Saturday, January 28, 1995

Is That A Remote Control In Your Croissant?

For over a decade now I have been a frequent traveller and part-time resident overseas, and nothing has startled me more over the miles and years—in Paris, London, Amsterdam, Rome, even Delhi, Papeete, and Kuala Lumpur—than to see how crowded European and Asian television is with bad American programs. Say what you like about foreigners stepping on our toes in certain marketplaces; on the other side of the big water, life is not all Masterpiece Theater. On many a distant foreign strand, the Marines have landed once again, but this time with reruns and a vengeance.

It is a global phenomenon. People have joked for ages about the Japanese hunger for American jazz, baseball, and cowboy films; this hunger now includes The A-Team. In Morocco, children living in the ruins of three-hundred-year-old casbahs watch Spider-Man and Transformers just like children everywhere else. On Fiji and Rarotonga people rent weekly episodes, on video-cassette, of Knight Rider. A few years ago in Bahrain I saw on the Saudi channel (where a double execution had been broadcast live moments before) an episode of Dallas, dubbed into Arabic. J.R. as desert sheikh, ruthless head of his tribe: it makes sense.

The most well-travelled show is Baywatch, seen every week in 140 countries by nearly 20% of Earth’s population. So what if we can’t convince the world to buy our hatchbacks? At least we can still sell them the all-American beach gal; we must be doing something right.

This is an awfully bland candy we are hawking internationally, doing more than our fair share to homogenize the world into a boring place. Foreigners have long looked to movies as the best of U.S. culture: Hollywood has been arguably our most persuasive, popular ambassador in the 20th century. But Orson Welles or John Wayne are one thing, Hardcastle and McCormick another.

It is cold comfort to think that tastes most provincially American, like Johnny Carson, were for a long time not exported at all—Carson, anonymous, could enjoy an annual vacation, going unrecognized in the stands at Wimbledon every summer. Those days are long gone. Oprah (her diets, her subtle reportial style, her easy charm) is exported now all over the place, almost as well known on the Leidseplein as on Main Street.

To live abroad, in the middle of this American tsunami—a true imperialism—is different than catching it on a hotel set: you can watch the wave hit. In Holland, for example, nearly everyone under fifty speaks English; anyone under thirty-five is fluent. One major reason is undoubtedly that their most popular programs have long been ours, broadcast with Dutch subtitles. When I lived there in the mid-’80s, Magnum P.I., Twilight Zone, Webster, The Smurfs, The Muppets, Murder She Wrote, Simon & Simon, and The Love Boat dominated Nederlands TV.

It was disconcerting to balance the televised British contribution (BBC Shakespeare, three plays a week) versus those more sobering U.S. offerings. Holland’s two channels went on the air in mid-afternoon and shut down at midnight—which may partially explain why the Dutch are avid readers. Dutch TV sets also received Belgium (Hotel) with only one channel, and West Germany (Dynasty) with three. The situation struck me as comically quaint; three of Europe’s most prosperous countries had as many channels put together as, say, Boston.

That has all changed. The new Germany has fifteen channels, but with that much time to fill, we still maintain our stranglehold. The unified people who gave us not only two world wars but also Goethe, Beethoven, and the foundations of modern philosophical thought now are being repaid with Matlock, Daktari, Dr. Quinn, Superman, Doogie Howser, Airwolf, the ubiquitous Baywatch (“Die Rettungschwimmer von Malibu”) and Sesamstrasse—one, at least, to be proud of. Our typical film offering, on Sunday night just before Kojak? Germans can choose Caddyshack or Raise the Titanic! It would be kinder and gentler to lower the Atlantic.

Very well, you might argue. It’s not our fault; they don’t have to buy this rubbish. Of course, neither do we. My objection is that by virtue of all these shows being ready-made, cheaply available for dubbing and distribution, the low common denominator of the U.S. public—the mud of the American creative unconscious—has now established itself as the terra infirma of the rest of the plugged-in world. It should stop us believing that (despite Monty Python and Masterpiece Theater) European TV is so much better. The fact is, most of their shows were our shows first.

This obvious truth didn’t penetrate my starving imagination until I actually moved overseas and settled, first in Amsterdam, then Paris. I remember that first year abroad: a highly informal poll among my Dutch friends showed that Hill St. Blues, Cheers, and The Bill Cosby Show were the most popular imports. (The Dutch still offer endless soccer matches and well-made documentaries of every sort to fill the interstices of time between U.S. shows). Miami Vice sauntered ashore on the continent without making much splash anywhere. Dutch women seemed immune to Don Johnson; as one blonde Amsterdammer told me, “He doesn’t shave, so what? Neither does my boyfriend, and Hans has better taste in clothes.”

