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U.S. Television: The Road Less Traveled

How can U.S. TV help the United States to learn more about the world out there?

May 26, 2002

How can U.S. TV help the United States to learn more about the world out there?

It’s pretty easy to understand why a lot of Americans don’t travel much. To get to Europe or Asia or South America, the distance can be considerable.

Also, the vacation time given to U.S. workers is precious — and money often tight. But another reason also explains why many Americans do not venture overseas — their curiosity has not been piqued.

That fact is not lost on Doug De Priest, the Discovery Channel’s vice president for production and development. “We’re a travel channel in a country that doesn’t do much travel, so we’ve had a tortuous path to success,” he said at a gathering of television industry professionals in Washington, D.C.

He added that Americans “are really not interested in journeys to unknown lands … there are only 20 places in the world that the American audience cares about — so we need to do 30 shows about 20 places.”

Thus, a company called “Discovery” decides to show Americans only places they already know. This would be funny — if it weren’t so depressing. Even worse, as of late 2000, more American citizens — 78 million — had a subscription to Discovery Travel Channel than actually owned a U.S. passport.

This lack of imagination is one of the greatest failures of television in the United States. After all, it is the medium with the single most powerful grasp on contemporary society. Yet, television has essentially managed to keep the rest of the world out of U.S. living rooms.

Americans spend on average four hours a day in front of the “box.” But the majority of the images they see of the rest of the world — if they appear at all — consists of murder and mayhem, natural disaster and political conflict. Hardly an incentive to explore other parts of the globe.

Still, one has to wonder. In this era of globalization and multiculturalism, why does U.S. television limit itself to only showing disasters in other countries? Not surprisingly, much of the explanation for this phenomenon comes down to the bottom line.

Unlike in most other countries, TV programming in the United States has always been left in the hands of corporate television executives — who are primarily guided by profit.

It’s true that cable television has greatly expanded the number of programs available to U.S. viewers, but the bottom line still rules. Even the content of cable programs is approved by executives who rely on focus groups, hunches and past experience to determine what will appeal to U.S. audiences.

For all their survey and market research, U.S. TV executives usually guess wrong. New series on U.S. television have a staggering failure rate of 70%. Regardless, the prevailing wisdom among the small coterie of TV executives who determine content remains the same: If it ain’t about America, then Americans ain’t interested.

Nearly everywhere else in the world, viewers can watch CNN International — which covers a full range of news stories around the world. On the other hand, Americans are limited to the domestic version of CNN — which, quite literally, puts the United States at the center of each and every breaking story.

It therefore comes at no surprise that the history of U.S. television broadcasting is littered with missed opportunities to bring the world home to U.S. viewers.

After all, cultivating an interest in other cultures does not begin and end with Natural Geographic documentaries about exotic tribes in Asia, Africa or Latin America. It can also come through the other popular genres that are popular in the United States — sitcoms and dramas.

The rest of the world gets different perspectives on the United States — as skewed as they are — from a variety of TV exports — including “Frasier,” “Baywatch” and “The West Wing.” But if U.S. television executives discover a good program overseas, it is usually recast in an American setting — with U.S. actors in all the roles.

Take such British sitcoms as “One Foot in the Grave,” “Man About the House” and “Steptoe and Son.” In the United States, these shows became hits better known to U.S. viewers as “All in the Family,” “Three’s Company” and “Sanford and Son.”

It’s still a mystery just why this cookie-cutter transformation of non-U.S. television is even necessary. The continuing popularity and influence of British shows that remain in their original versions and air on PBS or Comedy Central — “Masterpiece Theatre,” “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” “East Enders” and “Absolutely Fabulous” — should convince major U.S. networks that Americans do, in fact, “get” programs from overseas — on their own terms.

It is true that the occasional American sitcom or drama is set overseas. “Hogan’s Heroes” featured a dashing American pilot and his madcap colleagues who consistently outwit their clumsy Nazi captors in a German P.O.W. camp. With its tales of doctors behind the lines of the Korean War, the long-running and award-winning M*A*S*H lasted for 11 seasons.

The latest U.S. television offering set in another country is “The American Embassy” — which is set in London and appears on Fox. The show focuses on the U.S. diplomatic community in the Britain’s capital — following the self-absorbed life of an embassy employee named Emma Brody and her eccentric colleagues. “The American Embassy” seems to take pride in missing every opportunity to tell its viewers something about Britain — other than the fact that Big Ben has a very big clock.

If you take a closer look, what’s peculiar about the afore mentioned examples is that all three of these television programs have one thing in common: They recreate a U.S. enclave abroad, while the host country plays only a minor supporting role. Often, it is added to the mix only to manufacture stereotypes and cheap gags.

This peculiarity can be found in other genres of U.S. television as well. If the rest of the world must be ventured into, a familiar figure — that is, an American — must lead the way.

So Rick Steves from the Public Broadcasting Service who introduces U.S. viewers to a Europe that seems to exist only to accommodate unadventurous American visitors. And actress Julia Roberts takes U.S. television audiences to Borneo and its orangutans.

In the final analysis, the conviction that U.S. viewers will never be interested in the issues, politics or perspectives of others countries — absent an American angle, of course — has short-changed generations of Americans. And it is one of the key reasons for the perception that Americans are out of touch and self-absorbed — or even apathetic or indifferent to the rest of the world.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Sir John Reith, the founder of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), once wrote, “He who prides himself in giving what he thinks the public wants is often creating a fictitious demand for lower standards which we will then satisfy.” Sir John already had the United States in mind when he uttered those words — and as early as 1926!

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