Problems at the Source:
"Baywatch is more embarrassment than entertainment for people there [in rural areas]. The nudity, the physical contact..." Nahum Gorelick, Namibian Broadcast Company.
It's a Tuesday night in Africa. You happen to live in a capital city with all the perks -- electricity and a television signal. So you come home from a hard day at the office and switch on the tube. Here is your evening line-up for Windhoek, Namibia:
5 PM Sesame Street
6 PM Casper and Friends
6:30 The Rich Also Cry
7:30 Growing Pains
8:30 Tropical Heat
9:25 Parliamentary Report
9:30 Talking Point
Cable subscribers could supplement that line up with "Goof Troop," "Scooby Doo," "The Flintstones" and "Garfield and Friends" as well as "The Wonder Years," "The Simpsons," plus "Don't Tell Mama the Baby-sitter's Dead." What a great way to spend an evening. A mongoose frolicking in the backyard, Kudu steaks on the grill, and American reruns on the tube.
Some version of this evening is occurring all around the world. In Hanoi, “Charlie’s Angels” now airs six times a week (Huckshorn, 1995). In the Crimea 500 Russians demonstrated for a return to Russian language dubbing of “Santa Barbara,” complaining that the new Ukranian language version was totally unacceptable. “It’s like a friend you’ve known for years suddenly changing her voice (Meek, 1995). American television appears nearly everywhere.
In one sense, what is on the world’s TV screens or in the papers may not seem to matter, after all, we now have electronic mail and new computer systems. Public media seem like quaint artifacts of the past. But they are very much a force of the present. While popular descriptions of life in the information age seem to dwell on state of the art computer systems and communication links, it is clear that much, if not most, of the information people have will come from nothing fancier than television screens and daily newspapers. It is here that information starts, and too frequently it is here that information ends.
In looking at public information we will examine five sources: TV, movies, newspapers, radio, and books. Each source shapes what people know about the world around them. Each in its own way is obvious and simple. However, the variation in information people receive around the world is striking and hardly obvious.
How important is television around the world? We know it is central to American culture, but what about the rest of the world? Available figures tell us TV is very important just about everywhere on the planet. To begin with, the US is not the top nation in the world in television ownership. That honor goes to the Netherlands with 906 TVs per 1000 people (Statistical Abstracts, 856). The US is only second with 815 per one thousand. Still, we have a big edge over third and fourth place, Canada at 641, and Japan at 620. But in one sense, whether the number is 600 per one thousand, or 900 per one thousand, assuming that just a few people are willing to share their televisions with a spouse or watch with their children, most of the developed countries are saturated with televisions.
As one would expect, the developing world has far fewer TVs. Ghana has just 15 per 1000, India 32, Madagascar 20. For people in the developing world, television is not a common occurrence. But that does not mean it is unimportant, because in relative terms, it still carries significant weight. Consider the table below that compares television ownership to newspaper circulation in the developing world.
Country Newspaper Circulation Television Ownership
Algeria 51 74
Bangladesh 6 5
Colombia 61 115
Egypt 57 109
Guatemala 21 52
Iraq 34 69
Kenya 15 9
Madagascar 4 20
South Africa 38 105
(per 1000 population. Statistical Abstracts, 1994:856)
There are exceptions, such as Bangladesh and Kenya, but for the clear majority of developing nations, television is a far more significant source of information than newspapers. It turns out radio is even more important, but television is undoubtedly a source of significance.
Given TV's important place even in the developing world, television programming begins to matter. What are they watching on their TVs around the world? In many cases, they are watching American reruns. Old Hollywood sitcoms and daytime soaps may seem to make no sense at all across the deserts and jungles of the world, but you run into them everywhere. The American dominance of world television probably reaches its most ludicrous end in Cairo. Here in the country where American tourists are followed by heavily armed tourist police to protect them from Muslim Fundamentalists, much of Cairo spent 1993 protesting the removal of "The Bold and the Beautiful" from a daily prime time slot. Henceforth it will only be seen once weekly, its daily slot taken by "Oskin" the story of a Japanese girl who works her way from rages to riches. Given a choice between beautifully dressed immoral American pap, and long-laboring Japanese morality, Egyptians in droves are calling for American Escapism. Explained one columnist, "We have 30 million Oskins like her. We have our fill of poverty, deprivation and need." (Eltahawy, 1994)
An interesting footnote to this example came from one South African newspaper which covered the Cairo controversy. It couldn't help gloating "Egypt is way behind South Africa in the Bold and Beautiful series. For example, Caroline is dead, Kirsten has left the show, and Clark has remarried." Poor, backward Egypt, it just can't keep up with South Africa on American soaps.
