Thursday, April 23, 2009
E25-111 (NOTE: There will be a sign-in period for MiT6 conference registrants 4-5 p.m. before the forum)
This panel will explore theoretical, methodological, and practical issues surrounding the study of media circulation in an age of increasing global connectivity. “Global media” often serves as a placeholder for media outside Anglo-American academic settings, with “global” gesturing towards “other” media ecologies. This panel brings together scholars and practitioners who wrestle with the simultaneous indispensability and inadequacy of Anglo-American paradigms - both for media practitioners and scholars - in Asian, African, and Latin American contexts. In what ways can we move away from the “national” as the pre-eminent analytic frame? How do media producers in the global south grapple with the challenges and opportunities of globalization? What role are audiences playing in shaping media circuits? See panel questions.
In tackling these and other questions, panelists Jonathan Gray, Communication and Media Studies, Fordham University (Malawian Media); Carolina Acosta-Alzuru, Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Georgia; African filmmaker Abderrahamane Sissako; and CMS alum Aswin Punathambekar, Department of Communication Studies, University of Michigan will explore ways in which recent developments in diverse settings worldwide might inform and revitalize our understanding of how media circulates. Henry Jenkins will moderate this forum which kicks off the sixth Media in Transition conference at MIT.
By Helene Moorman
Photos by Greg Peverill-Conti
[this is an edited summary and not a verbatim transcript]
Aswin Punathambekar spoke about a recent conference in Bombay where nearly three thousand individuals gathered to consider the globalization of Indian film and television in the past decade. Many of the discussions revealed confusion and tension associated with redefining a national industry into a global one. There was also a sense that the spatial coordinates of Bollywood production and distribution (both official and pirated) had shifted over the past ten years from mainly Bombay to other regions of India, and internationally to places like Hollywood, London, Karachi, Dubai, Beirut, and Nigeria.
These complicated maps force us to confront the limits of established paradigms that divide the space of media culture into production and reception. Punathambekar suggested that a new model focusing instead on circulation would inform and revitalize the field.
Carolina Acosta-Alzuru discussed the telenovela, a form of melodrama similar to American soap opera. These programs originated in Spain and Latin America where they remain the most important entertainment genre, but there is now a huge international market for the format. Acosta-Alzuru presented statistics about telenovela production and consumption in different Latin American countries. Interestingly, some of the countries that produce very few telenovelas are among the largest consumers of the form. Ecuador, for example, produces two native telenovelas but broadcasts thirty-seven such programs made in Latin countries.
The major producers are Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, and the Miami-based network Telemundo. There are marked differences in the style of the material produced in different countries. For example, Brazilian telenovelas contain elements of realism and characters that develop over time, while Mexico’s versions are far more implausible, psychologically simple and moralistic.
Jonathan Gray talked about media consumption in Malawi, a country that has basically no film industry, a single television station, and a reasonably successful (although not lucrative) music industry. This lack of production has incited significant foreign media circulation in Malawi. The films shown at local “video shows,” for example, are mostly pirated copies of older American and Nigerian movies. The music CDs available are also largely American and pirated; rap, hip-hop, R&B, and country are the most popular genres.
Gray noted that the field of media studies is mainly focused on the newest media, but that seeing such out-of-date material in Malawi has convinced him that there may be interesting questions to pursue concerning the different temporalities of media: where, when, and how fast it travels.
Abderrahmane Sissako lamented the fact that the African continent is a consumer of media but hardly produces any. He likened the African experience to looking into a mirror each night and seeing someone else’s reflection, because a large majority of the film and television available on the continent is foreign. There’s a feeling that Africa has nothing to share because there’s no fluid cultural exchange, but Sissako stressed his belief that every locale or culture is a rich source of stories, art and music. It’s critical to encourage cultural production in Africa.
Asked to speak about piracy as a mechanism by which media travels across national borders, Gray pointed out that there would be very little media in Malawi if not for piracy. There are no official cinema systems because the country is so poor, so everything moves through piracy. There have been many attempts to implement better anti-piracy laws not to protect large corporations, but to encourage local production, which has been undermined by competition with bootlegged foreign material.
Punathambekar noted that the discourse on piracy tends to ignore the fact that cultures of circulation are also cultures of production. Certain parts of the world are actually introduced to many forms of emergent media through extra-legal means, and the process of reproducing and circulating media can teach technical skills that may improve the ability to produce something original.
Moderator Henry Jenkins asked whether different genres spread differently, and why certain genres seem to appeal to broad global audiences while others do not.
