In the vast tapestry of human experience, television offers a lot more than mindless escapism and entertainment. It also serves as a cultural mirror reflecting the values, aspirations, and idiosyncrasies of societies worldwide.
It is an omnipresent storyteller which sits in the living rooms (and often dining rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms) of billions of homes around the world.
These days most people also have a device capable of streaming TV in their pockets everywhere they go too. I have counted nine devices in my home that I can watch TV on.
Television narrates stories that transcend geographical boundaries and cultural divides.
Through our TV, we can experience the lives of the indigenous Masai people of Kenya, the beach-goers on Bondi in Australia, and the truckers risking life and limb to cross the frozen Alaskan tundra, all without leaving the comfort of our homes.
I am a TV obsessive, and, in this article, I will dig deeper into the symbiotic relationship between television and culture, where the medium both mirrors the existing societal norms and acts as a catalyst for change.
I will explore how television has shaped the kaleidoscope of human experience around the world.
- How Americanisms are now commonplace in the language of British youth
- Basketball and baseball have become the national sports in Japan
- How global tastes in music, food, and much more has been shaped by the spread of the goggle box
So, if, like me, you are passionate about TV and interested to know how it has shaped the world we live in today, this is the article for you.
Section 1: Television as a Cultural Mirror
Reflecting Societal Norms and Values
From soap operas to sitcoms, an awful lot of the television we watch today holds up a mirror to the societal norms and values that our society holds dear to itself and in which we are all willing, or sometimes less willing, participants.
Take, for instance, the portrayal of family structures.
In modern Western sitcoms, the emphasis on individualism and personal freedom often translates into narratives centred around non-traditional family units. A big favourite of mine is the US sitcom Two and a Half Men, while Modern Family is another good example that I loved.
Shows like these mirror the evolving societal norms and celebrate diversity in familial arrangements. Modern Family “portrayed the shift in family ideals over the years and encouraged society to be more accepting of familial differences.”
Contrastingly, in more conservative societies such as the burgeoning output from countries like India and Nigeria, where traditional family values are deeply ingrained, television reflects and reinforces these values instead.
Sitcoms and soap operas from these cultural backgrounds often depicting multigenerational households and the importance of familial cohesion, which is the norm in these societies.
Beyond familial structures, television also grapples with ethical dilemmas reflective of broader societal concerns in different parts of the world.
A good example is legal dramas; a popular format right around the world. These shows offer a lens into a society’s understanding of justice, morality, and the grey areas in between.
A courtroom scene becomes a microcosm where societal debates play out, mirroring the shifting sands of cultural attitudes towards issues such as crime, punishment, and the pursuit of truth.
An Indian legal drama will be a very different show to one from the USA, while a British one will be totally different again. This illustrates more than just a differing legal system but also a different moral code that underpins the laws in different countries.
Regional Case Studies
Let take a look at some specific regions in a little more detail to highlight this.
In East Asia, the television landscape is a vibrant testament to the delicate balance between tradition and modernity that exists in many of these countries.
Korean dramas, or K-dramas, a particular favourite of mine, often weave narratives deeply rooted in Confucian values that underpin Korean society.
They explore themes of love and marriage, loyalty, and societal expectations. This closely mirrors the influence of Confucianism where the interplay between individual desires and societal expectations is at the heart of beliefs.
The Middle East is another good example. In this region, soap operas and dramas again often grapple with the tension between conservative Islamic values and the challenge presented by the modern world.
This is particularly evident when we look at female characters, who are frequently used as a tool to address women’s roles in society, empowerment, and individual freedom.
Nollywood, Nigeria’s prolific film industry, is another good example. Much of its televisual output serves as a powerful cultural mirror, portraying the vibrancy, resilience, and struggles of African communities. Themes of communal harmony, the impact of colonial legacies, and the celebration of cultural heritage can be found throughout Nollywood shows.
It is important to note how the role of television as a mirror to cultural and societal norms has changed over time.
In the mid-20th century, television primarily reflected and reinforced existing cultural norms, with shows often conforming to the dominant narratives of the time.
Watch a popular sitcom from the 1950’s from the US or the UK and you will see an idyllic family life portrayed. This was not only the expected norm of the time but also mirrored the post-war desire for stability and conformity.
Fast forward just twenty or thirty years to the 1970s and 1980s and we can see a huge rise of socially conscious television, with shows tackling issues such as racism, sexism, and LGBTQ+ rights, topics that would never have been touched on in the past.
In recent years, the arrival of streaming platforms and the increased globalisation of television content has further blurred the lines of cultural representation on television.
Viewers now have access to a kaleidoscope of cultures, allowing for a more detailed and nuanced understanding of diverse societies. And in the next section, I will look further at the role that television has played in reshaping cultural norms around the world.
Section 2: Influencing and Shaping Culture
Television possesses a remarkable ability to set trends that permeate far beyond the screen and your living room.