What is there about television that leads to such overwhelming American programming dominance? Actually there are three forces at work: economics, international marketing, and language luck.
Forget the content of television shows for a minute, the actors, the dialogue, the setting. Think money. For established studios, television is a marvelous industry. They have heavy investments in creating a product, but once that product is completed, it is one of the most unique products ever made -- you can make copies of it for almost nothing, and transport it practically for free. The product seems designed for export.
Economics works the other way for newer and less developed television stations. Put yourself in the position of Nahum Gorelick, Managing Director of the Namibian Broadcast Company. He has air time to fill -- about eight hours a day. He also has a limited budget. What can he use to fill his time slots? "Baywatch" Not exactly a cultural export, "Baywatch" consists mostly of people wearing very little, doing little of consequence on American beaches. Namibia has beaches, but not idle adolescents for whom the show was written. But it is cheap. One hour costs NBC $450. They have gotten complaints about the show from rural viewers. Gorelick says "Baywatch is more embarrassment than entertainment for people there [in rural areas]. The nudity, the physical contact..." But he has airtime to fill and a limited budget.
By Gorelick's estimates, an hour of local content would cost $1200 if it were undirected (like local soccer matches), and well over $2000 if it involved actors and directors. To get up to export standards, his costs would be even higher. By one estimate, export prices represent less than 1% of local production costs (Lent, 1993). Gorelick has a limited budget, so he goes with the cheap American product. This programming choice is repeated over and over as Gorelick and his colleagues around the world try to fill time slots. American TV may not be very good, but it is cheap.
Not all world television is American. Brazil has arrived at a compromise. In order to stay on the air 20 hours a day, TV Globo shows early morning cartoons and late night feature films from the US, but puts their locally produced soaps -- telenovelas -- in prime time. Audiences much prefer the local shows, with one rating of American televison shows by university students giving the imported shows just a 1.6 on a 10 point scale (Oliveira, 1993), but the cost of local production is too high and the cost of imports too low, so some American content is inevitable.
In Asia Hollywood has an even smaller portion of the market, ranging from five percent in China and South Korea to 15% to 20% in Malaysia and the Philippines (Lent, 1993). But the rules of economics haven't changed. In this case, the exporter is Hong Kong where studios are able to produce thousands of hours of programming cheaply. The Hong Kong studios have language and cultural advantages to their programming, with costs no higher than Hollywood.
But whether the exporter is Hollywood or Hong Kong, television around the world uses a great deal of foreign product -- economics demand it. Can local cultures respond? One reaction is local content laws. For instance, South Africa is rewriting its broadcasting laws to demand 50 percent local content on its public television station and 30 percent local content on private tv stations (Pearce, 1995). But local content laws are anachronistic in the age of satellite networks. With one satellite network setting up in neighboring Swaziland and broadcasting to all of South africa from there, national content laws don’t have any effect. Cheap imports rain in unchecked.
The second route to American dominance is marketing. For proof, there is no need to look further than MTV in Europe. Since arriving in Europe in 1990 the channel has grown threefold to 59 million households, 700,000 more than in the US (Tully, 1994). Broadcasts are in English and are beamed across the continent rather than to individual countries. Music tends to be American or British, but some European groups are included. MTV also broadcasts news and socially conscious programs on topics like global warming and European immigrants.
CNN has even a bigger reach, as it demonstrated in May 1994. Putting together a global press conference simultaneously broadcast to 141 countries, CNN' International Centre in Atlanta put US President Bill Clinton on the air for 90 minutes to answer questions from around the world. Clinton got questions for journalists in Sarajevo, Seoul, Johannesburg, and Jerusalem (Walker, 1994). The only problem for CNN is time zones. While Clinton got prime time in the US and the breakfast hours in Asia, his world wide press conference hit Europe, the Middle east, and Africa in the middle of the night.