Back then the show that, oddly, seemed to cut across all European frontiers in terms of popularity—the Baywatch, or even, if you will, the Don Quixote of its era—was Starsky & Hutch. In some indefinable way it seemed to sum up Americans for everybody else—“it’s the States, it’s not real anyway.” In Rome I knew an international welfare worker (a Brit, an Oxford graduate) who loved to take a long bath and then, wrapped in a towel, watch Starsky & Hutch with the sound turned up so loud he couldn’t hear that the United Nations was calling him on the phone. Clearly a show as innocuous and awful as Starsky & Hutch could be so popular all over Europe only because it seemed to offer the world, totally, America as it imagines itself.

For over the last couple of decades, a sea-change has taken place: popular culture, once overwhelmingly local, has become the same American soup warmed up everywhere. More than Rambo’s Hollywood, or the multinational rock world, it’s TV shows that have done this. The foreign obsession with all things American has settled into a condition less noticeable but more dangerous: an addiction.

The Germanic situation grips other countries. The Brits, with about twenty-five channels and the best TV programming in Europe, also still watch (among many others) Falcon Crest, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Time Tunnel, Happy Days, My Three Sons, Lassie, The Beverly Hillbillies, Hogan’s Heroes, Young and the Restless, thirtysomething, Death Valley Days, Buck Rogers, and (last and irrefutably least) not Troilus and Cressida, but Donny and Marie.

The Spanish, with eleven channels, like to come up with their own bad programs; from us they rely on Burke’s Law, Matlock, Get Smart (“El superagente 86”), L.A. Law (“La ley de Los Angeles”), Knight Rider (“El coche fantastico”), Roseanne, Santa Barbara, and, you guessed it, “Beavis y Butt-head”. Given twenty-three channels, the Italian love for opera involves mainly soaps (Paradise Beach, Santa Barbara, Dynasty, Dallas, Melrose Place) and crime (Perry Mason, Dragnet, Mannix, T.J. Hooker, the F.B.I.), with a dash of science fiction (Superman, The Love Boat). The Turks still follow Bonanza, Columbo, Zorro, and that ideal harem-girl, I Dream of Jeannie. All these countries overnight multiplied tenfold their original two or three channels, overwhelming an innocent population.

The French like to keep matters complex, contradictory, and French. With six regular channels and twenty-odd satellite and cable alternatives, they’re particular about which interlopers to admit. TNT isn’t allowed in “out of fear that the French love of all those old movies would take away business from the French channels,” as one longtime U.S. diplomat told me diplomatically.

Peace is only war with evening gloves on. BBC-1, highly popular, got thrown out while CNN was allowed to remain; it’s OK presumably for the French to learn American but not English. Only one channel, Canal Plus, shows films or series in the original language (subtitled not dubbed)—Fermez cette porte! And each network has a limit on how many foreign shows are permitted.

Even so, the French see NYPD Blue, Mission Impossible, Perry Mason, Tarzan, The Untouchables (“Les Incorruptibles”); Cannon, Chips, Streets of San Francisco, Twin Peaks, Moonlighting, and Highlander. There’s “Docteur Quinn,” “Deux Flics a Miami,” “Dans la chaleur de la nuit,” “Dream On” plus The A-Team (“Agence Tous Risques”) and every weekday, along with our usual lavish soap operas, Magnum and The Love Boat (“La Croisière S’Amuse”). And the French adore U.S. basketball; as my faithful diplomat put it, “The Froggies love to watch any game played by tall blacks whom Americans are still oppressing at $10 million a year.”

MTV and CNN have penetrated most everywhere. And everybody, but everybody, sees Baywatch. A leading London literary agent, a woman, told me, “After a hard day fighting for high prices for books I haven’t read, I love to come home, drink, and watch those California people dragging that red thing all over the beach.”

Many of these shows are nearly current. Stranger, throughout Europe, is to observe the ongoing phenomenon of the Sky Channel. This was for most of Western Europe their first equivalent of cable, so inexpensive (and with practically no alternatives) that virtually everyone subscribed. It continues to flourish, even as Nickelodeon, Bravo, The Children’s Channel, the Family Channel, AsiaNet, TLC, and many others appeared on the scene (depending on which country).