From fashion choices to linguistic innovations, TV shows wield a subtle but profound influence on our collective consciousness, shaping the way we perceive and express ourselves and the world around us.
Consider the phenomenon of fashion trends sparked by iconic TV characters. The stylish ensembles of characters like Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City or the preppy chic and hairstyles of the cast in Friends left an indelible mark not just in the USA but with audiences right around the world.
Viewers globally seek to emulate the wardrobes of their favourite characters, turning fictional styles into real-world trends seemingly overnight.
As The Glossary magazine explained, “it was Carrie Bradshaw that made Manolo Blahnik an established footwear name, and… the Dior Saddle bag only became a cult item when she wore it.”
This is not just the case with fashion. Lifestyle choices, interior design, and even travel destinations can be driven by what we see on television.
Language too often reflects what we are hearing on TV. Phrases coined by characters, and even adverts, can swiftly enter everyday lexicons, influencing colloquial speech.
“Could we be any more influenced by TV language”, as the late Matthew Perry from Friends might have said?
Think about how Sasha Baron Bohen’s Ali G character had a whole generation saying “Innit”, and the countless teen US shows that have created one of my linguistic pet hates, the indiscriminate use of the word “like” in sentences.
And don’t pretend you weren’t one of the people going around saying “Whassup” when that Budweiser advert was airing. I’m ashamed to say I was!
Television has become a linguistic architect, shaping the way we communicate and express ourselves in the broader cultural landscape.
Shifting Perceptions and Attitudes
Television’s impact extends beyond mere trends, penetrating the depths of societal attitudes and perceptions. Instances abound where TV shows have played a pivotal role in reshaping the way we view crucial issues, acting as catalysts for change in societal norms.
One example is the influence of television on gender roles and equality.
Shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 1970s challenged traditional portrayals of women by featuring a single, career-oriented woman as the central character. As De Elizabeth wrote in Vogue, “Moore was a feminist icon, whose legacy will be remembered for decades to come.”
This departure from the norm sparked conversations about women’s roles in society and contributed to a shifting paradigm.
More recently, series like The Handmaid’s Tale have brought issues of reproductive rights and patriarchy to the forefront, sparking dialogues that extend well beyond the screen and family chats in the living and into the very fabric of societal discourse.
Television has also been a powerful force in addressing racial inequality. Groundbreaking shows like The Cosby Show in the 1980s, showing an affluent African American family, helped counter prevailing stereotypes.
In a very different way, shows like Til Death Us Do Part had a similar impact in the UK. More recently, series like Black-ish continue to challenge stereotypes and foster understanding, contributing to a more inclusive cultural narrative.
Spurring Societal Change
Television’s ability to spur societal change extends to instances where shows become catalysts for tangible shifts in laws and societal norms.
A prime example is the impact of The West Wing, the single best US drama series of all time in my view.
The West Wing was known for its intelligent and idealistic portrayal of American politics and not only influenced public perceptions of governance but also engaged viewers in conversations about civic responsibility and political participation that many were previously excluded from.
It is not just political dramas that can have this effect. The true crime series Making a Murderer shed light on flaws in the US criminal justice system, prompting discussions that eventually led to legal re-examinations of the cases presented.
In the UK, the incredible investigative journalism of shows like Panorama and Dispatches have similarly been instrumental in uncovering systemic issues, prompting public outcry and calls for reform.
Meanwhile, the David Attenborough wildlife shows are now playing a big role in educating people about the impact of climate change on wildlife.
Section 3: Globalization of TV Content and Cross-Cultural Exchange
The Export and Import of Culture
These days, television serves as a cultural ambassador every bit as much as professional diplomats do. Arguably more so.
Popular TV shows transcend linguistic and cultural barriers and find audience in nations around the world.
American shows, many of which focus on universal themes of friendship, love, and family, have achieved unparalleled global success.
Friends is the classic example. It has garnered a passionate international fan base, based on its comedy and relatable narratives. In doing so, it has not only opened American culture to the world, but it has also communicated societal norms from the US around the world.
Another good example is Korean drama like Crash Landing on You. This show has been part of what has been dubbed the Hallyu or Korean Wave of TV shows which blend romance and melodrama, and sometimes violence and crime, with elements of traditional Korean culture and storytelling.
As a result, Korean culture, music, and food have built up a new following around the world. There is no denying that television has been a crucial catalyst in that development.
Television not only broadens viewers’ perspectives but also fosters a sense of interconnectedness in a world where borders are increasingly open. Television has become a shared global experience and social media helps audience from around the world to come together over their favourite shows, no matter where they originate from.
Hybridisation of Content
Another fascinating phenomenon that has stemmed from the globalisation of television is the hybridisation of TV content.
TV shows used to be rooted in distinct national cultural contexts. But now they can embrace a wide variety of influences from around the globe.
A prime example of this is Netflix series Sense8. This show weaves a narrative that spans the globe, bringing together characters from different cultural backgrounds and exploring the interconnectedness of their lives.