Even where American names aren't on the channel, there may still be lots of American involvement. One of the largest makers of French TV programs, Hamster Productions, is one third owned by Capital Cities/ABC (Stevenson, 1994), and their influence is more than financial. "There is no day when we don't say, 'What would ABC have done?" says Pierre Grimblat, President of Hamster. "They are so modern and so knowledgeable about the international destiny of television." With a European TV market estimated at 350 million people, American companies Time Warner, Turner Broadcasting, Viacom, Walt Disney, Coca Cable, US West, and NBC are all investing in Europe. Already a major influence, American presence on international television seems ready to grow. In large measure it is growing because American producers are going after international television -- they market to it, they work for it, they think world-wide.
Besides cheap prices and marketing muscle, what makes the US such an important player in world television? A good case can be made for the accident of our national language. When the British were planting their flag around the world, they left more behind than cricket and people who drive on the wrong side of the road. Learn to speak Chinese and you can speak to a billion people, but those people all live in one place. Learn to speak English and you can speak to fewer native speakers, but those natives live all over the world. Add in the business and technical strength of the US, and you have a language worth learning.
American companies can trade on that advantage. Unlike their competitors in Berlin, Tokyo, or Moscow, the American product comes factory fresh with the "right" language. No costs or delays for translating, no laughable dubbing or illegible subtitles -- you get good old English in the original. Of course this is also true for the people who created the language in the first place, the English. It is interesting to see how they have played to that advantage.
England, and especially the BBC, has not been sitting idly by watching the US take over world TV. Creating a world television service in 1991, its 24 hour news and information channel reaches the Pacific, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Canada. One jingoistic English columnist described the importance of the TV channel to England. "Where the fight was once for territory and "zones of influence," in future it could be for air-space" (Walden, 1994). He went on to describe how the BBC might prevail in such a fight:
Hundred of millions of people who have hitherto been starved of entertainment and subjected to Victorian sexual taboos, will be easy meat for the international purveyors of low pictorial diversion in all its forms, soft-porn included [read "Hollywood"]...as international audiences tire of pap [read "Hollywood" again] and become more educated and discriminating, the world market for more sophisticated and demanding television will grow [read "BBC"].
Does this mean "The Bold and Beautiful" competing for air time with "Monty Python" is the moral equivalent of war? If so, we face an interesting century.
The BBC is not relying on its programming alone. It has its own technological efforts, including satellites carefully routed to cover the most customers. AsiaSat covers Turkey to Malaysia. In addition to insuring citizens with a satellite dish can get their broadcasts, BBC World Service also has rebroadcasting agreements that cover Ghana, Botswana, Nigeria, and Kenya. Viewers need to pay a subscription fee and purchase a decoder (this instantly drops the African viewing audience to a minuscule percentage), but it is a foothold for the BBC with the "more educated and discriminating." Even where they are unable to get an audience for the full BBC service, BBC World Service has become a source for news bulletins in such countries as Swaziland.
Whether advanced technology and sophisticated programming will make the BBC a serious contender with American efforts is still up in doubt. What is not in doubt is the dominance of the English language. American broadcasters may have to consider British competitors. They have nothing to fear from broadcasters in other languages. As one commentators noted, "the Anglo-Saxons will retain a global advantage as decisive in its sphere as "the oil weapon" used to be: the English language.” (Walden, 1994).
If there is one area where the Americans hold an even greater edge, it is the movies. Not only is the dominance greater, but the attention being paid to the situation is greater. Movie people are not shy by nature, so the position of Hollywood is very visible, as is the reaction of the less successful nations. The most recent and most visible clash came during the final round of GATT negotiations. The 1993 General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs was able to come to closure only by agreeing it could not agree on the subject of intellectual property rights. The French got much of the blame for being the main obstacle to agreement, but who could blame them? Here in the land of the Cannes Film Festival, 75% of the French movie market goes to American films. The French aren't fighting to become a world force in film, or even to be a significant exporter, they just want to increase their share of the domestic French film market from 25% to 40%. Hardly a lofty goal. One wonders whether French directors are more embarrassed by the puny nature of their industry's goals, or by the fact that they may have to force their countrymen to watch their movies.
While the problem with the French may be the most recent clash over the international movie industry, the problem is hardly new. In his excellent history of the film industry, Ray Armes (1987) reviews the growth and conflicts of the business over the last century. It would appear there was never a time without turbulence. In the beginning, it was the French who ruled the film world. In 1908 Charles Pathe had industrialized film production in France and was exporting to the world. His dominance was so complete that until the First World War he was selling twice as many films in the US as all American companies combined. After the war, and with the direction of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association, US film makers first took control of the American market and then took on the world.
