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  • Main Page:
    Made in America
  • Part II: Hollywood Attuned to World Markets
  • Part III:
    Pop Culture Sneaks by Iran's Borders

    American Pop Penetrates Worldwide
    First of three articles

    By Paul Farhi and Megan Rosenfeld
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, October 25, 1998; Page A1

        Mannequins in Beijing
    Western-looking mannequins dominate a store display in Beijing.
    (By Michael Williamson – The Washington Post)
    America's biggest export is no longer the fruit of its fields or the output of its factories, but the mass-produced products of its popular culture – movies, TV programs, music, books and computer software.

    Entertainment around the world is dominated by American-made products. It's "The Young and the Restless" in New Delhi, Garth Brooks blaring from a Dublin apartment, or the eager line of people waiting outside a Nairobi movie theater to see "As Good As It Gets." It's Bart Simpson in Seoul, Madonna in Sao Paulo, "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" on Warsaw TV.

    International sales of software and entertainment products totaled $60.2 billion in 1996, more than any other U.S. industry, according to Commerce Department data and industry figures. Since 1991, when the collapse of the Soviet Union opened new markets around the world to the United States, total exports of intellectual property from the United States have risen nearly 94 percent in dollar terms, these statistics indicate. And that does not include the untold billions of dollars in revenue lost each year to illegal copying.

    While intellectuals debate the benefits and disadvantages of this dominance, the penetration of U.S. culture in a post-Cold War world in which scores of countries have abandoned state controls for policies of free trade and free markets is beyond dispute. Sociologist Todd Gitlin calls American popular culture "the latest in a long succession of bidders for global unification. It succeeds the Latin imposed by the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church, and Marxist Leninism" imposed by Communist governments.

    Tom Freston, president of MTV, the globe-straddling music network, sees it another way. "Today's young people have passports to two different worlds – to their own culture and to ours," he said.

    Once, back when "I Love Lucy" was still in its first run, U.S.-made entertainment could be found only in places with the means to buy it, the technology to show it, and the political freedom to allow it across the border. Now, even in tiny Bhutan, a Himalayan nation so isolated that fewer than 5,000 people visit it a year, street peddlers offer illegally copied videos of Hollywood's latest blockbusters.

    The spread of made-in-America pop follows several larger worldwide trends. At the most basic level, virtually every nation has grown richer over the past 10 years, despite the recent economic turbulence in some parts of the world. This halo of prosperity has provided two necessary ingredients for the entertainment boom: leisure time and disposable income.

    Consumer wealth, in turn, has fueled a worldwide surge in the sales of TV sets, VCRs, stereos, personal computers and satellite dishes. It also has prompted increased investment in quasi-public entertainment facilities such as movie theaters and cable TV systems around the world.

    Hungary, for example, had no cable TV at the start of the decade; now 40 percent of its households can watch the news on CNN or Hanson videos on MTV. A distinctly American invention – the multiplex movie theater – has been popping up all across Europe, Asia and Latin America. England alone will add 1,000 screens by the turn of the century. In Poland, the number of movie screens is projected to rise by a third over the next four years, according to Dodona Research, a European firm. The Blockbuster Entertainment Corp. video chain has 2,000 outlets in 26 foreign countries; Tower Records has 70 stores in 15 countries.

    At the same time, new, privately owned TV stations or networks have gone on the air in Russia, Malaysia, Israel, Greece, Norway, Finland and in the former Soviet satellites of Eastern Europe that once had only state-owned TV monopolies. As recently as 1991, India, home to nearly 1 billion people, had only the dry, state-run Doordarshan TV network; now satellite TV rains down a dozen more channels to the subcontinent.

    In Cuba, which has long tried to eradicate the "stain" of American influence, illegal home satellite dishes have sprouted like aluminum flowers along the northern coast, pulling down sports, news and entertainment programs emanating from the capitalist Goliath. In Greece, 50 unlicensed TV stations play almost nothing but American movies and television programs, much of it pirated.

    The United States is on the newsstand as well. Reader's Digest circulates in 19 languages; its 48 international editions, with a combined circulation of 28 million, dwarf its U.S. circulation of 14.7 million. Cosmopolitan magazine, with its salacious advice on sex and beauty for women, now claims to be the world's best-selling women's magazine, with international sales of 4.5 million from 36 foreign editions and domestic circulation of about 2.7 million. Playboy, not to be outdone, has 16 international editions with an estimated readership of 5 million.

    Foreigners see U.S. popular culture intertwined with fast food restaurants, T-shirts, pricey sneakers and shopping malls, even though these exports are not classified as intellectual property. The McDonald's restaurants that are opening at a rate of six a day around the world, the baggy jeans and baseball caps that have become a global teenage uniform, the Barbie dolls and Hot Wheels increasingly demanded by children, are all seen as part of the same U.S. invasion.

