March 05, 2006

Reverse Culture Shock: TV and the Media

When we moved from Paris to Seattle in November, I knew I would face reverse culture-shock, but after four months, I’ve been surprised by just what has been culturally shocking.

For example, it’s shameful, but I haven’t been writing much lately because I’ve become absorbed by TV. It is “entertaining, amusing and insulating” me, and it’s much more sophisticated here than in Europe. TiVo, HD-TV, Netflix: none of these things are part of European culture, and many of the most entertaining and popular shows on TV there are imported from the US about a year after their initial broadcast.  We used to swap DVDs of American shows with expatriates.

Now, each day when I come home from work, there is a fresh Daily Show and Colbert Report to watch on the DVR. We can’t miss an episode of Desperate Housewives or 24; as a news junky, I even record the NBC evening news and Meet the Press. Plus we want to catch up on shows that friends are talking about like Battlestar Galactica. And we’ve never even seen Lost. So many shows, so little hard disk space.

But just as Edward R. Murrow feared, while TV is entertaining, it is failing to educate. Our TV news looks childish next to the BBC. Cable news is the worst, but according to recently retired anchors Ted Koppel and Dan Rather, market forces are eating away at network journalism too, resulting in, among other problems, the closing of foreign bureaus and the loss of knowledgeable foreign correspondents.

We do have excellent alternatives to TV, like the New Yorker and NPR. And it’s certainly possible to go too far in criticizing our TV news. When a questioner asked Guns, Germs, and Steel author Jared Diamond about the deleterious effects of Fox News in a Q&A session which followed his fascinating speech in Seattle’s Town Hall, Mr. Diamond pointed out that our press is extraordinary open compared to the news media in much of the world.

That’s hard to argue with, but surely we could do better. Censorship is a less serious problem for us than our vast ignorance about most of the world. According to Dan Rather, North Korean children know all sorts of facts about the Pacific Northwest. Do most Americans know more about these countries than their membership in the “Axis of Evil?”

For now, at least we can TiVo the BBC.

By Will Friedman in Commentary | Permalink  | 


Television is such a flashpoint in the "culture wars." It is often the first thing that people on either side attack as a destroyer of "culture" (Murphy Brown, Will & Grace, and Desperate Housewives to people on the right; Fox News, HSN, and Nascar to people on the left). And while this is going on, elitists decry television for its want of intellectual rigor or low-set expectations of the viewer. How can a medium be all things evil to all people yet at the same time a great unifier of them? Hmm. :-)

I like your point that television as a medium of art is often "more sophisticated" in North America than in Europe. At the same time, much of it is also way less sophisticated. What's really going on is that American TV offers *choices,* something to upper, middle, and lower-class folks alike: for every Dallas there is a Deadwood; for every Will & Grace there is a Sex and the City; for every 20/20 there is a Frontline.

One thing surpises me, however: and that is your omission of PBS and its one-hour nightly news program. PBS lacks the from-the-ground reporting that other news organizations offer, but instead provides much more in-depth commentary, analysis, and reporting than any purely market-supported news show can. In that respect, it is a bit more like the BBC. (And I should also plug Frontline and Nova while I'm at it!)

Oh, and what American near the Canadian border can do without CBC? Not only are The National and its other news shows great, but it offers topnotch original Can-con programming (and Olympics coverage far superior to NBC). So I'd say set your TiVO for PBS and CBC, too. :-)

Anyway. It's not like TV is getting in the way of your social life, reading, attending of lectures and art performances. It's OK for it to be fun a bit, too. And much more importantly, as someone who has studied foreign languages and spent time abroad learning about different cultures, I say this: TV is a great way to peer into how a culture works. You can learn about humor, about issues important to that culture, esthetics, stereotypes, history, etc. You can set subtitles on and work on language skills, too. So I'd be the first to say that TV is an excellent tool for getting to know a culture, and reverse culture shock is in part about getting to know your native culture again. :-)

Posted by: Jamie | Mar 6, 2006 6:31:04 AM

I read somewhere that the largest demographic that television advertisers aim for is adolescent girls. So, that's who the sponsors, who bankroll the creative process, demand that it panders to. I've always thought it was kind of funny that this immensly powerful medium is led by the whims of adolscent girls, who's value system is about as flipped-out as it could be at any given time.

Oh, well, no problem. Survivor's on tomorrow night!

Posted by: SheaNC | Mar 8, 2006 8:44:52 PM

Hey, love the site. TV news knows that it's lost out to internet news when it comes to, well, news. That's why TV "news" now consists of only about 10% news -- the other parts of the broadcast are made up of entertainment spots and plugs for advertisers. Viewership is down so much that, to keep advertisers around, stations need the news staff to pump up sales with what used to be show content. For example, the other day my local news station played the full trailer for a new "X-men" movie -- and not during a commercial break, but during the actual news show, and afterward the anchorpeople commented on how fantastic it looked.

Posted by: OC_Will | Mar 8, 2006 11:54:01 PM

Europeans frequently get all up on their high horse about how awful American television and movies are. I once walked out of a movie theater in Helsinki after having seen “Airforce One” (with subtitles in Finnish and, below that, a second set of subtitles in Swedish, because Finland is bilingual, which has got to be good for literacy and foreign language skills, although it does cover a fair amount of the bottom of the screen) and was walking behind a Finnish couple who were complaining about how awful American movies were and how terrible American cultural imperialism was that we would ship these movies to Finland and force them down people’s throats. But did they not just willingly fork over their own fistful of euros and choose to waste their evening on American cinema?

And that’s just it then, isn’t it? Who’s watching American television and movies in Europe? The Europeans. Watching and kvetching. Who’s keeping McDonalds in business across Europe? American tourists? Nope. I’m sure the tourists help, but I have NEVER entered a McDonalds in Europe and not found it teeming with Europeans, happily munching away on the burgers of imperialism.

Europeans tend to import two kinds of American TV shows: the “good” and the “cheap.” They pay gazillions of euros to buy and air Sex in the City or Law and Order or whatever else is popular and then they scoop up a lot of old shows (like Knightrider, Alf, you know--the ones all Americans are embarrassed to admit that they watched when they were in Europe, “Because it was the only thing on!”)

If Norwegians were happy watching Poetry Discussion Norway all day long, they wouldn’t be importing our awful, vapid, low class, fluffy programming in the first place. And they wouldn’t be enjoying watching it so much.

And if Europeans were so satisfied with the high caliber of their own programming, when they finally came to America and watched TV, after years of poopooing the deplorable state of American television (which many Europeans will do without ever having actually gone to America and watched television), they wouldn’t be so deflated and embarrassed to learn that there is such a thing as good American television and that they really only have themselves to blame if they spent too much time watching Baywatch.

Posted by: American who lived in Europe | Mar 9, 2006 9:14:33 AM

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