American success came quickly. Already by 1925 the US had knocked out one of its major competitors and was controlling ninety five percent of the British market (In 1994 the US still had 84% of the British market (Rosen, 1994)). It held 60 percent of the European market and up to 80 or 90 percent in parts of Asia and Latin America. By 1930, fully a third of Hollywood's income was coming from overseas. By the 1960s, Hollywood was getting half its income overseas.
How could anyone achieve that kind of dominance in an industry? There appear to be four factors at work: quantity, cost, distribution channels, and language.
Once you have a movie theater, you need movies. A nation with movie theaters will need hundreds of films a year. To quote Armes, "[a] country is more than ever vulnerable to imports from abroad, unless -- like present-day India -- it can produce on its own the many hundreds of films needed each year to feed such exhibition outlets." (1987:41). Production of so many films requires a substantial film industry. This means a pool of talent, financing, administrative abilities, and technology. Few countries have been able accumulate the needed resources. India has been a notable success, producing 763 films in 1983. With so many local films, it can keep its theaters occupied, and has less need for foreign imports.
But few countries have matched this level of production. Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina have been able to create significant industries and were all able to produce nearly one hundred films a year already in the 1950s. Even Burma, Pakistan, and South Korea could produce fifty films a year by 1955. Such quantities took significant efforts, but still left a vacuum to be filled. These countries all needed to import films. Needless to say, countries producing even fewer films had even more need for imports. Hollywood filled that need. Meanwhile, back in the US, Hollywood production was sufficient to fill American theaters without any need for imports. Film distribution was a one way street.
For companies able to export movies, it is hard to imagine a better cost structure. Just as in television production, almost all the costs of film production go for the master negative and first print. After that, costs are almost nil. This means a company exporting films is in a marvelous position. Since its distribution and sales costs are low, it can charge very little and still make a large profit. As Armes puts it, "it was like being able to sell an imported Rolls Royce for less than the cost of the cheapest locally produced car and still make virtually a 100 percent profit. (37)."
While great for the film exporter, the cost situation is less attractive to the local studio. It has to try to recover its production costs, but cannot compete on price -- virtually anything it wants to charge for a film the exporter can undercut. It can try to export too, and Mexico, for one, has had some success in this area, but export opportunities are limited by the distribution system.
Distribution of films is a significant business in its own right, and one prone to monopoly. Possibly the best example here comes from the French. Two French companies, COMACICO and SECMA, essentially controlled all of French speaking Africa through the 1960s and 70s. They not only controlled 60 percent of the theaters in this part of Africa, but were sole suppliers to the remaining 40% (Armes, 1987:45). With this kind of control, they could determine which films were shown -- which would be imported from France and which, if any, local films would be seen. The monopoly was finally broken in 1974 by a pan-African organization. Unfortunately for African film makers, this new distributor has not shown much interest in increasing the quantity of African films distributed through the area. Until distributors take such action, film makers are virtually helpless.
Language is the other factor affecting the distribution of movies. It wasn't always so. Up until the late 1920s, movies were silent. With no language, a movie made in France could be understood as easily in Moscow as in Paris. The medium was instantly international. Sound changed that. It massively increased production costs, and so helped kill the industry in some poorer nations, but it also erected a barrier that protected other countries from unlimited imports. Now a movie made in France was noticeably different from a movie made in Moscow. Local films finally had one advantage.
Playing the language card, though, has its own dangers. For a filmmaker in India, for example, producing films in Hindi may give your film an advantage over competitors from America or Britain, but it also means your film can't be exported. The language barrier works both ways- it keeps others out, but it also keeps you in. If you play the language card, you have to be willing to accept a niche market.
Even here, things get a little fuzzy. Hindi may be the language of millions in India, but it is still the language of only a minority from that one country. To help expand its domestic market, Indian filmmakers found a fairly ingenious response. They minimized language by going to song and dance movies. Such movies became so successful in India, that when K.A. Abbas's "Munna" was produced in 1954, it was only the second movie to be made in India without any songs, since sound came to the country in 1931. While Indian producers may have taken it to an extreme, they aren't the only ones to turn to musicals -- Hollywood had a few to its credit as well. And musicals aren't the only solution to the language problem. Hong Kong kung fu movies may go long stretches with little dialogue beyond "Ugh, Oof." Hollywood "action" movies can match that with dialogue like "I'll be back."
