TELEVISION / Home-grown moans

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The Independent Culture
The clue to the dog-in-the-manger tone of 'Distress Signals', (the first of Channel 4's Channels of Resistance series) came about 15 minutes in, when the baleful narration, which had been gloomily noting the commercial supremacy of American broadcasting, finally owned up. 'No country', it said, 'has a bigger appetite for American programming than Canada.' The line was delivered in the morose tones of a substance abuser giving witness at a rehab session; the film was a co-production with the National Film Board of Canada, CBC and TV Ontario and it was a masterpiece of chippy special pleading.

As the grim piety of the series and episode titles hinted, American success in selling television programmes abroad was treated here as if it represented a nasty blend of the foreign policies of the Third Reich and the 19th-century opium trade. The word 'resistance' occurred frequently, sometimes applied to Zimbabwean producers struggling to produce domestic soap-operas on tiny budgets, at other times to a successful French director like Bertrand Tavernier, who is lobbying the French government to introduce a quota for European productions on domestic television.

The subject is a rich one - the United States exports around 20,000 hours of film and television annually, most of which provides foreign stations with a discount way to fill their schedules. The growth of global networks like CNN is equally fascinating. Unfortunately 'Distress Channels' substituted received opinion for original thought. To illustrate the spread of American television, for example, it showed a Zimbabwean bus on which the video was playing Dallas to the weary passengers, noting, with the leaden irony that passes for satire in these circles, that none of them owned 'ranches or oil- companies'.

The offensive condescension of that remark can be weighed by imagining it applied to the audience in any European country. You can't, because you would take for granted a Western audience's ability to tell fantasy from reality and are less ethnologically sentimental about the 'culture' that is supposedly being squeezed out.

It was typical of the sloppy dogmatism of the programme that it should remember the strength of home-grown drama when it wanted to praise local culture (Ziva Kawakaba, or 'Know Your Roots', is made for peanuts but is a big hit in Zimbabwe) and conveniently forget it when it came time to utter despairing predictions about the homogenisation of global television.