This Just In: The Boob-Tube, Not YouTube, Is Transforming the World

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Consumers and businesses, voters and politicians, and readers and writers today are caught up in the social media wave. There is no escaping the magnetic pull the Web, and sites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have over our everyday existence. We continue to hear about the diminishing importance and relevance of traditional media channels--namely TV, radio and print. There is sort of an air of inevitability about it all. Old media will give way to new and the World will be better, more peaceful and prosperous for it.

But a provocative new research paper boldly challenges this worldview. Perhaps even more striking than its finding on media usage around the world is how the research reveals a dynamic that John Edwards--he of "Two Americas"--might appreciate. We live (and consume media) in Two Worlds: The Internet-ascendant minority world (US & Europe), and the TV-ascendant majority World (The Developing World).

Charles Kenny, a development economist with the World Bank, argues that television, far from being a mature or fading phenomenon in areas like India, Africa and Brazil, has picked up quite a bit of steam over the last decade or so in population penetration and impact. TV growth has been especially driven by the expansion of satellite and digital cable TV, and with that the number of channels and choices.

But the quantitative influence of TV is not really the story; it is about the qualitative effect of the medium and its content: TV has become a revolutionary force for good in the majority world (not just a couch potato-maker). Using a robust sample of data over many years and countries, Kenny shows a high correlation between areas that receive and consume TV and positive trends in literacy, school enrollment, health outcomes, birth control, lower levels of drug use and corruption, and even increased prosperity.

Take soap operas, a genre famously attacked by cultural critics and seemingly on the decline in the "North." In Brazil, India and other developing areas, soaps portray successful and independent women--and watching them has been linked with increased social status, rights and economic well being for women in those countries.

What Kenny's article does not focus on is the planet's digital divide. Internet use within the developing world is estimated at less than 15% of the population, and under 3% in sub-Saharan Africa. Since the Web is still a relatively new phenomenon, it is not yet possible to study population impact meaningfully. But Kenny thinks that the mainstream media and development groups have oversold the promise of the Internet while TV and development research (including important work by Robert Jensen and Emily Oster) has been under-reported. (It is interesting that Foreign Policy, NPR and TV Guide UK are the most prominent media to report on the Kenny research.)

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While TV can be constructive in low income societies, it should not be viewed as a panacea, says Georgia Tech Professor and Internet global development guru Michael Best. He takes issue with some of Kenny's generalizations and interpretation: "To refer to Baywatch as 'an everyday tale of lifesaving folk' is really too much; one need not employ a feminist perspective to still understand the departure from the 'everyday' evinced in Baywatch."

Ethan Zuckerman, a global social entrepreneur with Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, argues for a more balanced view on how media can be used to solve problems and improve societies in the developing world. "We tend to overvalue the impact of the Internet in the developing world and undervalue the impacts of other technologies," he says. "Television has had important development impacts. So have radio, especially community radio, and mobile phones. Because we're going through an Internet revolution in the U.S., we tend to look for a parallel revolution in the developing world."

Zuckerman lauds Kenny's work, but does challenge Kenny's portrayal of TV as a 'be-all' device. Kenny's research doesn't address the one-way nature of television, says Zuckerman. "Lots of people consume it, and very few people produce it. One of the reasons we're so excited by the Internet is that it's a two-way medium. It requires a lot of work for video to become two-way."

In the short term, radio combined with mobile phones will provide two-way interaction in the developing world. Zuckerman offers a couple examples: A radio show in eastern Congo that allows women in the community to send in questions anonymously via SMS, talk shows in Ghana that allow individuals to confront government ministers on the air. Zuckerman says, "I sometimes quip that radio plus mobiles=60% of the Internet."

Kenny acknowledges the efficacy of radio and mobile phones: "Radio is tied to less people stepping on mines, more people learning in school ... and mobiles have been associated with folks earning more from fishing and agriculture and smoking less amongst other things. I'd say all three technologies--TV, radio, mobiles--have had a bigger impact on developing countries than the Internet to date."