Of course all these "solutions" to the language problem assume filmmakers who are willing to give up dialogue as a significant part of their film. Where dialogue does still matter, you have to choose between losing much of the international market, adding the extra expense (and enduring the often comic result) of dubbing, or you can try to go with an international language. Guess what language that might be. Once again English provides an edge for some filmmakers.
The result of all these forces is that some parts of the world simply aren't part of the cinema world. France's Ministry of Cooperation has helped fund a number of movies in French-speaking Africa with the result that dirt-poor Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta) with a total of twelve movie theaters in the country, hosts a biannual film festival, has its own film school and movie studio, and distributes movies throughout the region. But this is the exception for Africa. In the English speaking parts of the continent, local film making is almost nonexistent. Kenya has yet to produce a feature film. Ghana has a state-supported film organization but has only sporadically produced feature films. Nigeria is one of the most populous countries of Africa yet it produces few films and has no film industry.
Often relatively small amounts of money can be a barrier. In Zimbabwe, the producers of "Pfuma Yedu" (Our Heritage) were able to make the film with help of the Danish Development Agency, but then were stopped by post production costs. Unable to come up with $30,000 to transfer the film from 16 mm to 35 mm, the film sat unseen for three years (Mbaso,1993). Lack of local investment funds has blocked many other film projects before they were ever started.
The result of all this is a strange mixture of voices. We hear Hollywood around the world. We hear from some filmmakers, but only in their own country. And some places in the world are totally silent, their voices not only unknown elsewhere, but unknown at home. What the artists of Zimbabwe or Kenya or Namibia or Angola may think of their lives is unknown to us, and unknown to their countrymen. They have no opportunity to express themselves through film.
For many people, television and movies may be nice, but newspapers are where the real information is. Well, maybe. It is certainly true that newspapers are a major source of information. But just how important are they? Consider one extreme example. Ethiopia sells one newspaper each day for every thousand people in the country. Twice as many people watch TV (2 per thousand). Almost two hundred times as many Ethiopians get their news over the radio. Think this is an exception that only holds in the developing world? How about the US? Only one person in four reads a daily paper. Four out of five have televisions, and the average American owns 2.1 radios. (US Census, 1993)
Newspapers are certainly an important information source, but they suffer two problems: quantity and quality. Let's begin with some of the quantity issues.
Here are circulation figures for some countries around the world. As you can see, the range is quite dramatic.
Country Circulation per 1000 population
Hong Kong 632
Soviet Union 482
United Kingdom 395
United States 250
As you can see, the US is somewhere in the middle of the pack. The world's great newspaper readers seem to be the people of Hong Kong, Japan, and Scandinavia. On the other hand, the developing world reads even less than Americans. Part of this is a question of literacy, part of it a matter of money. Newspapers can be expensive, often far more as a percentage of a daily wage than they would be in the US. Newspapers are not the medium of the poor.
If newspapers lag behind television and radio in circulation, they at least have the advantage of quality, don't they? Well, maybe not. Besides the fact that many stories around the world can't be covered because of censors or danger to reporters, there are two other factors that are shaping the quality of news: cost, and international news flow.
Cost: Reporters don't come cheap. One vision of reporting is that it is now a high tech enterprise with reporters working computers and phones and accessing huge databases, cranking out stories without effort. Even at the leading papers where technology is available, the computer work has to be followed up. Too often this means sitting in endless meetings, or waiting to talk to people, or phoning again and again. The result is that even in the best of times under the best of circumstances, reporters aren't very productive. If we were to use an industrial metaphor, while TV production may be at the pinnacle of the industrial/information enterprise, news reporters are essentially still hunters and gatherers. They hand-craft each story, producing about as much each day as the average basket weaver or wood carver. They survive from a different age.
Their hand crafting doesn't come cheap. Neither does paper, printing presses, and all the other associated costs of newspaper production. The results became obvious in the US in 1995 with the closure of New York Newsday, The Houston Post, and the Baltimore Evening Sun. Add to that 800 layoffs at the Los Angeles Times, and you get a sense for how desperate the times have become (Kurtz, 1995).
What is less obvious is the impact of these financial pressures on the quality of the news. In their fight for circulation, the Miami Herald has said it will concentrate on the nine subjects reader surveys indicate are most popular -- national and world news are not among the nine. The Buffalo News has moved to a front page format focusing on three main stories. Recent leads have been OJ Simpson remarriage rumors, and coverage of the Dagwood Bumstead comic strip. A local radio ad asserts, “You can get the facts without straining your brain.” How lucky for Buffalo.
