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Parents, television, and cultural change

Given a large body of evidence that television influences cultural attitudes, the fear that foreign content erodes local culture may be justified. Such reasoning is often cited in support of the cultural exception that the audiovisual industry routinely receives. This column introduces an economic model of cultural transmission and viewer choice to argue that a competitive TV industry is the best way to ensure cultural survival.

The idea that television can transform culture has been prominent in the political debate, an unregulated television industry being perceived as a threat to cultural diversity. A common argument for maintaining public television is to ensure the supply of diverse and high-quality programming that caters to the entire population – to all communities and cultures.

Politicians who care about local culture often argue that TV imports threaten local diversity. The fear for trade in cultural services is widespread: it lead to UNESCO's 2005 Universal Declaration of Cultural Diversity granting the products of audiovisual industry the status of ‘cultural exceptions’ – implying that this industry is not subject to free trade. The fight to preserve this status nearly lead to the breakdown of the initiative to create the Transatlantic Free Trade Area (TAFTA) even before the first round of negotiations had started in June 2013. The French prime minister threatened to use its right of veto to protect its cultural industries. France managed to rally 13 EU countries, and trade in audio-visual services was excluded from the EU negotiating mandate for TAFTA.

The argument for cultural protectionism

Communication scientists have convincingly shown that exposure to television over time cultivates viewers' perceptions of reality (Shanahan and Morgan 1999). Similarly, the cultural content of TV programs will shape people's cultural attitudes. If the cultural content of those programmes is predominantly foreign, the local culture will be lost. Therefore, to preserve this culture, local productions have to be favoured.

The truth and the flaw in the argument

There is vast evidence that television affects and changes cultural attitudes. The reception of the Globo signal in Brazil – a network with virtual monopoly power on telenovelas – did not only significantly lower fertility choices but also increased the share of women who divorced or separated (La Ferrara et al. 2012, Chong and La Ferrara 2009). In India the entry of cable TV led to increases in subjective measures of female autonomy and declines in pregnancy rates (Jensen and Oster 2009). Being exposed to television programmes in the Islamic world has an effect on the way people judge the West (Gentzkow and Shapiro 2004).

It is also true that there is some US dominance in the audiovisual industry despite protectionist measures. (In Europe the US dominance is more than 60%, according to a Wall Street Journal article from the 12th of June 2013). However, quotas for home production are often not binding due to high consumer demand (see e.g. Cohen 2005 for Israel, and Papandrea 1999 for Australia).

However, the argument that TV can induce a cultural change and therefore will wipe some cultures off the map is naïve. For one thing, it overlooks the likelihood that people who care about their culture will take this danger into account when deciding on their TV demand. Moreover, an unregulated profit-maximising TV industry is likely to choose optimally the contents of its programming given people's demand.

Recent research

In a recent paper we develop an economic model of cultural transmission of preferences and examine how different market structures affect the long-run survival of cultural traits (Hauk and Immordino 2014). In a society with two cultural traits where television (besides providing entertainment) plays the role of socialisation, cultural coverage is strategically chosen by a profit-maximising TV industry. Parents decide how much time to invest in socialising their child while the rest of the time the child is left to watch television. If parental socialisation fails, the child is affected by the entire system of messages received by the television programme. These messages consist of the amount of coverage of each cultural trait, which determines the probability that the child will adopt this trait conditional on being socialised by television. Hence, watching television might infect the child with the ‘wrong’ cultural values. This danger is bigger the less television programming reflects the parental culture. Therefore the higher the coverage of the parental culture, the lower is parental socialisation effort, since TV is likely to transmit the right values anyway.

The TV industry exploits this parental behaviour.  The likelihood of cultural extinction is highest under a free-to-air duopoly. To understand why, observe that parents will pick the channel (for their children) that maximises their utility. This makes specialisation by each channel on a single culture a dominant strategy. Both cultures will survive in the long run if and only if the competitors specialise on different traits. When the profitability of one group is particularly large the media industry will cover that group only, leading to no cultural coverage of the less profitable group and its long-run extinction.

When all channels cover the more profitable trait, the incentives to deviate to cover the less profitable trait increase in the number of competing firms. The higher the number of competitors, the stronger the forces pushing towards cultural diversity. Moreover, the capacity of firms to reduce competition by differentiation is amplified whenever TV firms can exploit another variable on which to compete such as a fee or the level of entertainment quality. Therefore, the presence of pay-TV reduces the likelihood of cultural extinction. Pay-TV firms will charge a positive (indeed maximal) price if they specialise on different traits and therefore have less incentive to cover the same trait.

Implications for policy

To summarise, our model predicts that cultural extinction can only occur under very special circumstances. The correct regulatory measures are not protectionist, but ones that allow for competition on several dimensions and increase the number of competitors in the market.


Chong, A and E La Ferrara (2009) “Television and Divorce: Evidence from Brazilian Novelas", Journal of the European Economic Association 7: 458-468.

Cohen, J (2005) “Global and Local Viewing Experiences in the Age of Multi-channel Television: the Israeli Experience”, Communication Theory 15: 437-455.

Gentzkow, M and J Shapiro (2004) “Media, Education and Anti-Americanism in the Muslim World”, Journal of Economic Perspectives 18: 117-133.

Hauk, E and G Immordino (2014) “Parents, Television and Cultural Change”, The Economic Journal 124: 1040-1065.

Jensen, R and E Oster (2009) “The Power of TV: Cable Television and Women's Status in India”, Quarterly Journal of Economics 124: 1057-1094.

La Ferrara, E, A, Chong, and S Duryea (2012) “Soap Operas and Fertility: Evidence from Brazil”, American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 4: 1-31.

Papandrea, F (1999) “Willingness to Pay for Domestic Television Programming”, Journal of Cultural Economics 23: 149-166.

Shanahan, J and M Morgan (1999) “Television and its viewers”, Cultivation theory and research, Cambridge University Press.

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