Geography of Television Essay

Introduction: Invention

            Historically, the invention of the television, particularly its essential components, has been conducted on American and European continents. In 1876 in Canada the telephone pioneer Alexander Graham Bell transmitted the sound of a voice by means of an electric wire and thus three means of instant communications came into existence, the telegraph, the copy-telegraph, and the telephone, and the time was ripe for the introduction of a visual transmission system. As Abramson (1987:113) notes at the 1900 Paris Exhibition, an International Electricity Congress was held, where a paper, entitled “Television” was read by Constantin Perskyi, in which he described an apparatus based on the magnetic properties of selenium. This new term slowly supplanted the older names such as the “telephoto” or “telectroscope” to describe the newly born art and science of “seeing at a distance.”

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            In 1908, both Professor Boris Rozing in Russia and Dr Max Dieckmann in Germany were experimenting with cathode ray tubes as receivers. No one before had suggested the use of a cathode ray tube as an image transmitter. Just one year later, in 1909, three different television systems were actually built and operated, one of which presented by Georges Rignoux and Professor A. Fournier in France, a quite different television device, became a “real” television” system, the first on record as having been built and operated (Abramson, 1987:115). From the historical perspective, the major contributions made to invention of television had been conducted on different continents, Europe and America, and included famous inventors of France, England, Germany, Russia, and the United States and Canada.

Television in Developing World

            When the term was first used, television in most regions of the globe was little more than a technical gimmick. Transmitters covered at best the capital cities, the majority of programs were imported, and the whole of Africa, Asia, and Latin America accounted for just 3 per cent of the television sets worldwide. Thirty years later, television has become a mass medium in the Third World as elsewhere. Since the early 1960s the viewing public has grown by about 20 per cent per year, and each and every day around half the population of the Third World can be found sitting in front of a television set watching programs which have mainly been produced locally. International statistics of this kind are not very reliable, but it can be safely assumed that a good 2.5 billion people in the Third World have regular access to television, and this is the majority of the global viewing public (Berwanger, 1987:31).

            Latin America was the first, because US industry had discovered in the 1950’s that a television license, as the Canadian Lord Thompson was supposed to have said, was a license to print your own money, and it was eager to introduce this useful invention south of the Rio Grande. The Columbia Broadcasting System went into radio stations in Argentina, Peru, and Venezuela as early as the 1940s, followed by the American Broadcasting Company, which started in 1950 to work with Mexican stations, and later with Venezuelan. Then, in the 1960s, Time Life Inc. tried to gain access to the Latin American market by investing in Mexico, Argentina, Venezuela, and Brazil.

            These ventures were anything but lucrative for the North American companies. Their junior partners in Latin America soon became competitors who were quick to make use of the political advantage they had on their home turf. A typical example is the role played by Time Life Inc. in establishing what is now the Brazilian television company Rede Globo, now one of the biggest broadcasters in the world (Berwanger, 1987:83). Time Life initially only wanted to sell the new TV station consultancy services and programmes, but very soon, in order to stay in business, had to take a 50 per cent share in it. Then, in 1968, after its money and expertise had helped TV Globe get started, Time Life found itself being squeezed out. North American television analysts reached the conclusion by the mid-1970s that ‘the networks took a beating in their Latin American investment’.

            South of the Sahara, from the very outset foreign television companies saw few opportunities for fast profits. The best-known example of this was an English-Canadian-US consortium which introduced television to Kenya in 1963 and was soon taken over by a local agency. Normally the only area where European and US firms made money was when they set up and equipped new television stations (Head, 1974:27). A good example of this was Thomson Television International being commissioned to set up a TV station in Ethiopia in time for the coronation jubilee of Haile Selassie on 2 November 1964.

            In most cases the development of television in Africa had been initiated by the colonial powers and was established just in time for the new countries to celebrate their independence and gratify their founding fathers. By 1965 national television stations had been set up in many former colonies including Nigeria, Zambia, Kenya, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Congo, Sudan, Uganda, Ghana, and Mauritius. Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe) had also acquired television, partly in the founded hope that well-made propaganda could convince the black majority of the advantages of white minority rule.

            In the 1970s Zaïre, Niger, Togo the Central African Republic, Angola, Mozambique, and Djibouti joined the league. In the early 1970s the small island republic of Zanzibar, which together with Tanganyika makes up the federal state of Tanzania, used a boom in the price of cloves, its main export commodity; to establish a TV station even against the wishes of the central government (Head, 9174:38). Since then the studios and stations have slowly disintegrated because the price of doves soon collapsed and European manufacturers were unwilling to barter spare parts for spices.

