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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