    Global consumerism and expanding channels of distribution may create more demand for entertainment, but neither says much about why people around the world prefer the American variety to that produced in, say, Venezuela or Japan or France.

    The answer is partly linguistic, partly economic, and partly a reflection of the unique historical, racial and ideological development of the United States. Consider:

  • U.S. products enjoy the competitive advantage of being created in English, the first or second language of choice for almost all of the developed world and much of the developing world.

    Films produced in English annually account for between 60 and 65 percent of the global box office, according to the Motion Picture Association of America; except for the occasional "The Full Monty," a British movie, most of these ticket sales are generated by American-made films. Producing in English gives a film immediate entree to some of the biggest movie markets in the world. After the United States, which accounts for about half of all ticket sales, the MPAA lists the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia among the 10 largest for film revenues.

    U.S. films and recordings also are favored in places that don't speak much English. In El Salvador last year, made-in-America jazz, New Age and rock music accounted for 40 percent of all music sales, according to Fernando Aguilar, who owns one of that nation's largest chains of music stores.

    This leads to the inevitable chicken-and-egg question: Is American pop riding on the coattails of English or is it causing the spread of English around the world?

    Marlboro ad in Hong Kong
    A giant Marlboro ad goes up in the Lan Kwai Fong section of Hong Kong.
    (By Michael Williamson – The Washington Post)
    Sometimes it's hard to know which is which. Indian youths, raised on years of American music, now pepper their conversations with words like "cool," "chill" and "happening," all used in their slang form. The desire to appear more American has prompted shop owners in Latin America to add an apostrophe to their stores' names – a seemingly trivial change, except that the possessive "s" does not exist in Spanish. The printing on a French Happy Meal box is in English. So is the language of cyberspace and of international meetings.

    Surprisingly, one of the most eager markets for all things American is Vietnam, the United States' enemy for three decades. A war that was lost with bullets a generation ago is now being won with movies and compact discs. Since President Clinton normalized relations in 1995, Vietnamese have begun learning English in huge numbers. Young Vietnamese are also listening to American rock songs in American-style bars and restaurants. One new chain, with branches in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, is called Apocalypse Now, a reference to the movie of the same name and the war itself.

  • American entertainment conglomerates such as Time Warner Inc. and Walt Disney Co. have long enjoyed a huge scale advantage over their foreign competitors, which enables them to produce more and bigger movies and TV shows.

    For decades, the U.S. companies have consistently been able to mount the most expensive productions in the world. The reason: a home market that is the wealthiest and most voracious entertainment consumer. The mighty cash flows that U.S. companies enjoy from their wealthy, continent-wide market supplies the financial muscle to buy the latest filmmaking technology, and to cram even more stars, costumes and crowd-pleasing special effects into their products.

    No foreign company has been able to keep up in this cultural arms race. Nor can they match the worldwide distribution and marketing apparatus of the seven U.S.-based movie and TV "majors" – Disney, Warner Bros. Inc., MGM-UA, Sony Pictures, Paramount, Universal and 20th Century Fox. Sony, Universal and Fox are owned, respectively, by companies based in Japan, Canada and Australia. Although French, German and Danish companies were early pioneers of the film business, today no entertainment company based outside the United States is capable of distributing a movie to all of the nations of Europe, according to Englishman David Puttnam, the former chief of Sony-owned Columbia Pictures.

    Many businesses talk about globalization; the major studios or their predecessor companies have been distributing internationally since World War I, when they began to capitalize on the war's devastation of their European competitors, writes Puttnam in a new book, "Movies and Money." What's more, most of the majors are controlled by conglomerates that have interests in publishing, theme parks and other businesses that provide financial insulation from the inevitable flops the studios turn out.

    Take Time Warner Inc.'s Warner Bros., the world's largest TV producer and distributor. Warner sells thousands of hours of television – everything from "Veronica's Closet" to Bugs Bunny cartoon reruns – in 175 countries. While highly lucrative, these sales are secondary to those in Warner's own back yard.

    This fall, one U.S. network, NBC, is paying Warner's a record $13 million for each new episode of "ER," the Warner-produced medical drama. That per-episode fee by itself would cover the annual spending on movie and TV productions in many nations.

    "Warner can afford to keep cranking out 'ER' even if doesn't make one international sale," said Joe George, a London-based TV consultant with Frank N. Magid Associates, a U.S. firm that advises domestic and international broadcasters on programming. "It's very hard for an Italian or a Japanese producer to afford a million-dollar-an-episode drama that may not have 'legs' beyond their own borders."

    Or consider Disney's big summer movie, "Armageddon." Disney spent $140 million to make the movie and another $60 million to market it – a budget that would cover the expenses of China's entire film industry for several years. A Hollywood film costs on average $75 million to make and market, according to the MPAA; few films produced by foreign companies have ever approached this average.