More subtle is the financial impact on new mix. Consider these costs from a small town daily in mid America. Reporters salaries begin at $20,000. Fifteen reporters are needed to cover local news, sports, and photography. Quick multiplication shows minimum costs of $300,000 per year for local news. Meanwhile, national and international news is coming in off the wire. Cost? $800 per week for Associated Press, $500 per month for New York Times. That totals to $47,600 ($41,600 + $6,000), or roughly the cost of two local reporters. So the big cost is local news. Small wonder that larger chains can buy up local papers, cut the local reporters, go with wire service news, and expect a 20% return on their investment (Glennon).
The end result is sensationalism and recycled wire service news. In some cases it is recycled sensationalism --the OJ story of the day appearing in paper after paper in city after city. Putting out a newspaper with real news in it may never have been harder. To quote one editor, “There’s a real spiritual self-doubt that I don’t remember experiencing before.” (Kurtz, 1995:D1)
International News Flow: Every few years the subject of information flow comes up, usually accompanied by accusations of cultural imperialism. UNESCO already had one publication in 1953 calling attention to the prominence of industrialied nations in the world's news flow, and by the late 70s there were several efforts at analysis underway, most notably Sean MacBride's commission that produced Many Voices, One World (1980), a detailed analysis of information movement around the world. All of this led to calls for a New World Information and Communications Order (NWICO) with increased information rights for developing nations. The US objected to many of the proposals in the NWICO and eventually pulled out of UNESCO entirely, partially as a result of this opposition. With support for NWICO slipping, many of its proposals were dropped, but it did lead to a number of regional news agencies such as CANA(Caribbean News Agency), PANA (Pan African News Agency), and IPS(Inter-Press Service). These regional news services were intended to break the hold of international newsgroups like Reuters and AP. The new regionals have been uneven in their success, but they are still around today.
Has talk of a new world order in information changed the way news flows today? Studies can point to a few places where regional news has a larger place than in the past, but generally not much has changed. International news traffic is still dominated by Reuters and AP, and the flow is still from the industrialized world to the developing world -- from rich to poor. They print far more news about the US than we print about them.
It is usually the representatives of the developing world who complain about this news flow, concerned about how invisible they are to the rest of the world -- only getting news coverage for famines, flood, or genocide -- but the flow is not good for the US and other rich nations either. For one thing, since little news flows to us with any regularity, we know little about the world. Disasters like Rwanda seem to spring at us out of nowhere, when actually the massacres there had been building for months. But a little guerilla warfare, a little political infighting, a few dozen machete deaths, none were enough to warrant space in American papers. We got no news until tens of thousands were dying. It is like we always walk in halfway through a play, and then are asked to make brilliant decisions about how the play should end.
Meanwhile, the information that flows from the US to the rest of the world may not always be the information we would like to share. Consider the famous Bobbitt penis trial. As the trial played out in the US, The Citizen, a daily paper in Johannesburg, South Africa, was giving the penis trial daily coverage -- at a time when South Africa was just months from its first democratic elections and at a time when the country was in the midst of de facto civil war. True, the trial was on page 3, with page 1 describing Nelson Mandela's concerns over civil war, a description of an armed standoff at an Afrikaner radio station, and an agreement by Mandela and De Klerk on re-establishing legitimate local government. Page 2 was used for continuations of page 1 news. But the penis trial was the biggest story on page 3, with a four column head, and over twenty column inches of text. Below the trial story was an article on the arraignment of 5 terrorists who had fired into a Cape Town tavern (only a two column head). Only on subsequent pages do we learn about two young people killed in feuds between ANC factions, the daring rescue of a pilot who had crashed in a small plane, the funding of a Zulu march on Pretoria that left 15 dead, and the handover of a major South African port to Namibia. Again, this was not a slow news period, yet an American sex trial was given a major position - both space and placement in priority over a number of serious South African stories.
What is one to think of all this? At first blush it appears the dominate information of the information age is who is pregnant by whom on The Bold and the Beautiful, and which sex crimes are being committed in which American suburbs. Or maybe all this proves is that America's role in the Information Age is to provide comic relief.
