International television in the U.S.

by Blanche S. Chang

from Jump Cut, no. 37, July 1992, pp. 50-51
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1992, 2006

Third World Television Access to U.S. Media: Distributing Television Programs from Developing Countries in U.S. Television, New Electronic and Non-Theatrical Markets by Claus Mueller (Friedrich Naumann Foundation, New York, 1989). 125 pp. Paperback.

The 1970s notion that international television traffic is a one-way street, running from North to South, was modified in the early 1980s to accommodate a trend toward greater South-South and regional exchanges. Now the TV flow is shifting again, as there is a small but growing number of Third World films and television productions being broadcast in the North. The United States has lagged well behind Europe in the use of Third World-produced programming. The premise of Mueller's book is that an information gap, rather than political, cultural or economic factors, causes Third World-produced material to be so scarce in the U.S. media environment.

Broadcasters can no longer justifiably cite poor technical quality or unsuitability of formats or themes as reasons to disregard productions from developing countries. The international omnipresence of video cameras, graphics and editing technology gives many Third World productions an identical "look" to those made in the North. Third World issues that perhaps 20 years ago hardly were of interest to U.S. viewers, now are a standard component of U.S. nightly newscasts — e.g., deterioration of the environment or the plight of refugees.

Thus, on both sides, the time seems right for Third World broadcasters and filmmakers to market their productions in the United States. However, Mueller notes that U.S. buyers and distributors of TV programs have little or no knowledge of sources for material from developing countries. Conversely, Third World producers are not familiar with the intricacies of the U.S. media marketplace. An additional hindrance is that no audience measurement exists of the few Third World productions that are on U.S. broadcast and cable channels. The nonprofit, New York-based Third World Television Exchange, which Mueller established in 1986, seeks to create access to U.S. media markets for TV programs from developing nations. The main activities of the Exchange are holding annual screenings of recent Third World productions, and compiling research of interest to U.S. and Third World broadcasters.

This book is one product of that research; data were generated through a variety of methods, including a series of seminars with U.S. distributors and Third World film and television producers. I have attended some of the activities of the Exchange, and am acquainted with Mueller, who is a sociology professor at Hunter College. Funds for his research were provided by his publisher, the Friedrich Nanmann Foundation.

Much of this book's usefulness comes from the strategic knowledge it provides on the organization and operation of U.S. media systems. In a breakdown of the U.S. television industry, separate sections are devoted to the traditional broadcast networks and public television; to the new electronic media of cable, low-power television (LPTV), satellite distribution and home video; and to the non-theatrical markets of educational and institutional use of video programs. In the past decade, the plethora of new media technologies, especially cable television and home video, has shattered the once monolithic and homogeneous U.S. television audience into a mosaic of many audiences, some highly specialized. Indeed, the three U.S. broadcast networks, which ten years ago commanded at least 90% of U.S. television households, now can pull only about 60%, and that figure has been slipping a bit every year. A new low may have been reached one Saturday evening in late October, 1990, when, according to a New York Times report; the share of the audience controlled by the three networks fell below 50%.

The new media have lured an average of ten million viewers a night away from the big three U.S networks. While the citation of these new, small, special interest audiences brought many more opportunities to programmers and distributors, it has also made the U.S. television landscape much more complex.

Among these diverse TV audiences in the United States, Mueller points to two as being the most receptive to Third World-produced programming. The first are local television markets with communities having roots in developing nations. New York City, for example, has 1.5 million residents with origins in the Caribbean. New York has several special-interest channels, including broadcast, cable, LPTV and satellite-distributed channels, that carry non-English-language programs or programs targeted to minority groups. However, these shows draw too few viewers to warrant standard audience measurement. This virtually precludes the programs' use by larger, advertiser-supported channels, as sponsors are reluctant to invest in programs with no audience data.

In addition to minority groups, another, larger audience sector interested in programming from the Third World comprises affluent, upper middle class U.S. households, which account for 25% of the U.S. viewing audience. Mueller notes that this audience is especially receptive to nonfiction programming such as documentaries on culture or the environment. This is the audience of the highly successful U.S. cable channels, Discovery and Arts & Entertainment, which program documentary and foreign-produced material.

The interest shown by U.S. broadcasters and audiences in getting firsthand views of developing nations, as reflected in Third World-made television and feature films, may be linked to increased news coverage of these countries, Mueller suggests. As the interdependence of nations grows, themes have become universalized, with a vast number of global environmental and political problems affecting both the developed and developing world. His data from audience surveys show that productions from Nicaragua, for example, were received with greater interest by U.S. viewers than programs from Brazil.

Additional data show audiences preferring documentaries on social issues with universal themes, such as refugees or poverty, and on nature. Mueller notes these programs require viewers to have little background knowledge of Third World history, conditions or cultural context.

The last section of the book contains a compendium of information valuable to both the Third World broadcaster and the U.S. programmer. Included are listings of organizations that are entry points into the U.S. television market, public television stations and cable networks that are interested in programs from the Third World, and sources for acquisition of and information about Third World-produced material.

French and Spanish translations of Third World Television Access to U.S. Media are planned. The Naumann Foundation also hopes to publish annual updated and expanded editions — clearly necessary to maintain the book's value to U.S. and Third World broadcasters. As a book that foresees steady growth in the South-North flow of television programming, it is a timely and relevant work.