  • Beyond its glitz and gloss, its sex, speed and violence, U.S. popular culture sells abroad, observers say, because it reflects many of the appealing themes and myths of the United States itself: individuality, wealth, progress, tolerance, optimism.

    Said Gitlin, the sociologist, "We are good at producing themes and story lines that appeal to a global sensibility: freedom, freedom of movement, freedom from family, from place, from earth, from roles. And speed – the rapidity of movement, of images, the intensity of kinetic experience. ... They want the sense of motion, and the sense of a private utopia."

    Television director and scriptwriter Alexander Singer points to the proletarian roots of American storytelling, the amalgam of immigrant experiences that almost always portrayed sympathy with the struggles of the common man.

    "Many of our earlier movies said universal things about courage and sensitivity in the face of awful deprivation," he said. "One of the big differences in American movies is that possibility exists here. Hope exists, even for people who ought to know better. We offer the magical possibilities of transformation."

    To its admirers, this makes U.S. entertainment something bright and new and attractively upbeat. "The United States has little history and it is very open to new things," said David Escobar Galindo, El Salvador's foremost writer. "Europe has many wonderful things, but it is very tied to its past. U.S. culture is fresher."

    Jack Lang, France's former minister of culture who is renowned for his protectionist views, appreciates American culture as "pure entertainment. It's without restraint, without shame. ... [It] finds the soul of the child in the adult. This is not pejorative."

    There has long been another view, of course. To religious conservatives of all denominations, American culture is still the noisy electronic spawn of the Great Satan, undermining traditional values and encouraging wickedness. U.S. movies and television promote mindless consumerism, others complain, and emit a toxic vapor that chokes the wellspring of native creativity.

    In its most extreme form, this distaste can serve reactionary political goals. In July, for instance, the Taliban militia, which controls most of Afghanistan, ordered that nation's citizens to get rid of their TVs, video players and satellite receivers. Such goods were deemed morally unacceptable by the Department for Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue.

    The Taliban had already ended television broadcasts in the parts of Afghanistan under its control, but people continue to watch videotapes and foreign television channels on satellite dishes.

    The outright rejection of all things American has cooled substantially since the end of the Cold War, when all forms of U.S. culture were branded decadent by anti-Americans and hard-line Communists. America's goods generally are welcomed today, but not without some lingering and justifiable caution.

        Malaysian McDonalds
    Schoolgirls in Islamic dress crowd a McDonald's in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
    (By Steve Raymer for The Washington Post)
    A fair number of Americans might even agree with Fidel Castro's recent critique of the United States' "canned culture," which he contended "transmits poisonous messages, in the social and moral order, to all families, to all homes, to all children."

    Another oft-stated concern – that the U.S. pop culture machine is destroying native arts – may be overblown. In Colombia, for instance, traditional salsa, cumbia and Vallenato music are thriving. Movie makers in the Philippines continue to crank out Tagalog language hits, such as "You're Only Worth One Bullet." In many places around the globe, the spread of U.S. culture has prompted enthusiasm for home-grown works as well, be they imitative, traditional, or a hybrid.

    The top-rated TV programs in most European countries are those produced within each country. In film, the once-moribund British and Russian industries are enjoying comebacks. India's "Bollywood," the Bombay-based film community, remains the world's most prolific, and Hong Kong claims to have the third most active industry, after India and the United States.

    "Hong Kong people will never give up on Hong Kong films," declared Woody Tsung, a representative of the former British colony's movie industry. "These are the films that speak their language. ... Just because American films are more popular in this day and age doesn't mean we want to give up or desert our culture."

    In fact, Hong Kong's film industry, not that of the United States, poses the biggest threat to the health of movie production in Singapore and Taiwan since all three nations are chasing the same Mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking audiences.

    Most countries simply can't produce for themselves all of the entertainment fare for which there is an audience. The surge in venues – the multiplexes and private television and radio stations – has created an enormous need for product that the United States is happy to fill. Thus low-budget films such as "Black Belt Angels," made for about $500,000 in San Diego, end up on Malaysian television. Or reruns of "Dave's World" play on Kanal 2 in Estonia.

    Last May, hundreds of television buyers from around the world descended on Los Angeles for three weeks of an annual courtship by major studios that paid off in about $500 million in contracts for U.S. shows. The buyers were treated not only to the latest television offerings in cops and robbers, sci-fi and zany twenty-somethings in urban love-ins, but to a "Baywatch" party on the beach, a boozy blowout on the Warner Bros. lot, a formal gala at Paramount and dinner and dancing after a "Godzilla" screening at Sony.

    What did they buy? "ER," "Chicago Hope" and "NYPD Blue" are hits in West European countries such as England, the Netherlands and Germany, buyers said. But "Ally McBeal," Fox's idiosyncratic legal comedy-drama, is "hopeless" on the international market, said one buyer. "Seinfeld" airs in many places, but not always in prime time.

