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The New Communications Landscape: Demystifying Media Globalization

Editor: Georgette Wang, Jan Servaes, Anura Goonasekera
Publisher: New York: Routledge, 2000
Review Published: March 2003

 REVIEW 1: Josh Heuman

The New Communications Landscape collects eighteen essays on media globalization from a broad range of international scholarship. In their institutional affiliations and in their objects of study, the contributors split about evenly between Europe and East Asia, with a healthy contingent of familiar names from the Media, Culture & Society school (Philip Schlesinger, John Sinclair, Colin Sparks), along with other names less prominent within North American media studies. As its subtitle suggests, the collection aims to represent a next wave of scholarship in media globalization. It succeeds most pointedly in this regard in the way it approaches globalization from the perspective of the local, regional, and national; most essays present street-level case studies in the articulation of global and subglobal media forms and institutions, rather than travelogues focused on the circulation of ("dominant") Western media. An important consequence of this perspective is the collection’s attention to globalization at the moment of cultural production, rather than only as a question of cultural effects. At the same time, there are aspects of globalization that merit more attention than given here, like the Internet, regulation, and more generally, the theory of globalization as a problem for media studies. In the end, The New Communications Landscape is a valuable collection, but one whose value is limited by substantive lacunae and theoretical inconsistency.

If The New Communications Landscape represents a next wave of scholarship, Joseph Straubhaar’s contribution most directly confronts those first-wave models concerned above all with questions of cultural imperialism, with the dominance of Western media and their effects. (Given that his argument first appeared more than a decade ago, however, there’s reason to look askance at the collection’s implicit periodization of scholarship in the field, and its brave claims of demystification.) Straubhaar’s research with Brazilian audiences suggests the salience of "cultural proximity" in shaping media flows: most else being equal, people want to watch what’s culturally closer, rather than distant signals less immediately relevant to their everyday lives. Herng Su and Sheue-Yun Chen extend and complicate this point in their study of young television viewers in Taiwan. This kind of argument sets the foundation for a shift in perspective: as Wang, Lin-Lin Kiu, and Chun Chou Liu put it in their essay, a shift from an understanding of media globalization as a zero-sum contest between global and local forms and institutions, toward one concerned to explore articulations among global and subglobal forces.

On one hand, for example, Miguel de Moragas Spà and Bernat López explore the proliferation of local and regional "proximate television" in a new Europe characterized by the diminishing influence of national sovereignty. With an insistence on the obsolescence of the national economy and the nation-state (and sometimes national culture to boot), managerialist discourses of globalization lead toward Europeanization, which leads toward decentralization of national sovereignty, which leads toward new regionalisms and localisms. This is one version of an increasingly familiar story that casts global and local-regional forces as emergent partners (dancing on the fresh grave of the residual nation?). In contrast to this story, however, Sparks insists on the continuing relevance of the nation, especially in bankrolling new regional and local media: "Those public spheres that are produced by new localisms may well see as one of their aims the dissolution of grand narratives like the USA or the UK, but they very often turn out to be dependent upon those grand narratives to pay the bills" (91). Though Sparks may differ with Moragas Spà and López’ account of the state of the nation, he shares a common perspective on globalization – one that characterizes the national, the regional, and the local as primary sites of analysis, rather than as crudely drawn supporting players for the global.

The most interesting avenue opened up by this perspective is an emphasis on the production of globalized media, rather than their effects. While early debates about cultural imperialism tended to focus on broad questions about the fate of national cultures in an age of global media, many of the essays in The New Communications Landscape go inside the black box of global media industries (in a way that goes much deeper than the sometimes shallow economism of works like Herman and McChesney’s Global Media [1997]). Jian Wang goes inside a Beijing advertising agency affiliated with a Western multinational parent, for example, and tells how the national agency mediates the procedures (and ad copy!) of its global parent, in order to sell to local and regional audiences. Koichi Iwabuchi explores how the global strategies of the Japanese television industry favor "indigenization" over globalization – through "concept trade" in program formats, developed for production in host countries, for instance, rather than direct sale of programming.

While some of the essays in The New Communications Landscape tell interesting things about global media industries, few engage the politics of global media regulation in any sustained fashion, and the collection includes no survey piece to set the regulatory scene. While questions of cultural protectionism might attach more readily to earlier debates about cultural imperialism than to the perspectives pursued here, such questions are still very live. Recent international trade agreements like NAFTA, GATT/WTO, and TRIPS will go a long way to shape the new communications landscape; especially (but not only) with regard to Hollywood concerns for the secure and unrestrained flow of its properties in international distribution, they deserve more space than allotted here.

