In 1993, Rupert Murdoch bought Asian satellite TV service Star TV, the first step in his quest to become a global-media mogul. Star had tried to create pan-Asian channels, but that ambition was floundering when Murdoch swooped in and bought it. To celebrate the acquisition, Murdoch set off on a triumphant Asian tour. One of his stops was Delhi, where I interviewed him about his plans for India.
The whole idea behind Star TV was flawed, Murdoch told me. It was wrong to believe that a viewer in Beijing would want to watch the same channel as a viewer in Bombay. So far, so good. What did Murdoch think that viewers in Bombay really wanted to watch? That was easy, he replied. People wanted to watch American shows like Baywatch, but they wanted to watch them in their own languages. The new Star TV would split its satellite beams and focus on local languages. Baywatch would be dubbed into Hindi for Indian viewers, and mainland China would get a Mandarin-language service.
Apples and Oranges
Murdoch’s view was symptomatic of the conventional wisdom of that era. Dallas and Dynasty were credited with bringing down the Berlin Wall. American movies and TV shows were said to be the gold standard for global entertainment. All that broadcasters needed to do was to dub them into local languages.
It took Murdoch several years of massive losses to figure out that he had failed to understand Asia. While, initially, such shows as The Bold and the Beautiful intrigued the South Asian upper-middle class, they never really reached the mainstream audiences of the heartland. As Fatima Bhutto remembers in her fascinating book New Kings of the World, “American pop culture was worshipped by a Third World elite that wanted to modernize.” And so, when it came to The Bold and the Beautiful, “it didn’t matter that it was bad television, it was American television and we were grateful to receive it.”
But the worship and the gratitude never really went beyond the elites. And soon, even the upper-middle classes tired of American TV. In India, Murdoch changed course: Star TV commissioned original Indian programming and went on to become the country’s top TV network. Murdoch should really have worked it out earlier. India has the world’s largest film industry, releasing about 2,000 films every year; in 2018, India led global-film-market rankings with ticket sales, selling nearly 198 million tickets, while the U.S., in third place, sold 120 million. Murdoch clearly had no idea of what the Indian audience wanted.
What did Murdoch think viewers in Bombay really wanted to see? That was easy—shows like Baywatch.
In some ways, the Indian experience has been repeated all over the world. Hollywood still has international influence, but it’s hardly the capital of the global-entertainment business. Turkey has emerged as a center of TV production, and the global distribution of its shows is second only to American programming. In 2008, The Bold and the Beautiful was watched by 26.2 million people worldwide—a peak in viewership, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. But, as Bhutto points out, “by 2016 the Turkish show Magnificent Century had been seen by upward of 200 million people.” Indian films and TV shows have found new international audiences, including, as Bhutto observes, dedicated viewers in Peru, where there are hardly any Indian immigrants.
Bhutto suggests that the growth of non-American programming in global TV is partly a consequence of urbanization, and partly because of a growing global disconnect with America. “To be American,” she says, “is no longer to belong to a vaunted, cultural elite.” In the age of rapid globalization, “American pop culture seems less and less reflective of this new uncertain present.” She may be overstating her case somewhat. (The book is packed with references to “a very distinct and peculiar dream of near-pornographic materialism.... Hollywood’s white fantasies of power, wealth and sex,” etc.) But it cannot be an accident that the most globally successful Hollywood movies today are space fantasies or superhero pictures, not those that deal with the reality of today’s America.
“American pop culture seems less and less reflective of this new uncertain present.”
Of course, the development of new entertainment centers creates new conflicts. Just as American soft power is often resented, there have been objections to Turkish programming in the Arab world. It is believed that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia (the bone-saw guy) was behind a decision by Arab networks to cancel Turkish series. In India, according to many critics (including Bhutto), the ruling political establishment has harnessed the massive power of the country’s entertainment industry to promote its own right-wing agendas.
We’ve come a long way from Rupert Murdoch’s original prescription of telecasting Baywatch across Asia. Those who feared that globalization was just another word for Americanization were mistaken. As Bhutto’s book argues, popular entertainment has actually done just the opposite: it has made globalization a force for the un-Americanization of the world.
Vir Sanghvi is an Indian journalist and TV presenter