Monday, October 12, 2009

The Dallas Phenomenon and Global TV Culture

Among this week's readings, I thought Elihu Katz and Tamar Liebes' article, "Reading Television: Television as Text and Viewers as Decoders" particularly interesting. I remembered hearing my parents talk about watching Dallas back in the 1980s, especially how the question "Who shot J.R.?" buzzed around America throughout the summer of 1980. What I didn't know until reading this article was that Dallas was not just an American but an international sensation, and also that its format was revolutionary at the time. The authors' exploration of the implications of the show's reach was quite relevant to our discussions of global media culture.

To a majority of the world's population, watching television shows is a purely entertainment-centered action. However, the values and culture taken from TV shows can influence existing cultures in countries and regions around the world. According to the authors, in the case of Dallas this influence comes in the form of "kinship relations" (373) within the Ewing family and between the Ewings and other dynasties, as well as "the permeability of the institution of the family to the norms of business, and vice versa" (374). The show presented a different interpretation of familial relations than most other prime-time shows of the time; perhaps this contributed to its very loyal following, first in the United States and then overseas.

Katz and Liebes stress the need for "audience decoding" (376) both in the States and abroad in order to more completely understand the effects of American TV's exportation. Dallas, as a worldwide smash, offered a perfect avenue to do so. The authors give examples of selected countries' response to the show filtered through the prism of each culture. In Germany, for instance, viewers responded to the show in terms of a "repressed patriarchal structure," a reflection of that country's relatively conservative society. To them, the show was a form of escapism. In Holland, on the other hand, Dallas was not viewed as escapism but rather as an expression of various real-life emotions such as joy, sadness and love. (377) Perhaps the most telling example, though, is that of Algeria. For its citizens, the show represented "a reminder of the reality they [were] fast losing" (378), that of a traditional patriarchal family where various generations live in the same place.

Another view mentioned in the article by Stolz states that "it [Dallas] the erosion of traditional cultures by changing the leisure-time agenda" (378), but I don't quite see it that way. Yes, the show took time away from a local program that could have been produced and broadcast in its place. But in their own analysis of various cultural responses, Katz and Liebes show that people are not blindly accepting the American culture of the show but synthesizing it with their own. While some may argue this has problems of its own, I don't think traditional cultures are totally disappearing because of it.

There hasn't really been another show like Dallas since. To be sure there are plenty of nighttime soap operas, most set in a) police stations; b) law practices; or c) hospitals. But none of them have inspired the massive international following of Dallas. Why is this? Grey's Anatomy, for example, is plenty soapy enough, with good-looking cast members and high drama to be had every week. But it's hardly a worldwide phenomenon. Maybe it's because of the advent of Hulu, YouTube and their ilk; people don't have to wait as long to see their favorite shows, so there isn't as much building suspense each week. Or could it be because local content is slowly beginning to challenge the iron grip of U.S. media production? Perhaps it's a combination of both. Whatever the reason, the lack of a 21st-century Dallas-like media production shows how quickly the global media landscape has changed.

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