have documented the related phenomenon of "contra flow" which involves a smaller nation exporting media content back to the nations that are typically associated with the international exportation of media, such as the United States (Cunningham et al., 1998, p. 189). This too is often celebrated as promoting a more culturally diverse media environment.

A darker prospect, that the contra-flow of media from the growing number of regional production centers might polarize culturally diverse populations within a given country into different audience groups who rely on entirely different media outlets for their news and entertainment, is scarcely considered. While in some quarters, such behavior might be viewed innocently enough as rational consumers simply exercising their media preferences, it would doubtless give others cause for alarm. Several social commentators have worried that the abundance of new media environments will erode the public sphere by breaking it into many enclaves or "sphereicules" that never interact with one another (e.g., Gitlin, 1998; Katz, 1996; Sunstein, 2001). The prospect that cultural proximity might drive cultural polarization deserves more attention.

Unfortunately, studies of cultural proximity that document the phenomenon by examining programming practices and/or the prime-time ratings of individual programs have serious limitations. While it may be the case that program schedules tell something about program popularity, they reflect a number of other factors as well. These might include the cost of acquiring programs or scheduling policies that give domestic programs preferential treatment. Even audience ratings do not necessarily illustrate audience preferences for culturally proximate materials, since nondomestic programs may be tired reruns scheduled at less desirable times or on less desirable channels. At best, such evidence of cultural proximity should be regarded as...

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