Decoding 'Dallas' Overseas
This article originally appeared in Issue# 32
Editorial note: The following article is based on preliminary reports of research undertaken by communications expert Elihu Katz and doctoral candidate Tamar Liebes at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Since this article appeared in Media&Values, the authors published the full research study as: The Export of Meaning: Cross-Cultural Readings of 'Dallas' in 1990 (Oxford University Press.)
American television's ability to cross linguistic and cultural frontiers has long been taken for granted — so much so that scarcely any systematic research has been done to explain how and why American programming is successful in widely varying cultural milieus.
Does this represent cultural imperialism, as media critics often assert? Perhaps. But, surely, if viewers are unduly influenced by what they are viewing, they must be receiving a perceptibly "American" message. And they must be receiving it in similar ways in various cultures.
This seems to imply a fairly passive, receptive stance on the part of viewers who may simply be receiving programs as part of the television technology package — with equipment, maintenance and programs sold together to their countries.
Instead, our research so far among various ethnic groups in Israel and America supports our hypothesis that the viewing process is actually active and social — perhaps even among those who would most vigorously deny it. If we are right, a complex process of cultural interaction is going on.
'This means that a program like "Dallas" must be viewed as something other than an action packed, stereotypic adjunct to television technology. How, then, does the viewer from another culture understand it?
The answer lies in that segment of communications research which asserts the participatory nature of the viewing process. Viewers typically watch television in the company of family and friends. Their discussions draw on their own ideas about kinship structures and interpersonal. relations. They also perceive and evaluate programs in terms of local cultures and personal experiences, selectively incorporating them into their minds and lives.
In other words, television programs do not impose themselves unequivocally on passive viewers. The "reading" of a TV program is a process of negotiation between the story on the screen and the culture of the viewers, taking place in interaction among the viewers themselves.
With all that they have with their money, my life is better than theirs.
Since the effects attributed to a television program are often inferred from content analysis alone, the extent to which members of the audience absorb the messages critics and scholars expect them to receive is crucial. As we look at the ways in which viewers analyze content and perform their own structural analysis several questions emerge:
- How do viewers make sense of "Dallas?"
- Does viewer understanding differ from culture to culture?
- Do viewers react to characters as real people, or discuss them as functions in a dramatic formula, groping, as critics do, toward a definition of the genre to which "Dallas" belongs?
It's too early to provide definite answers. But some preliminary observations do shed some light on this process of meaning-making based on a first reading of the Israeli discussion groups.
Transcripts make it very clear that group members serve as a resource for each other. They describe characters and explain background to those who missed previous episodes - like the Moroccan immigrants who were ready to explain Jock's death and Dusty's impotence to a woman who had missed previous episodes, adding their own insights into the characters' motivations.
They may also share misinformation - for example, an Arab group mistakenly assumes that Sue Ellen (who has taken refuge at the family home of her former lover) is staying with her father. In their cultural context it is natural to assume that a woman leaving her husband would return to her family home.
Some complex cultural reactions arise. Thus, we may have such juxtapositions as a profound discussion, in Russian, of justice issues raised by the behavior of Americans in Texas, on Israeli television - all inspired by the probable parentage and custody of Sue Ellen's baby.
Often a program theme is compared against an opposite position embedded in the culture of the viewing group. Thus one member of the Moroccan group spoke in opposition to the values he saw in "Dallas": "A Jew who wears a skullcap and I learned from this series to say 'Happy is our lot, goodly is our fate (psalms) that we're Jewish. This baby who has, who knows, maybe four or five fathers...I see that they're almost all bastards."
A kibbutz member says simply, "With all that they have with their money, my life is better than theirs."
Of course, rejection is not the only reaction. Other viewers from a group of North Africans in a semi-cooperative rural settlement comment that "money will get you everything," "wealth makes an easy life," and "everybody wants to be rich."
It's clear from these examples that people are evaluating the issues in their lives through those of the Ewing family. Some discussants use the program to discuss themselves and their conflicts. Others do so less freely. This may turn out to be the most important difference between the ethnic groups.
Topics raised are generalized to refer to generic human problems and personal issues. The social distance between the Ewing family and the rest of the world makes less difference than might be thought. Unhappiness is the great leveler.
Theorists will find it easy to interpret the reactions of both acceptors and rejecters of the values in "Dallas" as establishment messages. If the money and muscle of the Ewings is an invitation to the supposed "American way," then identification with the Dallas characters will serve the purpose. But what about those who see in "Dallas" a reminder of how much better off they are without power? It is a message to stay down, and enjoy the better of the possible worlds, letting the unhappy few take care of the rest.