            In the Islamic world of the Middle East and North Africa the introduction of television was preceded by a lively debate about the religious and cultural implications of this new medium. It was related partly to the ban on idolatry and partly to doubts in conservative circles about lady athletes in shorts and other kinds of Western immorality. More secular states like Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Algeria, and Syria had fewer problems and introduced TV around 1960. Egypt not only built a huge broadcasting centre but also a factory to produce television sets, both with the help of a soft loan from the USA. Such was the logic of the Cold War: the Soviet Union had been commissioned to build the Aswan Dam.

            Countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, and North Yemen followed suit and set up national TV stations from the mid-1960s onwards – usually under the strict supervision of pious censors and with their programs containing a heavy dose of Koran readings (Berwanger, 1987:139). And then, as always in the Middle East, there was the special question of Israel. Because Arabic programs from Syria could be received in Israel, the latter – after another lively debate about the religious and cultural implications – began in 1968 to broadcast TV programs in Hebrew and Arabic. Jordan promptly responded with TV programs for Israeli viewers.

            An additional reason why the Gulf countries were eager to introduce their own TV services was that, while the camps of the American oil companies were otherwise cordoned off, their TV broadcasts spilt over into virtually every living-room.  In Asia, too, especially in the Philippines and South Korea, the problem of spill-over – this time from army and naval bases – was one of the reasons why national television was introduced. The other reason was that, as in Latin America, and equally in vain, US companies were hoping for long-term profit.

            As far as the other states of Asia are concerned, it is hard to discern a consistent pattern regarding the introduction of television. For regional superpowers such as China (TV introduced in 1958), India (1959), and Indonesia (1962), TV and the local production of communications technology was part of their general industrial policy. In other countries such as Taiwan (1962), Malaysia (1963), Singapore (1963), and Hong Kong (1967) television was an integral part of their strategies for social and economic renewal. Bangladesh and Pakistan (both 1964) felt it necessary to respond to the penetration of their territory by Indian broadcasts, which was partly unavoidable and partly deliberate, by setting up their own transmitter chains, especially along their borders with India. And the oil-rich state of Brunei was able to afford television in 1975 just as it could afford anything its rulers deemed desirable.

            By the mid- 1970s virtually every country of the Third World with a population over 10 million had introduced television. One of the few stragglers was South Africa (1976), which, fearing – justifiably – that broadcast signals would transcend the constraints of apartheid, spent years trying to develop separate programs for the different audiences. But Color Television in Black and White was no more successful than the other attempts to achieve “separate development” (Berwanger, 1987:165). By the early 1980s, apart from a few minor states, only Tanganyika did not yet have television, and it has been trying ever since to make up the ground it lost in the era of colonial parting gifts and soft loans. In the meantime its inhabitants are directing their aerials towards Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, Zanzibar, or international satellites.


            Television in Japan from its beginning in 1953 was regarded primarily as an entertainment medium, which included sports, drama, quiz shows, and so forth. It was, of course, a new and comprehensive medium for news and, rather like the BBC and other public broadcasters, the 9:00 p.m. NHK news established its authority and reliability (Ito, 1978:37). But the essence of television was entertainment. Children in particular fell under its spell, and parents and educators worried about its bad influence on youngsters. It is no coincidence that several Japanese scholars started research on this subject before the end of the 1950s when Hilde Himmerweit in the UK and Wilbur Schramm in the USA conducted similar research in those countries (Ito, 1978:38). Critics of television acknowledged the wonder of having a TV set in every home on the grounds that it brought the outside world to every household, but they did express their concern about possible negative effects of television, not only upon children, but upon the public at large. As television stations and broadcasting hours increased, not only the number of viewers but also of viewing hours increased rapidly. An interesting research survey, conducted by NHK Research Institute (Ito, 1978:64) found that a Japanese in 1960 spent 3 hours and 11 minutes a day on average watching television and 3 hours and 26 minutes a day in 1975. In the case of children aged between 10 and 15 years their average viewing hours reached close to 4 hours a day. This figure dismayed parents and teachers in Japan where, before the advent of television, reading had been strongly encouraged among schoolchildren.

            Regardless of these facts, it should be added that the most devoted television viewers in Japan have been older people, particular those over 60. According to an NHK Research Institute survey (Ito, 1978:74-75) a man in his sixties has a daily diet of 3 hours 52 minutes of television on average, rising to 4 hours 51 minutes for a man in his seventies. A woman in her sixties spends 4 hours and 27 minutes viewing, rising to 4 hours 49 minutes in her seventies. This is in contrast to the common assumption that young children are the truly heavy viewers. Elderly retired people, who go neither on holiday nor out to theatres, have as their dominant pastime viewing television at home. This fact implies television today is, in an ageing society like Japan’s, serving the cause of social welfare.

            NHK, a public broadcaster, enjoys a special legal status. Its president is appointed by the Prime Minister. Contrary to popular perception abroad, NHK is not owned by the government. It is wholly financed by fees paid by every Japanese viewer and its mission is to broadcast reliable, unbiased news, entertainment, and educational programmes for the well-being of the public. Its operation is autonomous. Because it is the oldest broadcaster in Japan, having been established in 1925, NHK has a great deal of experience in television as well as in radio. In point of fact, Takayanagi, the inventor back in the 1920s, worked on the technical staff before the war and it was NHK which in 1937 opened the first television station.

