Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Henry Mayer Memorial Lecture: From Dallas to SBS

The Henry Mayer Memorial Lecture is an annual address, hosted by Media International Australia (MIA) and the Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Queensland. It seeks to honour the legacy of Henry Mayer the founding editor of MIA, especially his role in establishing media studies as a credible and significant field of research in Australia. The presenter this year, Professor Ien Ang, was asked to offer a personal reflection on her 30 year career as a media and cultural researcher.

Ang approached the lecture by drawing connections between the apparently disparate poles of her first book, Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination, and her most recent book, co-authored with Gay Hawkins and Lamia Dabboussy, The SBS Story: The Challenge of Cultural Diversity. While at first glance the US television programme Dallas (1978-91) is emblematic of cultural homogeneity in the form of US cultural imperialism, and SBS has always been committed to its opposite, Ang pointed out that both have their origins in the same era, around 1980, a time when major changes were occurring in broadcast television in Western countries with a public service tradition.

Here, Ang noted that a programme like Dallas offered a kind of defacto cosmopolitanism to populations in those countries where public broadcasters like the ABC in Australia and the BBC in the UK were firmly focused on presenting their interpretation of 'the nation' to their audiences. As a migrant to the Netherlands from Indonesia at the time, Ang related how she experienced Dutch television's articulation of its nation as exclusionary, while Dallas offered a more global perspective to her as a trans-national individual.

Ang argued that her experience as a migrant in a Western country was not an uncommon one at the time and, even now that she lives in Australia, the question of who comprises the imagined nation of both public and commercial broadcasters remains an important one. She made particular mention of Australian television's fairly complacent Anglo-Celtic nationalism, citing the example of the priorities evident in many nightly news broadcasts, where news from overseas is rarely presented as if Australians have much stake in it.

It is this common context of immigration and Western nationalism, combined with a degree of 'luck' and 'happy confluence', to which Malcolm Fraser's government responded in a unique way, by sanctioning the establishment of a public broadcaster which was self-consciously worldly: SBS.

Here, Ang's argument is not one about 'quality' television news; she is not championing an elitist argument about taste. Rather she is taking issue with parochialism . The nuance of her argument is perhaps best illustrated in a distinction she makes about her earlier interest articulated in Watching Dallas.

Ang's interest in writing about the popularity of Dallas arose from her own enjoyment of the programme amid its 'facile dismissal' by 'elitist' commentators at the time. While the popularity of Dallas might have been enough for many to denigrate the programme and belittle those who enjoyed it, for Ang its popularity was precisely its point of interest. In her words she 'took popularity seriously'.

Throughout her study of people who liked to watch Dallas, Ang identified a shift in the reception of US television, specifically an ironic viewing mode characterised by 'cynical knowingness'. This mode offered a way for the 'hip' to relate to popular culture in a way that afforded them Cultural Capital. It is this viewing mode that became the hallmark of the 1990s when one could revel in 'loving great trash', to watch without fear of judgement.

In her presentation, Ang said that it was the ability to enjoy popular culture without fear of judgement that the scholarly discipline of Cultural Studies has both reflected and facilitated. Here, as an aside, she observed that one of the outcomes of revaluing popular culture has been that "high" culture is now the 'problematically ostracised category'. At the time of her research for Watching Dallas, however, Ang viewed the 'facile dismissal' of Dallas as evidence of a 'lack of empathy for difference', a willful 'othering' of others, which as a migrant she was always 'deeply suspicious' of.

Here the common thread linking Watching Dallas to The SBS Story becomes clear: the imperial cosmopolitanism of Dallas and the multi-cultural cosmopolitanism of SBS both offer an anchor, an oasis of inclusion, an extension of empathy, to disparate populations living within nations from any number of origins.

Ang concluded her talk with some more comments about SBS. She discussed the 'debilitating' and often 'bitter controversies' that have raged around the idea of SBS between those from 'grassroots' ethnic communities who are interested in programming in their own language, and the 'Anglo-elite' who have charged SBS with 'dumbing down' its programming, particularly following its recent commercialisation. Amongst other trends at SBS she noted the shift in their mode of address away from one of cosmopolitanism towards prioritising the national.


  1. I've more often heard imported US shows described as cultural imperialism than cosmopolitanism - nice to hear a different view.

  2. Great post! Ien Ang must have been great to hear 'live'.

    I never really got into the hoopla around Dallas when I was a kid back where I grew up, though it was huge there. I can appreciate the sense of how it appealed there because it wasn't part of the narrow nationalist cultural narrative. But cosmopolitan? I thought it so parochially Texan.

    On a parallel note, I have wondered why it took SBS so long to catch onto the Bollywood movie buzz. Was it responding to the increasing interest in (and hence approval of) Bollywood films and the corresponding craze for the dance styles amongst middle class white audiences in Australia, or was it waiting for the Hindi speaking migrant population in Australia to get bigger?

    And why do I have to wait for a wonderfully kitschy Cantonese Ghost Story film to come up as a possible SBS 'cult movie' rather than just something that appeals to the many Cantonese or Chinese speaking people how like thse movies or if not Cantonese speaking (like me) grew up enjoying them?

    Should we only get worthy Zhang Yimou art-films, rather than popular, trashy, kitschy Cantonese love stories, comedies, kung fu movies, ghost and ghouls extravaganzas and melodramas? Both please.

  3. I think the distinction that Ang makes between Imperial Cosmopolitanism and Multi-Cultural Cosmopolitanism is key. She's certainly not suggesting that Dallas was anything other than American or Texan, but it is the context of its reception in the Netherlands for an Indonesian migrant that makes it cosmopolitan, rather than parochially Dutch. After all, the US is overseas too : )


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