Understanding Media Imperialism

A report for the FY2008-09, shows almost a total dependence of Pakistani TV networks upon multinationals for advertising revenue. Among the top ten advertisers, the only Pakistani concern, ranking second, was the PTCL.

Is it the case that globalization has not delivered the imperialism’s end but the realm of media is an exception where imperialism has become a thing of the past? At least a few academicians want us to believe that.  The notion of media imperialism was once, an appealing idea in media research , however, as we are told now, it has lost its relevance in the age of ‘globalization’. The appearance of Southern actors like Al-Jazeera, Indian Z network, Brazilian telenovelas, Bollywood and host of regional networks in every part of the world has effectively challenged the monopoly once commanded by the Western news agencies, films, dramas, and TV networks. This has been made possible courtesy of liberating satellite technology brought along by globalization in the 1980s. Really?

Understanding media imperialism

According to Boyd-Barrett, media imperialism refers to ‘the process whereby, the ownership, structure, distribution or content of the media in any one country are, singly or together, subject to substantial external pressures from the media interests of any other country or countries, without proportionate reciprocation of influences by the country so affected’. He identifies two ‘outstanding features’ of media imperialism:

1.      ‘Uni-directional media flow. While there is a heavy flow of exported media products from the US to say, Asian countries, there is only a very slight trickle of Asian media products to the US.

2.      The very small number of source countries, accounting for a very substantial share of all international media influences around the world. These countries are primarily America, then Britain, France, West Germany, Russia, Italy and Japan. (Boyd-Barrett 1977: 117).

Media imperialism needs to be seen as a subset of the broader paradigm called ‘cultural imperialism’, a term often attributed to US Marxist theoretician Hebert Schiller.

In his book, Mass Communications and American Empire (Boston: Beacon) he argued that the international movement towards the commercialisation of broadcasting was driven by the rise of the US entertainment, communications and information (ECI) industries, and the ascendency of ECI industries had reached a point where ‘nothing less than the viability of the American industrial economy is involved in the movement toward international commercialization of broadcasting’. He stressed three prepositions. First, ECI’s spread must be viewed alongside US foreign policy. Second, ECI’s influence is not just economic and political but also impacts ‘consciousness’. Third, economic power and global reach of cultural commodities was leading to cultural imperialism (Schiller 1969: 115-125).

He defined cultural imperialism as follows:

‘The concept of cultural imperialism…describes the sum of processes by which a society is brought into the modern world system and how its dominating stratum is attracted, pressured, forced, and sometimes bribed into shaping social institutions to correspond to, or even promote, the values and structures of the dominant centre of the system’.

The Marxist critique of international cultural flows developed out of broader critiques of the triumphalist paradigm of ‘modernization’ propounded in the late 1950s and the 1960s, predominantly by US theorists. “This ‘dominant’ model proposed a single global process of modernization through a unilinear diffusion of Western technologies, social institutions, modes of living, and value systems to the eponymous ‘Third World’” (Sreberny 2001: 9489).

Schiller thought the communication technologies were not value-neutral instruments but imbued with capitalist values; language (for instance English as global lingua franca); business practices; the genre as well as content of soap operas, blockbusters, popular music etc. Schiller saw media as a central element in the global expansion of capitalism centred on the US, fuelled by advertising and consumerism.

From the 1980s onwards, the media imperialism thesis has been under sustained attack. This largely owes to the notion that there are now “reverse currents” (Shohat and Stam 1996: 148-149). Giddens went as far as to claim “reverse colonization”, exemplified by the export of Brazilian television programmes to Portugal and the Mexicanization of southern California. It is pointed out that the simple image of Western dominion obscures the complex and reciprocal nature of interaction between different and increasingly hybridized cultures over centuries. It is also argued that global media enterprises have been forced to adapt to local cultures, and to link up with local partners, in order to sustain their expansion. Similarly, the media imperialism thesis is criticised for underestimating local resistance to American domination (Curran and Park 2000: 6).