Several factors explain why telenovelas are so popular across so many societies, said Acosta-Alzuru. Melodrama touches universal themes. Cinderella stories in particular resonate in many cultures because of the theme of poverty. But there is an economic explanation as well: telenovelas are relatively inexpensive, providing months of material for a low cost.
Punathambekar expressed discomfort with the idea of drawing conclusions about why entire genres travel. In hindsight, he said, one can discern some sort of correspondence in any media-culture relationship. Therefore, talking about cultural proximity in the context of universal categories like melodrama may not be particularly productive in understanding the flow of specific texts.
On a similar note, Gray pointed out that he found many exceptions in Malawi to what would be predicted by theories of cultural proximity, and that we may miss a lot by looking for easy rules to explain the spread of media.
Question: Co-production policies have changed the aesthetics of much of Latin American film. How are they affecting telenovelas?
Acosta-Alzuru: Co-production is the model that Telemundo has made successful because it’s far less costly to pay actors and produce programs in Colombia, for example, than in Miami. This is the only way that countries like Panama or the Dominican Republic can afford to make telenovelas, so co-production is widely practiced.
Sissako: Some African telenovelas have been produced through co-production. The Ivory Coast has produced several telenovelas are shown in all the French-speaking African countries. Other programs made in Burkina Faso use actors from Ivory Coast or Mali. This is happening because Africa is developing, and people are starting to count on themselves to produce things instead of waiting for material from the rest of the world.
Question: Could you elaborate on the issue of piracy?
Gray: I think we need to study the pirates themselves. Knowing who’s taking these things from culture to culture, what interests are at play, and what interactions they have with the people can tell us a lot about how media spreads. For instance, in Malawi, Bollywood is almost nowhere to be seen, and I think that’s partly because there’s a tense relationship between the Malawi and Indian population.
Acosta-Alzuru: A lot of people disagree about the effects of having telenovelas available on the internet. Does placing a show on YouTube increase or decrease its sales potential? The answer isn’t clear.
Punathambekar: There’s no reason to assume the professionals aren’t communicating with the pirates. For example, there’s a man who lives in Boston but travels all over the world looking for small fan communities of, say, a certain Bollywood star. He helps them form a small club or association, gets them subtitling rights, organizes screenings, and then goes to Bombay and convinces the legal distributors that there’s a market there. He gets a commission and they start pushing films into that market.
Question: Do language barriers affect the dispersal and development of global media?
Punathambekar: Yes, political pressures influence how material in certain languages is marketed and exported. In a multi-lingual country there may be several viable film industries, but they don’t all necessarily travel. In south Asia for example, only the Hindi films get packaged as the global media product.
Jenkins: Fan subtitling is breaking down some of these barriers. In Shanghai it takes less than twenty-four hours for an episode of Prison Break to be translated into Cantonese by fans. There was a time when language was an absolute barrier, but with digital transmission and reproduction it’s a less complicated problem. I think cultural affinity may be much more crucial than language in determining where media travels.
Acosta-Alzuru: Telenovelas are translated or dubbed in almost every language, but an interesting thing happened recently in the United States. Because of the financial crisis, Telemundo suddenly stopped captioning their programs in English, and there was uproar. But instead of giving up their shows, many of the English speaking fans still continue to watch in Spanish, and then read English recaps of each episode posted online.
Gray: In Malawi, most people don’t have access to the internet, so there is no fan subtitling going on, and linguistic barriers there are very difficult to overcome. Malawi shares more of a border with Mozambique than with Zambia or Tanzania, but you don’t see much media from Mozambique because it has a different linguistic background. As exciting as it is that fans and audiences are bridging some of these divides, it’s important to remember that there are many countries in the world that don’t have the money for such things.
Sissako: Even if they can’t understand English or Spanish or Hindi, people have the capacity to create their own language with the images they see. They can deduct what’s happening simply through the language of cinema, so sometimes they can still appreciate media in a foreign language.
Question: Should we be concerned that a few major media producers (Bollywood, Hollywood, telenovelas) might eventually dominate the global market to the point of inhibiting any kind of smaller local or national media enterprises?
Gray: That’s certainly an issue in Malawi. With all the foreign material, local production has fallen by the wayside.
Punathambekar: It’s useful to remember that even in the era of the Hollywood Studios, American dominance of foreign movie markets was never quite complete. There were a number of other industries that had their own trajectories of influence. But it’s true that in many places local production is increasingly difficult.
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