European Affairs

Frederic Martel's "Mainstream"     Print Email

America Winning New Cultural War For Global Audiences - Europe Lags In Producing Widely Accessible “Products”

America has opened a lead that will perhaps not be overtaken in the global market for “cultural exports” in the form of digital materials – the movies and music, books and broadcasting and all the other media that shapes global consumers’ taste in entertainment and their view of the world they live in.

That conclusion emerges from an imposing study written by a leading French specialist who interviewed key players in this field in 30 countries. The research and findings, presented by Frederic Martel in his new book, entitled “Mainstream” in French (not yet translated into English), have special value because they come from France, a country that has a specific national government-run “culture policy” dedicated to the promotion of French language and culture and promoting resistance to American “cultural imperialism.”

On this issue, Martel’s book is a fire alarm for Paris and similarly-minded European capitals. He concludes that the United States, while widely resented politically and economically in many parts of Europe, continues to expand its share of the global cultural marketplace. In his 460-page book, he describes the outcome of the “war” that is being waged in the world’s production studios, online search engines, recording studios, and TV networks as new developments in “global culture” emerge. Martel, a former French diplomat who served in the U.S., wrote an earlier book, “De la Culture en Amerique” (On Culture in America), that proved he has been influential on successive French governments. President Nicholas Sarkozy has established a special presidential agency, led by French movie mogul Marin Karmitz, to promote French creativity. That book (which has never been published in English) was reviewed by European Affairs.

His new book is described here in this excerpt from a recent interview Martel did with Bruna Basini in the Paris newspaper, Journal du Dimanche, and is translated here from French.

Your book concludes that American cultural goods and services continue to dominate the global cultural marketplace -- with the corollary that English seems to continue its movement toward becoming a quasi-universal language that reduces the role of other languages? What are the reasons for this? And is this accurate?

Absolutely. The birthplace of Disney is also now home to Google, the most powerful online search engine in the world. The U.S. retains this position of global leadership on the world stage because it promotes and sells cultural products that have undeniable worldwide appeal: they are universal, mainstream and exportable to all corners of the world.

The U.S. boasts a number of advantages over its competitors.

  • It is an English-speaking nation;
  • It is rich in cultural diversity, as a result of immigration;
  • It operates within a very particular system within which there is no overarching regulatory plan;
  • The main U.S. players are both independent and interconnected, meaning that their operations often involve both the public and the private sectors at the same time, in what are often called public-private partnerships.

Furthermore, the so-called “social media” and big sub-cultures that have emerged from the powerful internet tools such as Google, Facebook and Twitter have all come from the U.S. and basically operate as parts of a single over-arching system [in a digitalizing universe].

How do you describe the impact of this U.S. strength?

It gives the U.S. a capacity to influence other cultures and societies -- often referred to as “soft power.” This is also part of what some strategists call “smart power.” The combination of superior military power with cultural influence puts the U.S. in a uniquely advantageous position. It involves far more than just imposing American-made movies, music and television formats on other countries. It is a wider drive in which the U.S. is constantly seeking to multiply and widen its markets and is always working to manufacture a global desire for American products – and then satisfy it.
While this does not destroy national cultures, it does leave little space for other countries trying to compete with their own cultural goods and services.

Is this American cultural “hyper-power” unbeatable?

Other cultures are trying to compete, obviously France is one of them. But in addition many emerging economies have their own cultural products that they wish to promote beyond their borders. From Brazil to Indonesia, the cultural landscape is mutating, and all these countries have begun to export their public media content and all share ambitions to become “mainstream” like the U.S. Arabic channels have advantages not only because of a critical mass of viewers (1.5 billion Muslims) but also because of access to wealthy and influential multimedia groups. These two realities converge in Qatar, Mumbai and Brazil. These economies are profiting from globalization and the growing dominance of the digital media. But not one of them has yet produced a global movie blockbuster. Tellingly, “Slumdog Millionaire,” which won eight Academy Awards last year, was set in India and adapted from a novel written by an Indian, but it was not an Indian movie; it was a British-French-American production. Interestingly, the ambitious cultural newcomers emphasize the same themes that dominate the output of Disney and other Hollywood studios -- an emphasis on family values and a deliberate attempt to stay away from sex and violence. In other words, they are trying to embrace the the logic of being mainstream.”

How pronounced is Europe’s decline (and France’s) in this new cultural landscape?

World sales of products with “American content” grew by 10 per cent over the last 10 years while “European” exports fell by eight per cent. So we are on the losing side amid increasingly stiff competition. If we want to remain in the game, change is necessary. If you want further evidence of American dominance, look at the fact that successful “European” products tend to be those with an American or global theme, not a theme that is specific to Europe. For example, take the output of Bertelsmann, the German transnational publisher; it has repositioned itself by buying a leading American publisher, Random House. Or look at France’s Vivendi whose leading product line is Universal Music, headquartered in New York; it is the legacy of Decca records, a major player in the American music industry.

Is there a way for Europe to challenge American dominance as it becomes the global norm?

We need to know how to play the game of “soft power” and play it well. The cultural agency proposed by [French Foreign Minister] Bernard Kouchner was a good idea. Its objective was to be an independent agency that would support French creative industries. But the Elysee was not supportive of his approach. Subsequently, an agency along these lines – to stimulate French creativity -- has been created that reports directly to French President Nicolas Sarkozy and is headed by French movie-mogul, Marin Karmitz.

The point is not to focus on questions about whether a particular foreign market is “good” or “bad” for a national culture but rather to know how to be a part of it. For instance, I like both Chereau and ”Toy Story.” (Patrice Chereau is the highbrow French director; “Toy Story” is the computer-animated movie made by Disney-Pixar.)

Which of these cultural products is more “creative” and “artistic”? We can argue about that -- and incidentally the answer is not as simple and obvious as many people might assume. What is inarguable is that one of them is much easier to export successfully.

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