Fourth estate has left for new shores

The Media Were American

December 14, 2007

Even my most modestly talented postgraduate journalism students have no trouble finding jobs if they are planning to work in Dubai, Mumbai, Shanghai or Johannesburg. Non-Western media industries are booming. In this book, sociologist Jeremy Tunstall, a founding father of British media studies, gives us some insight into how and why.

If one were to speak of a canon in media studies, Tunstall's The Media Are American: Anglo-American Media in the World , published in 1977, would be high on the list. In it, Tunstall argued that "in most of the world's countries the media are only there at all, on the present scale, as the result of imports in which the American media (with some British support) predominate".

Thirty years on, in The Media Were American , which is largely an update and expansion of the earlier magnum opus, "the UK has become an increasingly weaker player". Today, the "leading media force is Euro- American" - but perhaps not for long. India, China and Japan, the big population countries, now export at least as much media as they import.

People everywhere prefer to watch home-grown stuff, and now there is enough produced that they can, Tunstall says. "The world's people spend very much more time with their own media than with imported media." This is the big shift.

Does it mean that the world's people are increasingly getting a blinkered, nationally limited view, or is this new independence a good thing? After all, it is commonplace to criticise the American public for imbibing mainly US-made media. Tunstall does not wrestle much with this nettle. Rather, citing research and comment by many other scholars, he provides a wide-ranging discussion of the nature of product and process in the far- flung corners of the world - touching on broadcast and print media, film and the web.

We are now in an age of big and independent Euro-American media finding fresh ways of co-existing with the fast-growing indigenous non-Western media. Euro-Americans gain market share by selling on formats. Big Brother , the reality show originated by the once-little Dutch company Endemol, which has recently become a media octopus, was broadcast around the world in completely localised versions.

Whereas our papers are losing circulation, in the five years to 2005 world sales of daily newspapers were up by 5 per cent to 394 million copies, as Chinese, Indians, South Americans and Africans became avid readers. Everywhere, people spend "more and more time" partaking of the mass media.

Yes, media giants continue to extend their tentacles globally to reach more people than ever, but their influence on the world marketplace is lessening, not just for the obvious reasons - the growth of the web and its citizen journalists, the spate of blogging - but also because developing countries and ex-developing countries have put their own industries at the centre of their media map.

Astutely, Tunstall notices that South Africa's commitment to TV programming in all its official languages is costly, creating the need to buy in cheap US re-runs to fill out programming. It would have been interesting to have his view of the edgy multi-racial soap operas, especially Isidingo ( The Need ), in which characters speak in Sesotho, Zulu, English and Afrikaans. It has huge prime-time audiences, 60 per cent of whom are black. Yet what appears to be an indigenous hypersuccess is made by none other than Endemol SA.

Adrianne Blue is a senior lecturer in international journalism at City University.

The Media Were American: US Mass Media in Decline

Author - Jeremy Tunstall
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 480
Price - £23.99
ISBN - 9780195181470

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