    Oddly enough, the World War II prisoners of war sitcom "Hogan's Heroes" has become a cult hit in Germany. And people around the world can't seem to get enough of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

    Sci-fi is very big. "The X-Files" airs in 60 countries. In Central Europe, "they want cars to be exploded 14 stories high – blow 'em up, kill 'em, stab 'em," said Klaus Hallig, who buys for Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Romania. He bought "Cannon," "Bonanza," "Miami Vice" and the "A-Team," as well as "Little House On the Prairie" and "Highway to Heaven."

    But the increasing cost of U.S. television often determines the choice available to viewers, especially in developing countries. "I don't know if I will be able to get the shows I want," said Viola Salu, a young buyer from Estonia attending the Hollywood conclave for the first time. "I am told the cost of the studio lawyer to negotiate the contract will cost more than I can afford to pay for the programs."

    Partly because of the high costs, some experts say the U.S. influence in international TV markets is diminishing. "In Germany, most of the prime time schedule is made at home," Hallig said. "Five years ago, there were many more American shows in prime time. Ten years ago, most shows were 'Dallas,' 'Dynasty' and 'Miami Vice.' We are a company that believes in American programming to fill mornings, afternoons, the late night schedule, then concentrate on home-grown for the rest."

    However, the home-grown programs point to another way in which U.S. entertainment extends its tentacles. Many look like Hollywood TV boilerplate, with minor adjustments for local tastes. Germany's most popular prime time show is a cop program called "Rex," which Hallig describes as "'Lethal Weapon' with a dog." A couple of years back, several European countries got together to make their own nighttime soap opera – a sort of "Dallas" on the Riviera.

    Some of the most popular programs in the Spanish-speaking world are telenovelas that owe their roots to the American soap opera. Germany's most popular comedian is talk-show host Harald Schmidt, a Teutonic replica of David Letterman, down to the desk, coffee cups and nightlit backdrop, which in this case depicts Cologne, not Manhattan.

    Foreign broadcasters frequently buy a format from U.S. producers to restyle a popular American show for local tastes. Thus, "Wheel of Fortune" plays around the world, but in a French or Thai incarnation. "Guess the Price," which owes more than a little to "The Price is Right," is one of Poland's game show staples, and Indonesians can watch their own version of "The Honeymooners" complete with hair curlers and an imitation of the Kramdens' kitchen table.

    MTV, which is available in more households abroad than in the United States, has discovered that simply exporting its U.S. programming doesn't work. So MTV now has 14 different 24-hour feeds, "all different and all similar," said MTV president Freston. The network's latest one began in Russia last month, with Russian veejays.

    "There is a trend toward local music," Freston said. "If I may use the garage band analogy – they have garages in Taiwan now. Everywhere. In China we have Mandarin 24-hour service that is 70- to 80-percent Chinese music. In India it's Hindi pop and Hindi film music." But it's packaged MTV-style.

    The most curious transformation of U.S. pop may be what has happened to rap and hip hop music as it has traveled across borders. Rap has become an internationally popular art form, but such American stars as Snoop Dogg with his alienated pose don't strike a chord everywhere. Japanese rappers sing saccharine songs about traditional, romantic love.

    In his videos, India's most popular rapper, Baba Seghal, uses the occasional English interjection – "Yo, this is funky" – and mimics the aggressive gestures of his angry U.S. counterparts. But Seghal, 32, a former engineer, isn't much interested in gritty realism. "My music is fun," he said. "I am a fun-loving person. I don't try to make serious social statements through rap."

    Recognizing that they will never fully swamp indigenous commercial culture, America's major producers instead have sought to join local companies through investing in entertainment companies and production deals.

    For years, many of Hollywood's TV production companies have used Canadian, Australian and New Zealand locales and talent to produce what otherwise look like American programs. The cable series "New Adventures of Robin Hood," for example, is made in Lithuania.

    As such productions imply, the popular culture business is slowly, and perhaps inevitably, becoming borderless.

    It is, as Disney once suggested, a small world after all.

    Correspondents John Lancaster in Tehran, Stephen Buckley in Nairobi, Keith B. Richburg in Hong Kong, Steven Mufson in Beijing, Kenneth J. Cooper in New Delhi, Molly Moore in Mexico City, T.R. Reid in London, Charles Trueheart in Paris, Doug Struck in Jerusalem, Serge F. Kovaleski in Bogota, Colombia, Christine Spolar in Warsaw, Daniel Williams in Moscow, William Drozdiak in Berlin, Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan in Tokyo and Howard Schneider in Toronto; and special correspondents Ramit Plushnick and Lital Levy in Jerusalem and Rama Lakshmi in New Delhi contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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