woensdag, oktober 12, 2005

DEMOCRACY COMES TO CHINA! (Well, actually just for Mongolian Cow Yogurt Super Girl)

Cranky aussie queen Paul Kidd, author of Buggery.org, recently published a brief, windy-haunted-cave of a despondent posting, writing, 'Every day I think of George Orwell. Every fucking day.'

He certainly has reason to.

Within the television and mobile industry itself, those louche, tranquilising emissions that involve audience participation popularly but counterfactually known as reality TV programmes, such as Big Brother, Pop Idols, et al, are called 'participation TV'. Indeed, there is an industry conference dedicated to the topic coming up in Amsterdam in November whose programme I've been editing.

Television channels, particularly private broadcasters, love the formats as they are very cheap to produce but massively popular, and in an era where advertising dollars are increasingly spread between thousands of media channels and publications/productions, it makes much more sense to produce a Big Brother than an hour-long drama such as the Sopranos, when the former brings in just as many viewers, if not more, for a fraction of the production costs. The latter are increasingly being produced by subscription-based channels such as HBO or the Sci-Fi Channel (and, of course, public broadcasters, who do not depend, or do not depend as much, on advertising sponsorship). The rest of the multi-channel universe is being steadily Who-Wants-To-Be-A-Millionaire-ified.

Mobile operators and telcos also think that the formats are better than ice cream. As in most western European countries, mobile penetration has reached almost complete market saturation (in other words, everyone, including your technophobic gran and your six-year-old sandbox-contaminating niece has one), the operators increasingly have to find other ways of parting you from your centimes, and participation TV is crackerjack adept at convincing all you rubes to spend silly amounts of money on voting for some Turkish, off-key, Xena-the-Warrior-Princess-obsessed vampiress to win the Eurovision Song Contest.

Sadly for both the operators, the channels, the format producers and the mobile aggregators (the companies that arrange the 'in-between' technology and content bits between the operators, TV channels and viewers, tallying votes and so on), the novelty of participation TV is wearing off. New formats, new ways of 'building communities' and new technology permitting more advanced forms of participation and content control are to some extent mitigating this tendency, but the real money is in expansion of the concept to other, much larger markets.

Participation TV took an unusually long time to take off in North America, but this was largely due to the fact that until such shows as American Idols came along, short message service text messaging was all but non-existent, as local calling in most jurisdictions is essentially free. Indeed, in reverse fashion, it was the advent of participation TV that drove up-take of SMS, rather than the prevalence of SMS that drove the expansion of participation TV, as was the case in Europe. However, the format is now well established there, and participation TV sector stakeholders are in any case more interested in Asia and the Middle East, which offer massive and almost entirely unjaded audiences.

India currently has over 50 million mobile users, but it is China which is most attractive, which has a barely untapped market of 200 million mobile subscribers, and participation TV formats are mammoths of the TV schedule. In August, the final episode of Super Girl, a Chinese, Pop Idols-style 'talent' contest for girls, drew 400 million viewers. Around 8 million paid RMB 0.10 (€0.01) to vote via SMS for one of the three finalists, or rather, not 'vote', but offer 'a text message of support'. Throughout the series, the word 'vote' is avoided for obvious reasons. Nonetheless, Li Yuchun, a 21-year-old girl from Sichuan whose repertoire includes the Cranberries' execrable and contractually-obligatory Irish Troubles record, 'Zombie', won with 3.5 million such 'text messages of support'. So popular has the show proved, that the Mengniu Milk Group has paid Hunan TV RMB 14 million (€1.4 million) for the naming rights to the show, which is now officially called Mongolian Cow Sour Yogurt Super Girls.

Similarly, a Chinese internet portal, Tom Online, has seen its revenues expand through the import of elements of participation TV - ring-tones and ring-back-tones, WAP, MMS and premium SMS voting-that-we-won't-call-voting. The growth was largely a result of the introduction of participation elements to certain sporting events, in particular the broadcast of the NBA finals on channel CCTV-5.

