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Tuning In The Global Village : How TV Is Transforming World Culture and Politics

October 20, 1992|JOHN LIPPMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Historians looking at the 20th Century from the next millennium will likely pinpoint 1945 as the most pivotal year since the voyage of Columbus.

Two nuclear bombs exploded over Japanese cities, providing a glimpse of the apocalypse. And an obscure British radar officer named Arthur C. Clarke found that it's possible to relay pictures around the world almost instantly by bouncing radio signals off a few satellites orbiting high above the Equator.

Both developments changed the course of humankind.

Asked once what had caused the stunning collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, Polish leader Lech Walesa pointed to a nearby TV set. "It all came from there."

If it has helped topple totalitarian governments and promote global democracy, television has also--for better or for worse--led a modern Crusade, spreading pop culture over the Earth as medieval knights once spread Christendom.

In fact, nearly 30 years after Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase "global village" to describe how the electronics revolution was shrinking the world and shortening the time between thought and action, the Media Millennium is at hand.

More than half of Americans alive today may not remember a time without TV in their home. They're surprised if someone doesn't have 25 or 30 channels to choose from. But for much of the globe, television is still relatively new--and changing fast.

It only arrived last summer in Vanuatu, a scattered archipelago with 165,000 people in the southwest Pacific formerly known as the New Hebrides. Crowds mobbed appliance stores to watch the new state-owned network's first broadcast--the opening of the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.

But thanks to Arthur Clarke, places like Vanuatu are fast going the way of the rooftop antenna. Today, there is hardly any spot on Earth untrammeled by a satellite "footprint"--the area, sometimes spanning whole continents, within reach of signals from its parabolic antennas.

The rapid inroads of satellite-based "borderless television" are changing the way the world works, the way it plays, even the way it goes to war and makes peace. Even countries that have long limited what their citizens can watch on nationalized TV are slowly being forced to relax their vice-like grip.

Madonna writhes on MTV videos from Bahrain to Bangladesh. A deputy police chief in Moscow is distracted during an interview by Super Channel, a British cross between MTV and "Entertainment Tonight," which blares incessantly in many Russian homes and offices. Dozens of pan-European satellite channels, beaming everything from highbrow French talk shows to Dutch pornography, trespass national borders without visas. "Los Simpsons" becomes a top-rated TV show in Colombia and Argentina.

A New Economy

Spurred by technological advance and the worldwide trend toward privatization, a global TV economy is growing at a blistering rate. Consider:

* More than 1 billion TV sets now populate the globe--a 50% jump over the last five years. The number is expected to continue growing by 5% annually--and by more than double that in Asia, where half the world's population lives.

* Worldwide spending for television programming is now about $65 billion, and the tab is growing by 10% per year, according to Neal Weinstock, media project director for the New York research firm Frost & Sullivan Inc. TV programs are a major U.S. export now worth about $2.3 billion annually.

* The number of satellite-delivered TV services around the world is more than 300 and climbing rapidly, says Mark Long, publisher of the World Satellite Almanac. More than half of those services emanate from the United States--everything from the Arts & Entertainment Network to Total Christian Television. Truly global "super channels" such as MTV reach hundreds of millions of households, while CNN is seen in 137 countries.

* Scores of new communications satellites are planned for launch in just the next five years, which will mean a huge jump in the number of space-borne TV channels.

The cultural, political and economic effects of this global television revolution are enormous.

TV sets are more common in Japanese homes than flush toilets. Virtually every Mexican household has a TV, but only half have phones. Thai consumers will buy a TV set before an electric fan or even a refrigerator.

Parents in China complain that teen-agers are humming jingles from Nabisco and Coca-Cola commercials. Russians in the ecological sinkhole of Tyumen, in Siberia, rank the fate of Marianna, the beleaguered heroine of a Mexican TV-produced soap opera titled "The Rich Also Cry," as their third biggest worry in life--after acquiring weapons for self-defense and raising their kids. Turkish schoolchildren adopt an argot dubbed "Turkilize" picked up from German-, French- and English-language satellite channels beamed in from Western Europe.

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