BORDEAUX, France, May 24, 2012 – Within hours of arriving from abroad, business travelers, tourists and expats suffer from the pangs of information withdrawal. They get fidgety, they scurry to the nearest newsstand and they ring up fellow nationals to find out what’s going on at home. This may seem odd in an age of media overload, but these travelers have left a parallel world behind and feel stranded.
Hometown coverage – from Paris, London, Berlin, Rome, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Moscow and Beijing – is hard to find when you’re in Dallas or Raleigh.
Check the print media? Not likely. Radio? Mostly pop music and inane chatter. Cable television? Two hundred channels of coma-inducing filler.
Welcome to America.
Problems like these are gradually melting away as international television reaches maturity and some cable providers begin to understand that pockets of foreigners are living in their markets. An added bonus: they are ready to pay for their native languages and familiar subjects.
The international broadcasters fall into two categories: those who serve only their own nationals (Chinese, Mexican, Brazilian), and the more ambitious types who are expanding into widely spoken languages such as English, Spanish and Arabic, and want to wave their flag at new audiences.
CNN won the distinction of starting the move toward international television, first beaming its 24-hour news signal to Canada in 1980, and developing steadily thereafter into a multilingual service (in English, Spanish, Arabic, Turkish and Japanese) now reaching 260 million households in 200 countries.
The BBC was another early starter, building on its extensive radio services. Now Germany is providing television via Deutsche Welle (in German, English and Turkish); France 24 and TV 5 Monde offer news in French and English; Turkey broadcasts in Turkish, Arabic and English; and Al Jazeera’s footprint covers the Arab world and North America, providing its perspective in Arabic and English.
I like to have it both ways, so I subscribe to TV 5 Monde when visiting family in Boston, and I get CNN International, BBC World, Al Jazeera and Russia Today (RT) in my living room in Bordeaux. Being a news junkie, I channel-hop day and night to see who is saying what about Afghanistan, the French and Greek elections, Romney’s chances, Japanese nuclear power, North Korea’s latest threat – whatever is hot on a given day.
These events become fascinating when foreign-based commentators twist and turn to retain a surface objectivity while subtly conveying a national bias. Much of this skewing is accomplished by way of the news director’s running order and choices of what to suppress.
For example, RT from Moscow mentions anti-Putin demonstrations but does not treat them as big news. Kremlin control of the media somehow does not get a mention. The French seem to consider their domestic news as the center of the universe. Al-Jazeera is surprisingly balanced but will tell their correspondents to dig into collateral damage war stories that other correspondents might ignore. Even Hillary Clinton publicly said she likes watching Al Jazeera while traveling.
The English-language talent moves around like riders on a merry-go-round. Familiar BBC faces now populate Al-Jazeera, and the BBC trades names and faces with CNN like the NBA swaps pro baseball players. Russia Today has found an impressive lineup of English-language correspondents and anchors for some unknown source.
CNN International, managed separately from CNN domestic, has assembled perhaps the world’s best stable of television correspondents, including Nic Robertson, Arwa Damon, Matthew Chance and (when she is allowed out) the Syrian-born and multilingual Hala Gorani. Out of deference to the good guys, I will pass over the more in-your-face characters such as finger-jabbing Richard Quest and squeaky-voiced Becky Anderson, not to mention the often-incomprehensible Isha Sesay. They are the exceptions.
All this is newer than you might imagine. Fear and excitement in London gripped the media world in the early 1980s when Rupert Murdoch’s pan-European music station began carrying brief news reports lifted from his London Times newspaper. Prior to this, television news had been the monopoly of domestic broadcasters in each country. Now Murdoch has his popular Sky Television, a huge money-spinner and perennial winner of awards for strong news coverage.
Since his initiative was such a de facto news event, I sought Murdoch out for an interview in London in the 1980s. I can still see him slumped half-dead in a padded chair after flying in from Sydney. “I assure you I am not trying to take over the world of information,” he lied.
International television is the obvious way forward in this globalized world, and displaced foreigners will be increasingly catered to as key markets. Lesson No. 1 for the business side of television: they have the money.
Michael Johnson is an American journalist and writer based in Bordeaux, France. He also writes for the International Herald Tribune and American Spectator.
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