Elsewhere, in pseudo-democracy Malaysia, where opposition candidates do occasionally win seats in the federal Parliament and state assemblies, so long as they or their parties' members have not been detained by the police, there are some 26 different locally produced reality shows. The final episode of the most popular, Akademi Fantasia, a participation TV format in its third season in which contestants stay in a house and take voice and dancing lessons, recently attracted 12 million SMS votes in a country with a population of 25 million.

UK-based Fremantle Media, one of the largest producers of participation TV formats in the world, produces some 260 programmes across 43 territories, and owns the rights to the Idols and The Apprentice formats. Its latest programme, SuperStar, the pan-Arab version of Pop Idols, is the most popular programme ever shown in the Middle East. Each of the finals for the 2003 and 2004 series received over 3 million votes from viewers. The next edition, SuperStar 2005, will be transmitted via Lebanese satellite channel Future TV to the Middle East and North Africa, with audiences in 17 countries able to participate.

Despite the dearth of democracy in the region, regimes are happy to allow citizens to exercise this particular franchise that encroaches on no elite interests. Indeed, the show has even become a battleground for national prestige, no different from major sporting events. Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali has taken to SuperStar like a North Korean dictator takes to South Korean movie stars, with the government taking out ads in local newspapers encouraging citizens to vote for the Tunisian candidate, seeing the contest as vital to the nation's regional standing.

Meanwhile, in Tunisia, the sweeping privatisation of the public sector and a free-trade accord with the European Union has resulted in massive internal economic dislocation, with as much as a third of the country's manufacturing industry disappearing, according to some estimates. In response, a small Tunisian branch of the Tobin Tax and anti-neo-liberal pressure group Attac (Rassemblement pour une alternative internationale de developpement [Raid-Attac Tunisie]) was formed to in order to critique the free-trade accord and its local consequences. Its spokesperson, Fathi Chamki is one of the most harassed civil society dissidents in the country. He has been ill-treated, tortured and jailed, and, despite the organisation numbering only around a hundred, its members are routinely harassed and are under constant police surveillance. Their freedom of movement is severely curtailed and their phone and mail communications are intercepted. In September, the Tunisian authorities' prohibited the independent Tunisian Journalists' Syndicate (SJT) from holding its first congress. The country's severely overcrowded jails house some 2,000 prisoners of conscience in wretched, inhumane conditions. Arrests, torture, and beatings of dissidents in broad daylight are daily occurrences and freedom of expression is non-existent. Philippe Squarzoni, a French comic book journalist on the model of Joe Sacco and one of the first members of the original, French Attac, says Ben Ali has transformed Tunisia into 'a barracks with the air of a Club Med'.

Nonetheless, Tunisia is regularly described by the IMF as a model of liberalisation that the rest of the region must emulate. Jacques Chirac never misses an opportunity to praise the 'Tunisian Miracle' and Ben Ali himself, who has been in power since 1987.

In this world turned upside down, citizens may vote, indeed in some instances are urged to vote but only in this MTV-style-edited, Disneyfied, parody of democracy, for Pop Idols and, most apropos, Big Brother, but not in anything that resembles a free election.

Foreign Affairs magazine devoted its last issue to China, and one article [you have to pay for access, but the International Herald Tribune also published a free-to-access précis of the same piece under the title, 'An open economy, a closed society'] explored how a number of countries, China in particular, have actualised more or less what the authors approve of in the way of free markets and achieved quite remarkable rates of growth - but without any regard for western parliamentary democratic norms, in contrast to the long-articulated liberal discourse that economic liberalisation undermines repressive regimes.

This is more than instructive: Why subject ourselves, might ask the great captains of industry, the masters of the universe, to the messy, frequently social democratic products of democracy any more, when we can achieve what we want just as easily if not more so without such excesses? What utility any more has democracy? Indeed, the major institutions that currently govern us already do not pretend to have even a facade of democracy: the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank, the UN Security Council, the European Commission.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the future, Tunisia is the future: democracy as naught but reality TV bon bon.