Sreberny (2001) thinks media imperialism was a ‘problematic argument both theoretically and empirically from the beginning’ mainly because:

1.      Broadcasting did not develop with world domination in mind, even if some of its spread has been consonant with Western foreign policy interests. State-control, back in 1970s, neutralised unidirectional ‘free flow of information’. A majority was not even exposed to Western influences as they had no access to TV. The colonial legacies (Christianity, language, education etc) and other industries (fashion, tourism, architecture, consumer durables) had more enduring effect than media. Hence, focus on part (media) cannot be read for whole.

2.      ‘By the year 2001 there are many significant culture industries in the South: Globo in Brazil, and Televisia in Mexico produce telenovelas; a huge multimedia complex near Cairo supports the production of Islamic soap operas which Turkey also produces. And if the focus shifts away from television alone to include other cultural products, the diversity increases: Bollywood for instance, the Eastern challenge to Hollywood in the sheer number of film titles produced yearly, with the Asian diaspora constituting a sizeable audiences. The Iranian and Chinese film industries are gaining global recognition and audiences. The marketing of ‘old music’ has helped the diffusion of Algerian, Senegalese, Cuban, and Brazilian contemporary music. The Indian Zee TV is a powerful independent newscaster while Qatar’s Al-Jazeera is revolutionizing factual programming in the Arab World.’ Hence, the West does not dominate the Rest anymore.

3.      Ne w approaches to the ‘active audiences’ within media studies have forced a rethinking of international effects also.

4.      More nuance is required, after all the three world conceptualization no longer exists. Given this conceptual lacuna, totalizing theories do not hold ground.

She concludes: “cultural imperialism always consisted of many discourses; the ongoing attempt to rewrap them into one through the trope of ‘media imperialism’ is an increasingly forlorn task. The world has changed and so must our language and our theoretical frames” (Sreberny 2001: 9490-93).

To such complaints, defenders respond by saying in effect that complexity is being invoked to obfuscate the continuing reality of Western cultural preponderance. Media activity, in this view, may be multidirectional but it is still very unequal. American and Western enterprises are dominant in certain key sectors, most notably film, news wholesaling, and computer operating systems. Relatively small number of transnational media corporations, mostly based in the USA, dominate media export market. The second counter-argument is that although there is global cultural diversity, it is being reconstructed by an underlying hegemonic dynamic. The dominant strain of global mass culture, according to Stuart Hall, “remains centred in the West…and it always speaks English” (Curran and Park: 6).

Reality of Southern actors

Stuart Hall’s claim is lent an empirical aura by Toby Miller. A US-Australian academic; Toby Miller in an interview (see the section Interview in this issue) says: “ Most people who read international news still get it from the major imperial powers’ news agencies, delivered in the languages of conquest–French, German, Spanish, and English. It is certainly true that the large South Asian diaspora, the creativity of Latin American television drama, and state-backed alternatives to the old patterns of domination matter. But:  CNN broadcasts to over 130 nations across the principal world languages. Germany has two major networks across Asia, received by over a thousand satellite systems, with three-quarters of programming in German and a quarter in English. The US absolutely bombards Iran with satellite TV in Farsi (25 networks as of 2005, many of which focus on politics). And MTV;  by 2008 it was in 162 countries across 33 languages. The US children’s channel Nickelodeon is available in well over 150 countries”.

There is no doubt that Iranian films as well as Chinese films have gained an international recognition. However, in case of Iranian films one cannot say that they have unsettled Hollywood business. Iranian films hardly venture out of film festivals even when critics lavishly praise them. As far as China is concerned, a few films have done good business. But such productions have often been co-productions. The most known Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s films made in the 1990s are not strictly Chinese or Mainland films. They were funded and produced by transnational capital (Lu 1997: 125). Lest we should forget, the ‘value and aesthetic appeal of these films are also determined by the judges of the West’. Understandably, “indigenous Chinese critics tend to perceive the internationalization of Chinese cinema as an instance of the global homogenization of local differences in the interest of Western cultural imperialism” (Lu 1997: 128-129).

However, China and India cannot be a model for Afghanistan or Sweden. Afghanistan being poor while Sweden being sparsely populated cannot sustain the films which should be made in line with ‘international best practice’. The Indian/Chinese populations and diasporas are large enough to sustain a market. However, neither India nor China has been able to break the Hollywood monopoly over marketing, distribution, exhibition and certain other aspects of global film business.