That's why technology development experts like Charles Kenny, Ethan Zuckerman and Michael Best--as well as philanthropists like Tim Berners-Lee who chairs the World Wide Web Foundation--are advocating a more pluralistic media approach that combines channels and technologies in working to solve social and economic problems in developing countries. "I just wouldn't put much Foundation effort behind streaming Baywatch," says Best. "Surely we can do better than that."

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20 Comments

  • Mel P

    Foremost, why is this "Television OR Internet" ? With regard to Brazil this ought to be AND. Next, it is worthless to compare BRIC with other growing nations around the world. Third the statistics doesn't show the whole story - if you can find reporters prepared to perform the actual legwork, there are many specifics of web effect on low salary places within Brazil.

    Mel
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  • Mel P

    Foremost, why is this "Television OR Internet" ? With regard to Brazil this ought to be AND. Next, it is worthless to compare BRIC with other growing nations around the world. Third the statistics doesn't show the whole story - if you can find reporters prepared to perform the actual legwork, there are many specifics of web effect on low salary places within Brazil.

    Mel
    list building
    gourmet coffee online
    how to get your ex back

  • Mel P

    Foremost, why is this "Television OR Internet" ? With regard to Brazil this ought to be AND. Next, it is worthless to compare BRIC with other growing nations around the world. Third the statistics doesn't show the whole story - if you can find reporters prepared to perform the actual legwork, there are many specifics of web effect on low salary places within Brazil.

    Mel
    list building
    gourmet coffee online
    how to get your ex back

  • Rex Whisman

    While many in the world might be currently glued to the boob-tube, those days are going to come to a sudden halt. Even though Mad Men is a hit television show right now, the days of companies spending tons of money for television advertising are on life support. Man Men (aka- advertising executives and communications professionals), let me introduce you to a little thing called the Internet. The time has come to transport yourselves from the 20th century to the 21st century. Good dialogue Kevin!

  • Rex Whisman

    While many in the world might be currently glued to the boob-tube, those days are going to come to a sudden halt. Even though Mad Men is a hit television show right now, the days of companies spending tons of money for television advertising are on life support. Man Men (aka- advertising executives and communications professionals), let me introduce you to a little thing called the Internet. The time has come to transport yourselves from the 20th century to the 21st century. Good dialogue Kevin!

  • Rex Whisman

    While many in the world might be currently glued to the boob-tube, those days are going to come to a sudden halt. Even though Mad Men is a hit television show right now, the days of companies spending tons of money for television advertising are on life support. Man Men (aka- advertising executives and communications professionals), let me introduce you to a little thing called the Internet. The time has come to transport yourselves from the 20th century to the 21st century. Good dialogue Kevin!

  • Rex Whisman

    While many in the world might be currently glued to the boob-tube, those days are going to come to a sudden halt. Even though Mad Men is a hit television show right now, the days of companies spending tons of money for television advertising are on life support. Man Men (aka- advertising executives and communications professionals), let me introduce you to a little thing called the Internet. The time has come to transport yourselves from the 20th century to the 21st century. Good dialogue Kevin!

  • Rex Whisman

    While many in the world might be currently glued to the boob-tube, those days are going to come to a sudden halt. Even though Mad Men is a hit television show right now, the days of companies spending tons of money for television advertising are on life support. Man Men (aka- advertising executives and communications professionals), let me introduce you to a little thing called the Internet. The time has come to transport yourselves from the 20th century to the 21st century. Good dialogue Kevin!

  • ahmed zake

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  • ahmed zake

    شات خليجى Smooth/همس Streaming can be a شات مصرىvery great module./شاتنك.المطبخ Especially for/ فديو developing شات صوتى gaming site. It can be very helpful شات خليجى .دليل مواقع .همسto create a seamlessly games.games.. I hope with this module there would .همس الكلمات .be a possitive impact .قياس درجة الحب for gaming industry. and people شات بناتcanشات/شات خليجى/دردشة مصرية

  • ahmed zake

    Even in the US, TV is still the 800 pound gorilla. TV viewing is NOT declining and it accounts for over 95% of all minutes of video viewing. also marketing ROI from TV advertising has NOT declined over time and here is a presentation that shows the results from 388 cases.
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  • ahmed zake