What could possibly explain the world fascination with American sex crimes? Having seen endless stories about crazy Americans popping up in one African newspaper after another, I once asked an editor - "don't you have any crazy people in Africa? Why only cover the crazy people in my country?" His response was that Africa had plenty of crazy people of its own, but "If I want to cover them, I have to send out a reporter, he's gone all day, when he gets back I have to rewrite everything he's written, and even then I can't be sure he's gotten the names right or quoted correctly so we won't be sued. Meanwhile, sitting across the room from me the teletype keeps pounding out story after story, all accurately researched and correctly spelled. I can just slip out today's "Crazy American" story and have ten or twelve column inches filled in five minutes." (Lush, 1994)
In one sense we are back to economics -- it is cheaper to get news off the wire than to get original news. In another sense we are looking at quality -- American reporters spell better than African reporters. Either way, what appears to be an international plot for "cultual imperialism," is really daily decisions made by editors around the world. Stories about Americans, crazy or otherwise, are easy to get.
The result of these factors is newspapers that are less than anyone would like. Local news seems to be slowly disappearing under financial pressure. News flow seems to be all in one direction, and the news that flows seems more suited for the National Enquirer than the New York Times. The news in newspapers seems to be less than anyone would like, and is declining in quality and quantity.
Radio seems the Rodney Dangerfield of information sources. No one gives it much respect. That is a mistake. The US may have 2.1 radios for every person in the country, but we are not the only nation with more radios than people. That list includes Australia, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, South Korea, and the United Kingdom. Even in the developing world radios are a common commodity. Consider these figures:
Country Radios per 1000 people
South Africa 326
(Statistical Abstracts, 856)
Only in desperately poor countries like Bangladesh and India does the ownership of radios fall below 100 per 1000 people, and even there, it is many times more common than newspapers or television. Radio appears to be the one communication medium that is uniformly available around the world.
Radio also tends to be local. Programming doesn't need to be imported. There may be some music from the US (Country Western is very popular in Southern Africa), but local music makes it on to the radio as well, as does lots of talk.
Talk can be disastrous. Much of the tragedy of Rwanda can be traced to a radio station that broadcast calls for genocide and then urged people to flee the country. Its lies may be responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths. Smaller crises have been caused in South Africa when right-wing groups put an illegal radio station on the air and issued calls for armed rebellion. Other problems seem to be occurring in the US as a few stations have moved from conservative talk to slanderous talk.
But radio talk can also be an amazing forum for average citizens. Namibia has two shows that provide an excellent model of what radio can be. Each morning from 9 to 10 the public radio station has "The Chat Show." People call in with complaints. Sometimes it is a business that has bothered them, but often it is concerns about the police or government ministries. To an American ear the calls are decidedly calm. There are few grand complaints about "the system." Callers make specific complaints about experiences they have had, and do it fairly quietly. They relate their stories slowly and in detail. Announcers don't rush people, and seldom interject their own feelings one way or another. After a person has said all he or she has to say, the announcer tries to sum up, and then moves on to the next caller. It all seems far less shrill than American radio (but sometimes more tedious).
From 10 until 1 there are periods of music and interview shows with experts on one thing or another. At 1 the action starts again. This is the time for "Feedback." Sandra Williams of NBC has spent the three hour interval from ten to one calling government agencies or private businesses to get their reactions to comments made during the morning. Getting reactions is often quite simple -- it turns out many of the Ministers listen to the morning show. She records their responses and prepares to put them on the air at 1. When "Feedback" begins, Williams plays a tape of the original complaint, unedited, and often quite lengthy. Then she plays the response. On occasion she will ask a question for clarification, but usually she and her colleagues are silent, letting the caller and the Minister have center-stage.
In rural Namibia the radio serves a more unusual role. There are no phones, there is no mail to speak of. If you want to get a hold of a person, how do you do it? You call the local radio station. For no charge you can have the station announce that Johannes should see his aunt, she needs him. Johannes may not be listening, but enough of his neighbors are that he will get the message by the end of the day. The same system is used by government bodies. When the University of Namibia branch office in Oshikati needs to talk to a student who is taking a correspondence course, it will call the local station and have it announce, "Teofilus Shicongo, your biology textbook has come in." They have never had a student not get the message. Even in the poorest, most rural places in the world, radio works.
In 1990, over 650,000 different books were published world wide (Bowkers, 1993). The sheer number of titles might imply that the world is awash with books. It is certainly true that parts of the world are awash with books. For instance, US publishers sold over two billion books in 1991(Statistical Abstracts, 247). But here, as in every other form of information, production is uneven. The table below demonstrates the huge differences in book production by country.