Local content, ‘global’ values

Appadurai says, ‘The central problem of today’s global interactions is the tension between cultural homogenization and cultural hetrogenization’. He thinks both these arguments fail to consider that ‘at least as rapidly as forces from various metropolises are brought into new societies they tend to become indigenized in one or other way: this is true of music and housing styles as much as it is true of science and terrorism, spectacles and constitutions’. In his view, ‘for the people of Irian Jaya, Indonesianization may be more worrisome than Americanization, Indianization for Sri Lankans, Vietnamization for the Combodians, Russianization for the people of Soviet Armenia and the Baltic Republics’ (Appadurai 1990: 295).

The indigenisation, localisation is an argument pretty much in vogue.  But before we move ahead, a little digression here with regard to Indianisation of Sri Lanka would indeed not be out of context.

The Appadurai-style; sophisticated but light use of words, is indeed subtle. In one sentence, he equates the USA with India, Vietnam with France and Indonesia with Netherlands. The Indianization of Sri Lanka, if imposed at gun point, is equally deplorable as Americanization of Africa is (still equating India with Uncle Sam would be difficult). However, Sri Lanka’s Indianization or Combodia’s Vietnamisation may also occur as a result of shared geography, history, religion, trade and in many other ways on rather equal basis.

“The production apparatus of cultural commodities and transnational information carries within it not only a cultural project, but also a new system of the organization of power. It is without doubt through this site of the commercial exchange of cultural commodities that the logic of transnationals tries to infiltrate in order to soften national resistance of all shades. Communication and culture occupy a prime place in the restructuring of institutional mechanisms,” says Mattelart (1983:14).

Indigenization of metropolitan stuff is merely a cloak for capital transfer from South to North. Think of a Pepsi-Lassi or McDonald-Karahi. But the capital will flow in the direction, that in general, it travels globally. Similarly, Big Brother may assume some Arab colour when it is aired from Lebanon-based TV. But al-Rais, or Big Boss in case of India, essentially promote the values that only enable cultural imperialism.

Not merely Southern actors pay to buy the copy rights for localising the formats of Big Brother, Idol etc, but also the values they promote, hardly give rise to resistance.

Trying to summarise the set of dominant values in the production of mass culture in Latin America, Luis Ramiro Beltran and Elisabeth Fox, based on studies undertaken between 1070-79, drew up the following list: individualism, elitism, racism (to which one could add ethnocentrism), adventurism, conservatism, conformism, the feeling of inferiority, romanticism, and aggressiveness. They summarised ‘individualism’ thus: “The belief that the needs and aspirations of the individual predominate over those of the community to which he or she belongs”. Conservatism was defined as “the belief that the socio-economic structures characteristic of capitalism constitute the only desirable and natural social order and that as such ,they must be indefinitely maintained for the good of all. All these values are satellite of a central planet: the integration into the world of consumption,” says Mattelart (1983:  76).

Mere localisation of appearance does not neutralise the imperialist form of content. As long ago as in 1970, what Mattelart said about Chile is equally true about Arab world, South Asia and Africa today: “It goes without saying that it is not simply by suppressing all programmes manufactured abroad – especially from North America – that the degree of cultural dependency will be reduced. A ‘Chileanised’ programme can produce exactly the same ideology and therefore be guilty of the same vices as foreign material, the only difference being that these vices may be less explicit” (Ibid: 116).

For instance, Chinese critics have been critical of Zhang Yimou’s productions in which cinematic construction of China is meant for the gaze of West. “In the same process, the position of Chinese viewer is decentred, and the field of vision of the West assumes the prime importance. What is initially indigenous cultural critique, transforms into “cultural sellout”, or in Rey Chow’s words, cultural “exhibitionism,” “the Oriental’s Orientalism,”  or “international fantasy,” as Esther Yau puts it” (Lu 126). One can say the same, to some extent, about Iranian films. Similarly, the much-touted Latin American ‘telenovelas’, according to Boyd-Barrett, correspond in many ways to the Western ‘series’ (Boyd-Barret 1977: 127).