            The technical excellence as well as balanced programming served as the model for subsequent commercial broadcasters. When a new commercial station was established, producers and technical experts were recruited from NHK. Japanese television, therefore, followed the way paved by NHK. This fostered a strange relationship between the public and commercial sectors of television. At one level, commercial stations exercised restraint in deference to NHK’s spirit of public service. Conversely, NHK became acutely conscious of the competition with commercial stations offering programs of greater popular appeal. Improvements in telecommunication technologies coupled with rising living standards mean that since the early 1980s television can be received everywhere in Japan. Even in the most remote areas people are able to receive two NHK channels, general and educational, plus a minimum of three commercial channels.

            In Japan both government and public showed intense interest in educational applications of television and one of the outcomes was the establishment in 1981 of the University of the Air, a creation of joint effort by the Ministries of Education and Posts and Telecommunication (Shanahan ; Morgan, 1999). The institution is a new type of open university with full use of broadcasting. It has its own TV and FM radio station, and they broadcast university lectures eighteen hours a day throughout the year. As of 1993 some 45,000 people are registered as regular students and it is estimated that about a million citizens listen to or watch programs offered free by the university (Shanahan ; Morgan, 1999:208). In order to achieve this, the university receives technical assistance from NHK.

Global Television

            The use of satellites means that the world of television is getting internationalized year by year, day by day. The first experimental use of communication satellite linked to regular broadcasts was between Japan and the USA on 23 November 1963 and Japan was looking forward to the live broadcast from the other side of the Pacific (Larsen, 1990:73). According to the original plan, President John Kennedy was expected to send his message to the Japanese audience. But this was the day he was assassinated in Texas. The much anticipated greeting was replaced by the shocking news.

            Four years after this dramatic experience a world-wide telecast via satellite was conducted in the summer of 1967 with the BBC in London playing the key role. In Japan, NHK participated in this international undertaking when London, New York, Sydney, Tokyo, and many other places around the globe were linked together (Ito, 1978:48). The different time zones meant that people in some countries had to wake up at dawn while others had to give up their working hours, but what this experimental link proved was that global television broadcasting was possible. And since the early 1970s Japanese television stations successfully launched their international hook-ups. In sports, not only the Olympic Games but other sporting events such as tennis, golf, and football, taking place anywhere in the world, have been transmitted live to Japan, as well as being pro-recorded to compensate for time differences. Major TV stations have set up offices throughout the world so that any event may be sent live to Tokyo via satellite. In the specific Asian context, under the Asian Broadcasters Union (ABU) initiative, organized in 1964, regular news exchanges called Asiavision were inaugurated in 1986 and news from participating countries of East and South East Asia are relayed and broadcast every evening (Larsen, 1990:94).

            Regardless of reliance on regular television, telecommunication technologies mean that if someone wishes to set up a rotating dish antenna 6 meters in diameter, he can tune to as many as twenty different international channels including Star TV of Hong Kong, BBC International, and CNN. Television in Japan, therefore, is already part of a global network – a development which nobody in the past even dreamed possible.


            The inventors of television from the 1890s until the early 1920s thought of it as an additional means for delivering information and entertainment, as an extension of telephone, radio, theatre, cinema; but it has now gathered to itself a range of functions beyond the entertaining and informing of audiences. What the inventors never quite realized was that television would become normative, that so much of what we see on the screen would contrive to suggest how things ought or ought not to be. In contemporary context, television is itself undergoing a technological and institutional transmutation, so thorough as to baffle or confound its own surviving pioneers and founders. Between the 1950s and the 1990s television was organized as a regulated and essentially national medium dependent on the scarce resource of electromagnetic frequencies. At the end of the era it is becoming a medium of abundance, with hundreds of satellite and cable channels becoming available (in some countries) in every home; these new sources of images, passing through new technologies and produced by a new generation of remarkably cheap miniaturized equipment, are emerging from jurisdictions outside the receiving countries. Television is becoming, at its roots, international, prolific, regulated lightly if at all.


Albert Abramson (1987). The History of Television: 1880-1941, Jefferson, NC: McFarland

Masami Ito (1978). Broadcasting in Japan, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

Dietrich Berwanger (1987). Television in the Third World: New Technologies and Social Change, Bonn: Friedrich Ebert Foundation

Sydney Head (1974). Broadcasting in Africa, Philadelphia: Temple University Press

Peter Larsen (1990). Import/Export: International Flow of Television Fiction, Paris: Unesco

James Shanahan, Michael Morgan. (1999). Television and Its Viewers: Cultivation Theory and Research; Cambridge University Press


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