Similarly, The New Communications Landscape seems to slide much too quickly over questions of technology, and especially the Internet. It may have been published a few months too late to directly address some of the conspicuous problems the Internet would soon pose – like the notorious order by a French court that Yahoo must remove Nazi memorabilia from an American auction site accessible in France, or the difficulties in controlling inflows of information faced by Saudi and Chinese governments. But even without those concrete examples, it’s been apparent for more than a few years that the Internet holds the potential to transform traditional notions of national sovereignty and national boundaries – a potential that goes as much as unacknowledged in NCL. The history of technology seems to end with the satellite here; if the Internet merits only passing mention, there’s no discussion at all of the video compact disc, seemingly very salient not only as a preferred medium for East Asian piracy, but also as a fascinating allegory in the global circulation and local appropriation of technologies. Even the satellite itself is treated more like a force of nature than a determined technology, with its own proper story. In its title, its scope, and its bulk, NCL would seem to want to offer a panoramic and comprehensive treatment of media globalization; that aspiration suffers for its relative silence on central questions of regulation and technology.

More broadly, the collection lacks a consistent and coherent theoretical through line. Along with lacking strong surveys of regulation and technology, it lacks a strong reflexive account of globalization itself (with no genealogy of discourses of globalization, no survey of the scholarly field of media globalization, and so on). The eighteen essays aren’t divided into sections, but follow one another with little apparent design (with his restatement of a seminal argument, Straubhaar seems to set up many of the other contributors, for example, but his essay sits in the middle of the book). While they certainly don’t all belong in different books, more than with most edited anthologies, it’s sometimes not clear what brings them together in this book. Although they engage a number of common themes, their engagements don’t seem to constitute a common field of study (in contrast, perhaps, to essays in collections like Chan and McIntyre’s In Search of Boundaries [2002], or Sinclair, Jacka, and Cunningham’s New Patterns in Global Television [1996]). Ubonrat Siriyuvasak sees a middle class "happily being made into a new class of global consumers" by global television in Thailand; while there’s nothing wrong with borrowing a page from models of cultural imperialism, it’s worth a bit of explanation or justification – again, what’s that page doing in this book? Similarly, Yean Tsai undertakes a content analysis of Taiwanese soap operas, in order to show how they share elements with Propp’s morphology of the folk tale and Scholes’ account of narrative: "This may prove that some themes and structural elements in these stories are universally juxtaposed across cultures" (183). But this argument would have much sharper teeth if it showed that Taiwanese soap operas share elements with the conventions of classical Hollywood cinema; Propp and Scholes seem to come from left field. Partly as consequence, too often the contributors to The New Communications Landscape seem like they’re playing on different fields. While Routledge publishes the book in a research series, it’s hard to read more than a few chapters without wishing it held together more strongly.

In the end, if The New Communications Landscape isn’t quite for completists only, it’s not far off. Most of the essays are too narrow or idiosyncratic for general undergraduate media-studies courses, especially in comparison to those from In Search of Boundaries, New Patterns in Global Television, or Arnold’s Media in Global Context reader (Sreberny-Mohammadi, et. al. 1997). For media-studies professionals who don’t specialize in globalization, it offers occasional rewards (like Iwabuchi’s piece on Japanese strategies of indigenization); but if you read three books on the topic this year, you can get away with not reading this one. Scholars of media globalization will naturally find more to recommend the collection, especially in its wealth of original research; but for all its originality, it’s unlikely to change very many perspectives on the field. In the end, The New Communications Landscape expands rather than transforms the field of media globalization. While this expansion pursues some interesting avenues of scholarship, it seems inconsistent in its pursuit of those avenues, and remiss in passing over others.

Chan, J.M. and B.T. McIntyre, eds. (2002) In Search of Boundaries: Communication, Nation-States, and Cultural Identities. Westport, CT: Ablex.

Herman, E.S. and R.W. McChesney (1997) The Global Media: The New Missionaries of Global Capitalism. Herndon, VA: Cassell.

Sinclair, J., E. Jacka, and S. Cunningham, eds (1996) New Patterns in Global Television: Peripheral Vision. NY: Oxford.

Sreberny-Mohammadi, A., D. Winseck, J. McKenna, and O. Boyd-Barrett, eds. (1997) Media in Global Context: A Reader. NY: Arnold/Oxford, Foundations in Media.

Josh Heuman:
Josh Heuman is a doctoral candidate in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, researching the convergence of media regulation and moral regulation, and a lecturer in Speech Communication at Colorado State University, teaching intro to film, communication policy, and public speaking.  <jmheuman@lamar.colostate.edu>

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