The advertising reflects media imperialism influence, first by virtue of the fact that by far the largest advertising agencies in the global market are American agencies; and second because, a considerable share of advertising demand comes from the giant multi-national conglomerates which are mostly American. Their advertising revenue operates in much the same way as it does in the USA. It is attracted to those media which can promise to reach the audiences most likely to buy the products which the conglomerates have to sell (Boyd-Barret 1977: 124).

Case of Pakistan

A report compiled by an advertising agency  for the FY2008-09 (see below Table 1), shows almost a total dependence of TV networks upon multinationals for advertising revenue ( The case of press is not very different either). The item most advertised, during FY2008-09, was mobile phone (26 percent). It was followed by shampoos, soft drinks, detergents, dairy products, beauty creams/face wash etc. Among the top ten advertisers, the only Pakistani concern, ranking second, was the PTCL (Pakistan Telecommunication Corporation Limited). The top ten advertisers for FY2008-09 were:




China Mobile



Pepsi Cola

Coca Cola



Active consumers and statist resistance

Two more arguments are often repeated by the opponents of media imperialism thesis. First, the statist cultural protectionism has rendered the American cultural invasion invalid. Second, active spectatorship does not passively receive the messages delivered.

Studies falsify both these logics. Toby Miller et al. for instance find out that Europe’s cultural protectionism has not merely benefitted Hollywood but their study also proves that an island of cultural protectionism cannot be built in a sea of neo-liberalism. The case of Canada, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand shows that statist intervention only contributes to New International Division of Cultural Labour (NICL) and it benefits Hollywood Majors (Miller 2001). With regard to active spectatorship, a thesis elevated to a dogma by Stuart Hall and his followers, Mattelart’s sane advice is:

Active consumption can occur, when the individual reader or television watcher reacts critically to the messages proposed and creates antidotes. However, one should not use this nuance to relativize the impact of the means of mass communication. They remain powerful means of social control, and we can conclude with many others that their action is exercised to prevent this critical consciousness (Mattelart 1983: 84). Salman Taseer murder case is a living example of spectatorial schizophrenia. The way victim became controversial and the killer became a Ghazi is indeed an interesting case study for the followers of Stuart Hall.


The media perform an ideological role. This occurs overtly in the form of explicit propaganda channels; covertly through the expression of certain values in what otherwise appears to be neutral entertainment and informational fare (Boyd-Barret 1977: 133). Dorfman and Mattelart’s analysis of the much–syndicated Donald Duck cartoons shows a particular view of underdeveloped peoples which reflects dominant American stereotypes of foreign nationals and expresses a morality that is wholly supportive of American foreign policy domination (Boyd-Barret 133). Also, the imperialist cultural products spread values that undermine the resistance and enhance consumerist tendencies. The so-called Southern challenges to Western media domination have hardly made a dent in unidirectional flow. Also, these Southern players in turn perpetuate capitalist model. In their respective countries, new media empires in fact work as global capital’s junior partner. Pakistan’s Lakhani Group is an embodiment of this local-global dynamic: the media house Lakhani owns is collaborating with International Herald Tribune while Lakhanis are also McDonald’s franchise in Pakistan.

Table 1

table heavy


Appadurai, A. (1990) Disjuncture and Dislocation in the Global Cultural Economy. In M Featherstone (ed) Global Culture. London: Sage

Curran, J and Park, Myung-Jin (eds)  De-Westernising media studies. London/New York: Routledge. 2000

Lu, Sheldon Hsiao-peng (1997) ‘National Cinema, Cultural Critique, Transnational Capital: The Films of Znag Yimou’. In Sheldon Hsio –peng Lu (ed) Transnational Chinese Cinemas: Identity, Nationhood, Gender. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press

Mattelart, Armand (1983) Transnationals & the Third World: The Struggle For Culture. Massachusetts: Bergin & Garvey

Miller, T, Nitin Govil, John McMurria and Richard Maxwell (2001) Global Hollywood. London: BFI Publishing

Sreberny, A (2001) Cultural imperialism. In International Encyclopaedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, Elsevier, pp 9489-9494

(From Viewpoint Online)