20 October 2003

Global pushback against 'Titanic' culture

If you were watching television Sunday night in Sydney, Australia, you had a choice between the American sitcom 'Everybody Loves Raymond,' and a couple of US movies: 'Meet the Parents' and 'Coyote Ugly.'

In fact, 76 percent of all new programs launched on Australian TV in the eight months prior to April 2003 were foreign shows, mostly American. Australia's largely Made-in-USA television diet is part of the background to a new round in the global culture war begun here last week.

Talks are starting on a United Nations treaty designed to help countries protect their native cultures in the face of what many characterize as the homogenizing effect of Hollywood. It's the kind of pact that Washington sees as likely to hamper free trade and free expression - as well as hurt profits.

The UN convention on cultural diversity, championed by Canada and France at the head of some 60 European and developing countries, would take cultural goods, such as films, plays, and music, out of the realm of trade negotiations. It would exempt them from free-trade rules, allow governments to protect and support their cultural industries, and enshrine the 'cultural exception' that European nations have defended in international law.

Behind this emerging conflict in UNESCO, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, lies a debate over whether trade in cultural products should be governed by different rules from those for other commercial products, and what role governments should play in protecting national identities in the face of globalization.

The clash, pitting the United States and a handful of other skeptics against the majority of UNESCO members, comes less than a month after the US rejoined the UN agency after a 19-year absence.


The view from the tarmac, they argue, makes it clear that far from limiting choice, government intervention is the only way to guarantee it in many countries.

In Australia, for example, which is about to finalize a bi- lateral free-trade agreement with the US, negotiators are fighting for the right to extend government policies to support local filmmakers into new delivery systems such as the Internet.

Australian broadcasters must ensure that 55 percent of their daytime and evening programming is locally made, and pay-TV drama channels must spend 10 percent of their program expenditure on Australian drama.

"The market today has failed to deliver a level of choice including a minimum of Australian content, and we can assume the market won't deliver on the Internet either," says Kim Dalton, head of the Australian Film Commission. "It will deliver American products.

The French government offers an outline of a Draft International Convention on Cultural Diversity: French proposals . Culture is more than just the profit motive. Hollywood is a major source of US soft power and that needs to be measured by more than just cash flow. I wish I could read an equally thoughtful analysis about the diversity convention in an Australian paper.

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