Number of book titles published in 1990
Korea, South 39,330
South Africa 4,950
United Kingdom 63,980
United States 48,146
While North America was publishing 461 book titles per million people, Africa was producing 29. The differences are even clearer when we look at particular countries. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) monitors both the number of books published per country and the kind of books being published. Some kind of books (such as "Pure Science") would seem to be difficult for developing countries, but one would expect that all countries would write books about geography and history. Such books would be an important part of a country's self-awareness. Yet differences here are great. Consider these figures from 1980:
Country Geography/History books published
Sri Lanka 62
United Kingdom 4,024
(Curwen, 1986: 273-276)
Among developed nations there are substantial differences in publication rates, but all are publishing large numbers. For poorer nations like Tanzania, Cuba, and Sri Lanka, local production is minor. Tanzania, with no production of history books at all in 1980, poses a problem typical for the very poor. If citizens want to learn about their nation, they have to learn from outsiders. It is possible Tanzanian citizens are writing books on Tanzanian history and having them published in other countries, but even in this unlikely event, publication control (editing decisions, design work, printing) are all in the hands of foreigners. How would we Americans feel if every book about American history were published in foreign countries? It would seem odd indeed. Even if every foreign publisher had the best intentions, we would probably be somewhat nervous about such a situation.
Yet publishing in a developing nation can be a daunting task. Jane Katjavivi, President of New Namibia Books illustrates the problems such publishers face. She established her company in 1990 and has been very successful in bringing out a range of trade and educational titles. But it hasn't been easy. Production costs are high. Part of the costs come from high paper prices (it must all be imported), high printing costs (all of the local presses are small and slow), and high editorial expenses (few people in Namibia have editorial or design experience). So it costs her more to produce a book in Namibia that it did when she was working as a publisher in the UK.
While costs are higher, sales are smaller. The highest selling trade book she has published was Last Days to Uhuru (1994) by David Lush. A detailed and dramatic account of the last two years of Namibia's independence struggle, the book sold just 2000 copies in its first year. Part of the sales problem is literacy (fewer than half the citizens of Namibia have finished sixth grade), part is poverty (while the book costs less than $10 US, that is more than two days wages for many workmen), and part is distribution. There are only a handful of bookstores in Namibia, and most of them are part of a South African chain, CNA. CNA's stores are all controlled from South Africa, so getting a local book carried in the local branch store is no easy task. The Swakopmund Scientific Society produced a book on the ecology of Namibia's Atlantic coast and wanted to sell it through CNA's Swakopmund branch. The branch manager needed permission from the regional manager in Cape Town. The regional manager went to the national manager in Johannesburg. The Johannesburg manager turned down the book because he had never heard of the Swakopmund Scientific Society. For small local publishers, large international chains can be impassable obstacles.
The only good news for Katjavivi and her peers across Africa is the African Books Collective, an organization based in the UK and funded by the Ford Foundation and various Canadian and European development agencies. The collective transmits book information to libraries in the US and Europe and has had a significant impact on sales. Sales may still be small, but at least African books are no longer invisible.
Despite the efforts of publishers like Katjavivi, however, it appears that book publishing will continue to be largely dominated by the US and Europe. When Africa produces less than 2% of the world's book titles, and Latin America just 5%, it is clear where the book industry is concentrated. For Jane Katjavivi sales figures reinforce the point. Her best selling book had "good" sales when it reached 2000. It hit 2000 the same year the US market sold 2 billion books. Put another way, her biggest winner sold just 1 millionth of the US market. She and her African colleagues understand where they stand in the book world.
At a time when we are talking about an explosion of information, most public information sources seem constrained, one-sided, and meager. Major sources of public information seem to have inordinate American influence. What information flow exists, flows out from the US, with little flowing back. Often there is little available to flow in any direction. Television shows have to be produced before they can be viewed. Movies have to be made, books have to be published. A walk through the miniscule “foreign films” section of any video rental store, time spent browsing in any book store, all give immediate force to world information trends.
The problem would be acceptable if we were just looking at Americans’ reknowned disinterest in any country but our own. But when you find that so many foreign countries have little information about themselves, you begin to wonder about larger issues. What public information is available, both here and abroad? The answer is very little compared to the range of cultures, histories, ideas, and peoples that populate our planet. There is a world outside of Hollywood, but it is not easy to find it. Rather than an information explosion, the public media seem to be demonstrating an implosion where few voices are heard and little of the world seen.