    شات خليجى Smooth/همس Streaming can be a شات مصرىvery great module./شاتنك.المطبخ Especially for/ فديو developing شات صوتى gaming site. It can be very helpful شات خليجى .دليل مواقع .همسto create a seamlessly games.games.. I hope with this module there would .همس الكلمات .be a possitive impact .قياس درجة الحب for gaming industry. and people شات بناتcanشات/شات خليجى/دردشة مصرية

  • ahmed zake

    شات خليجى Smooth/همس Streaming can be a شات مصرىvery great module./شاتنك.المطبخ Especially for/ فديو developing شات صوتى gaming site. It can be very helpful شات خليجى .دليل مواقع .همسto create a seamlessly games.games.. I hope with this module there would .همس الكلمات .be a possitive impact .قياس درجة الحب for gaming industry. and people شات بناتcanشات/شات خليجى/دردشة مصرية

  • ahmed zake

    Even in the US, TV is still the 800 pound gorilla. TV viewing is NOT declining and it accounts for over 95% of all minutes of video viewing. also marketing ROI from TV advertising has NOT declined over time and here is a presentation that shows the results from 388 cases.
    شات مصرى
    شاتنك
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  • Joel Rubinson

    Even in the US, TV is still the 800 pound gorilla. TV viewing is NOT declining and it accounts for over 95% of all minutes of video viewing. also marketing ROI from TV advertising has NOT declined over time and here is a presentation that shows the results from 388 cases. http://www.slideshare.net/joel...
    Good article, good discussion.

  • Erich Joachimsthaler

    Kevin, I am glad you picked up on an important issue in this article. The discussion on globalization and the race to the bottom or doing business at the bottom of the pyramid distorts the facts -- often it is argued that the mobile phone penetration globally brings people into the world economy. The oft quoted statistics are that in the next few years a billion new consumers will enter the world economy because they get a connected (usually through a mobile phone). So, I thank you for your thoughts. It is not the mobile phone -- it is a bit of the internet AND the TV. Erich

  • Chris Reich

    One thing TV has in it's favor is the lack of need for speed and a monopolistic operating system. Computers are perpetual cash drains and trash makers. You can get 20 or more years out of a basic TV. 5 years on a PC and it's too far behind to handle much of the delivered content.

    Even these $100 PCs don't really cut it. They too have a short life relative to TV.

    Eliminate porn, advertising and falsehood from the internet and this big information-rich monster starts to get a little less significant. And while a village in Africa may benefit from the plans to build a cook stove using compost to produce methane, I doubt many people need to find a Starbucks.

    TV can be very successful if the available networks provide relevant content. Too often they formulize dull 'entertainment'. Brady Bunch re-runs aren't really relevant when the neighboring tribe is competing for the last of the available firewood or drinking water.

    If access to information is a 'right', as some assert, then government sponsored TV, hopefully propaganda free, beats running cable to every corner of Africa and deep into the Amazon jungle.

    Chris Reich
    www.BizPhyZ.com

  • Kevin Randall

    Marni, Need for correction acknowledged, apologies...The point still remains about the Two Worlds (Canada & US are in the same World of course, along with Australia, other "advanced" regions/countries not in North America or Europe...). Thanks for your interest and comments! Kevin

  • Renato Toi

    First, why is this "TV OR Internet" ? For Brazil it should be AND. Second, it is useless to compare BRIC to other developing countries. Third the statistics do not tell the whole story - if there are reporters willing to do the legwork, there are lots of information about internet impact on low wage areas in Brazil.

  • Marni Andrews

    Ummm, correction needed here......... Mr. Randall, you assert that the "Internet-Ascendant world" is comprised of the U.S. and Europe. Well, there's a gigantic land mass just north of you with 33 million people that is your biggest trading partner. We're called Canada. Last time I looked, we were pretty Internet savvy and along with Australia our banking systems trumped the world over the past year. Our prime minister is the next rotating leader of the G8. Would be nice to be remembered now and then when writers refer to just the U.S. as opposed to North America (the graph, by the way, correctly notes "North America"). Thanks. Marni