Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 5, No. 2, 1992
Film: Matters of Style
Edited by Adrian Martin

Of small and large countries

Tom O'Regan


Preben Sepstrup, Transnationalization of Television in Western Europe (Acamedia Research Monograph 5, London: John Libbey, 1990). ISBN 0 86196 280 X.


I suspect that only someone from a 'small country' - a country under 20 million people - could have written a book as intelligent and thoughtful as this one on international TV flows in Western Europe. There is something about the particularity of the TV experience in small as opposed to big countries which alerts a small country person to differences in TV. Small countries do things differently. They mix local and international components differently with this mix favouring international programming. They are rarely able to develop fully blown import substitution dynamics. Consequently they tend to assign policy importance to the organization of a mix of international import flows. Imported programming is just as likely to be broadcast in the original language with, if necessary, subtitling rather than the more costly dubbing. Their particularity ensures that small countries regard program imports as a mixed blessing. So the Dutch and the Danes may look to a variety of program import sources as a means of maintaining a sense of a distinctive Dutch or Danish identity whereas 'Big countries' like Britain, France and Germany look principally to their own local productions to secure these objectives. Small countries do tend to regard imports in a different kind of way to big countries, seeing in them advantages as much as disadvantages and often putting effort into diversifying the sources of program imports. Crudely, the big country Britain invents Channel 4 - a co-production enterprise and international window, Australia the small country invents SBS (three years earlier) initially as an import diversification window and later as a recipient of English language Channel 4 and PBS programs.

Sepstrup's analytical skepticism is formed against this backdrop. His is very much a plea for an understanding of the individual variations that collectively constitute the Western European TV market. Within this framework Sepstrup notes a difference between big countries and small countries within Europe - just as there is more generally in the international media system. He recognises the advantages which accrue to small countries in having a more cosmopolitan, less parochial TV service. As Sepstrup puts it:

The small West European countries receive relatively more foreign television than the big countries. But the supply in small countries is also much more diversified with regard to national background. One might hypothesize that the transnationalization of television diminishes the risk of television consumption contributing to the development of culturally narrow, chauvinistic, provincial attitudes, thus increasing the knowledge of, and encouraging an open mind towards other cultures and societies (p.93).

These differences may be identified not only in the different nature of the market places formed in big and small countries but also in the regulatory and political visions formed for TV within them. Sepstrup finds these differences in Europe important for another reason, that the smaller countries in Europe are not disadvantaged and dependent in ways that the smaller countries in the Americas are held to be vis-a-vis the US. Can we sensibly talk of media imperialism and dependent development in the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland?

But Sepstrup's main purpose is not the development of the small/big dichotomy into a more fully blown argument about the systematic differences that may characterise big country as opposed to small country TV. Rather it is to claim the importance of understanding the contradictory tendencies, patterns of consumption, regulatory environments and program flows which characterise Western European TV flows and the transnationalization of TV. Indeed his suggestive comments on big and small are ultimately subordinated to his argument about the importance of individual state differences and a challenge to the utility of media imperialism arguments and pan-Europeanist visions of a European self uncontaminated by its American other. Sepstrup seems to be suggesting that small European states may have more to fear from their larger neighbours than America - and this has always been so.

What is significant about this book is what it disproves by assembling and interpreting data and tables on TV in Western Europe. He takes to task the concentration upon particular program categories like drama at the expense of a broader picture of TV program flows. Sepstrup brings his understanding of differences within TV systems to bear upon the figures on international program flows and patterns of domestic consumption, finding detailed fault with the existing literature on the nature and extent of TV flows and its command metaphors. In this sense Sepstrup's book is a thorough and determined attempt to change the ways in which the transnationalization of TV services is considered and to provide a preliminary charting of the nature and direction of that transnationalization. Within this context the dramatic expansion of TV in Western Europe over the course of the 1980s has certainly increased the import component of TV services from an average of 30% in 1983, to 45% in 1985, and 50% in 1990; at the same time the American percentage of that import component has probably increased by as little as 2 to 3% making up roughly half of the imports or 25% of total supply (p.95). Furthermore this American import component is largely in fiction programming. If volume of imports is considered alone then there has been a dramatic and even exponential increase of US TV imports into Western Europe. But interpreted against import percentages of the overall TV service which has seen an exponential increase in stations, satellite and cable services there has in fact been only a small percentage increase overall.

Sepstrup completes his book by outlining a number of trenchant policy imperatives:

1. Policy decisions at an international level should have "a stronger basis in empirical facts, especially concerning the actual nature of consumption and its cultural, economic and social consequences" (p.96).

2. There is a need to separate "cultural and social consequences and motives" from "economic consequences and motives" (Ibid).

3. Western European countries should be regarded individually rather than collectively as the differences between them are so great.

4. The quality of television products of some countries should not be regarded as intrinsically "better or worse than those of others". This is particularly directed against British programmers' defensive insularity about its quality programming.

5. If limitations upon US export shares in Western Europe are undertaken these should be supplemented with positive actions designed toward securing a "broader national diversity of transnationalization".

6. "In the small countries, a positive supplement to measures for limiting the US (and UK) share of imports would be to subsidize national television productions" (p.96).

7. Special research attention should be given to entertainment programs including the transnationalization of children's programs.

8. Contra globalization arguments: big country dominance of transnationalization will be further ensconced rather than diminished through the promotion of (private) Pan-European television and the commercialization of national television (p.96).

9. Whilst there is the intention to regulate the share of transnationalization afforded to non-European suppliers, "activities must concentrate on the extent, and the activities of, commercial television, and on supporting public-service broadcasting" (p.97).

For my part I would have preferred Sepstrup to elucidate the market from the ground up rather than via the literature on program flows and its reliance either on metaphors of media imperialism or upon unquestioned support for production infrastructure at a European and national level. In particular I would have liked to have seen his arguments about big and small countries developed further. Because it is in this argument that we will find markers of the specificity of the experience of TV in most countries of the world. Indeed the fate of TV in a significant part of the world system is that it is small country TV and will remain so. Yet our models have developed largely to accommodate and theorise big country TV. These models, when applied to small country TV, generally find it wanting. In providing us with ways to think the specificity, advantage and nature of small country TV in relation to big country TV, Preben Sepstrup has written a timely and important book. In showing how careful we need to be in describing the contemporary transnationalization of TV as a new phenomena of globalization, Sepstrup's emphasis upon individual market variation is a timely reminder that TV exports and TV imports alike are condemned to work locally in relation to local conditions or not to work at all.


New: 7 November, 1995 | Now: 21 March, 2015