Based in England, like some mental ray-gun, Sky beams over to the continent twenty-four hours a day of sports (including NFL, NBA, & skateboard action), children’s cartoons, rock videos, and antique American reruns. When I moved to Amsterdam, the Sky broadcast only from mid-afternoon until one a.m.; Europe hadn’t yet learned the pleasures of all-day TV. Just enough of a bad thing, you say. Trash I thought I’d escaped forever—who remembers The Magician, with Bill Bixby? or The Millionaire?—had, thanks to Sky, been granted a second coming, a leasehold on the Old World.

So an eight-year-old Dutch friend of mine named Pieter could watch Lost In Space and Daniel Boone on weekends. Every night he watched Green Acres, The Brady Bunch, The Lucy Show, The Flying Nun, Dennis the Menace, and Wells Fargo. Like many of us, he first glimpsed Ronald Reagan on the prairie, hat in hand. Today an eight-year-old Sky fan gets Rin Tin Tin, Family Ties, Kung Fu, The Rifleman, Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, Barney Miller, Night Court, Peyton Place, As the World Turns, and Knots Landing. Thus do dodos rise again as phoenixes.

What amazed me most back then was not that Pieter was being brought up on the same empty-headed dreck as many American children, assuring an aversion to something as demanding as reading a book on both sides of the Atlantic, but that these shows’ creaky black-and-white outdatedness seemed not to matter to him at all. I didn’t expect Pieter to experience the same frisson of recognition that I felt on seeing Will Robinson and Dr. Smith wandering across the identical bushy stretch of California soundstage desert that turns up light-years later beneath Mr. Spock’s boots. But I was surprised that to a boy weaned on the Star Wars series’ special effects, the Robot never seemed clunky or the wobbly spaceship laughable.

To Pieter, and to many European adults accustomed for years to watching these creaky relics, the United States exists in a Rod Serling time warp in which, to their eyes, shows made thirty years apart (Eisenhower to Bush, say) seem part of the same eternal American television landscape. In the way that the Alps or Paris exist as a myth to many Americans who haven’t visited—and even many who have—“TV America” has acquired an Oz-like allure.

Our cities are full of high-speed car chases, cheek by jowl with suburban homes run by sarcastic warm-hearted maids, sometimes non-Caucasian; the parents are happy together, in a brother-sister way; no one drinks, except in the most lavish settings; nonetheless, cocaine dealers, cowboys and cheap gunsels abound. And perhaps such a unified, diverse TV nation is correct. Sister Bertrille and Arnold Ziffel the Pig and Lucy and obese immobile detectives and sunstruck superstarlets all come from the same Never-Neverland, or at least carry similar passports.

And yet these shows, rendered into nostalgia by the dim glow of childhood (I watched them sometimes, and still read a lot) now make me angry, and even a bit ashamed. It embarrasses me to see foreign children passing their time on U.S. junk that seems more cut-rate and secondhand for being so old and mildewed. I have nothing against Star Trek, but it sends shivers up my spine to know Calcuttans follow its episodes as avidly as those of the Ramayana.

Perhaps I’m simply being grumpy; but seeing how popular all these old and new shows are worldwide has reduced my wonder at why, specifically, so many foreigners consider Americans not only naive but a bit stupid as well. Is it any wonder, when these shows are the daily image we send them of ourselves? The final wonder is not that when American television empties its garbage cans, it does so in, say, Europe’s direction; but that Europeans, like us, holler for more and more.


  1. This column, like all the others, is fascinating. I never had travel opportunities, so I am learning a lot. Thank you. Who would have guessed that a travel writer would find such a rich vein in the subject of TV overseas? The column is great for many reasons. I personally abstained from TV for well over a decade and only recently allowed it back in. It's a time suck and an indulgence I should avoid. But I have seen TV I like a lot, often more than movies. Quality is less the issue for me than whether it's right for me to watch TV.

  2. Danger, Will Robinson, danger!

    You do, indeed, sound like a grumpy, now-deceased, Andy Rooney.

    Wonderful insight, though, all 17 years ago at that. I've always thought of television as a cheap babysitter for children. Even American adults in certain segments of our society have a world view derived from watching Jerry Springer, Oprah, and the unrealistic dramas involved in afternoon soap operas.

    Growing up, the nightly news (Walter Cronkite back then) played on our black-and-white while dinner was prepared. My personal favorite was always the BBC, with Alistair Cooke, and "Upstairs, Downstairs".

    It is no wonder, then, that Europeans may have little respect for Americans. (Do they think we're all Archie and Edith Bunkers?) It's just that most of those shows weren't written to imitate real life or to educate. They were written to entertain and to make money.

    Wow. The more things change, the more they stay the same.