It is not just only screen globalisation either. We are seeing an increasing number of collaborations between international production teams creating content that is unashamedly influenced from multiple backgrounds.
HBO has been a particular leader in this regard, especially with British production companies which has resulted in classic shows like Game of Thrones.
Understanding and Misunderstandings
While the globalisation of TV and the increase in collaborations can bring huge benefits, there are risks involved.
Sometimes shows can inadvertently perpetuate national or cultural stereotypes about particular nationalities or ethnic groups.
I can think of a few shows that I would put in this category, but I won’t slander any shows publicly in this guide. I’m sure you can think of a few shows of your own that fall into this category.
However, when done well, they can also help foster a greater understanding of different nationalities and groups.
A good example is the US show Master of None, created by Aziz Ansari, which explore the experiences of Indian-Americans in the United States.
Shows like this offering nuanced portrayals that resonates with viewers and help boost cross-cultural understanding like few other things can.
The globalisation of not only enriches storytelling but also has the potential to foster greater understanding among diverse audiences. But this can only work when content creators approach shows with care, avoid harmful stereotypes and embrace authenticity.
When they do successfully, television has the power to shape perceptions and bridge cultural divides, contributing to a more interconnected and empathetic world.
The Digital Age and Future Trends
The Impact of Streaming Services
All of which brings us to the modern day and the role of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime in the evolution of television.
Streaming services have fundamentally changed the way we all watch TV.
Binging, which was unheard of in the pre-digital television age, is now largely the norm. I know I watch whole series at a time and get hugely frustrated when I find I have to wait even a few days to see the next episode of a series I am into.
But this approach has also massively altered the way audiences engage with narratives. The end-of-episode suspense is losing its power and viewers have the capacity to foster a deeper immersion in complex story arcs.
Streaming service now make their own shows, to suit their own needs, and broadcast them to a global audience. This means that more shows are pre-made with that audience in mind.
This democratisation of content has seen international shows that would never have reached a global audience becoming a massive hit. Shows like Money Heist from Spain, Dark from Germany, and Lupin from France are just a few examples of this.
The Rise of Web Series and Alternative Content
Alongside streaming services, the digital age has witnessed the rise of web series and digital-only content. Platforms like YouTube and Vimeo have become breeding grounds for innovative storytelling, providing creators with the freedom to explore unconventional narratives and formats.
These web series are often characterized by shorter episode formats and lower production costs, but they have become powerful tool for cultural explorations.
Creators, sometimes amateur ones, are unencumbered by traditional broadcast rules and can explore niche topics, subcultures, and unconventional storytelling techniques.
The format also allows for more direct engagement between creators and audiences. The interactive nature of platforms like YouTube enables creators to build dedicated fan communities, shaping content based on real-time feedback.
This symbiotic relationship has the potential to drive cultural trends in unprecedented ways, with content creators becoming trendsetters and influencers.
So, where does Television evolve from here?
Some people think that technological advancements are likely to drive a further transformation. Things like the integration of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) into the television-watching experience could redefine how shows are engaged with and consumed.
Some argue they already are.
Playbox Technology argues that “by providing an immersive and interactive experience… VR and AR can be used to create virtual environments that allow viewers to get up close and personal with their favourite performers, or to take part in thrilling adventures that would otherwise be impossible..”
Perhaps viewers may find themselves immersed in interactive storylines, breaking the traditional barriers between the screen and the audience. Although cynics like me would look at the limitations of technology like 3D movies and question how much appetite there is for such changes.
Then there is the question of the company’s making television. Traditional production companies are being usurped by big tech behemoths like Amazon which have their own priorities and agendas to push.
This could end up being reflected far more in the content they are producing than has been the case to date.
The digital age has already transformed how we consume television and in doing so shaped cultural trends and exposed audiences to new ideas and ways of thinking. How it will do this moving forward is something that I, for one, can’t wait to find out.
Television is ubiquitous these days. Mobile devices and streaming services mean we can watch anything we like anywhere we like and all for the cost of about half a DVD.
It is inevitable that this omni-presence is going to drive up the impact that TV has on different cultures and societies. And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
Being exposed to different societies and ways of thinking bring us all closer together, help to bridge those divides that separate us, and deepen the lives and experiences of everyone.
But it does also come with challenges too. Stereotyping and failing to appreciate cultural nuances can have a negative effect while basing a cultural understanding on just one TV show is far too narrow.
The onus is now on content creators to make responsible TV shows that can shape future generations understanding of the world in a positive light.
But it is also on us as individuals to get out of our comfort zones and seek to learn more and understand the context of what we are watching. TV offers is a wealth of opportunity. But we have to want to get out there and explore it.
Have you or those around you been influenced by a TV show or movie? Did you find yourself using phrases or reacting scenes? I’d love to continue this conversation so drop me a comment below and let’s engage.