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 "Finnish Views of CNN Television News" by Brett Dellinger
"Because of the structures of the various discourses within this broadcast genre, structures which were imposed by the pressures of its encompassing commercial objectives and design, it has an inherent inability to communicate information in the same way as the written word."

"CNN's format is a proven competitive broadcasting commodity while other formats, and discourse styles, are not competitive and will have more difficulty attracting audience attention in a predominantly commercial environment."

"Cueing ... as an artificial contrivance becomes a complex phenomenon, one which, after time, can develop into a formalized and familiar cultural experience whose frame becomes ritualized."

"The American public got what many critics and "conspiracy theorists" did not entirely expect: Instead of the "jackboot" and fascist-style propaganda, American television viewers got an endless stream of entertainment..."

"Stuart Hall ... sees the operation of the media within western capitalist societies as "all inclusive." The media shape our tastes and our desires--as well as our expectations. There is 'a shaping of the whole ideological environment ... a way of representing the order of things ... with ... natural or divine inevitability ....'" 

To Finns, it seems, American television news is read "with a gleeful smile and interspersed with laughter, punctuated by frowning--as if ... emotions were totally disconnected from the text.  American audiences ... expect "happy talk" and banter during a news broadcast. Finns, on the other hand, associate such behavior with clowns..."

This chapter also appeared in Mediapolis: Aspects of Texts, Hypertexts und Multimedial Communication under the title: "Concision in American Commercial Broadcasts." 

For more information: See Sam Inkinen, the editor, in Research in Text Theory Untersuchungen zur Texttheorie, a series edited by János Petöfi.


According to the Bangemann Report, Europe’s system of information exchange and distribution--in particular broadcasting--is undergoing a "revolution." The old state-supported public service broadcasting "monopolies" were originally established according to the principle that radio and television, as public institutions, should be responsible for education and community service. It was in the 1990s that the "revolution" began. This is a "market-driven revolution," however, one which, according to its supporters, demands "a new regulatory environment allowing full competition." In the past, public service broadcasting in most European countries has been directed by official governing bodies, to one extent or another under the control of parliament or a government ministry with a bureaucracy and civil servants who would seek to serve the needs of the state and, if possible, the entire community. As a result of their broadcasting monopoly and taxpayers' support, state-operated public service broadcasters, together with the national presses and other printed media, were in a position of exercising considerable influence over the nature and content of public discourse in Europe for many years. European audiences, since the establishment of public service radio, have by and large regarded their national broadcasters as credible and reliable sources of information and, for the most part, have taken their official style of discourse for granted, in particular that which is used in news reports.

As the Bangemann Report so rightly points out, "information infrastructures are borderless in an open market environment ...the information society has an essentially global dimension." But the report also seems to be accusing national public service broadcasters of being too subservient to the political goals of the parties which happen to be in power. And furthermore, this approach inspires others to accuse public broadcasting of being too expensive for taxpayers to maintain in times of higher budget deficits. In countries all over Europe, therefore, including the former Soviet Union and its former allies, demands are being raised for a more democratic and, "cost-incentive" system of broadcasting.

The Bangeman Report, therefore, is seeking "a truly open environment, where access is provided to all players," which can only be interpreted to mean an expansion of commercial broadcasting. In this newer environment of waning government support, public service broadcasters are showing signs of weakening their hold on viewers. In January of 1993, for example, the German commercial broadcaster, RTL, surpassed both German state broadcasting companies, ARD and ZDF, in audience market share.

The Bangemann Report has made it crystal clear: "Competition policy is a key element in [European] Union strategy. It is especially important for consolidating the single market and for attracting the private capital necessary for the growth of the trans-European information infrastructure." The question must be asked, however:  Do Europeans really want their information infrastructure turned into a freely competitive "single market" for private capital? Those who are today concerned about the future nature and content of public discourse in Europe should stop and consider the substance of these ostensibly newer concepts in broadcasting which are now being popularized all over Europe.

There is no denying that the changes which are now occurring are motivated by changing markets and changing technologies, in particular the emerging dominance of satellite and cable—as well as the rapid intrusion of even newer technologies, such as digital broadcasting and even the Internet itself. Changes in advertising practices have become necessary to meet the growing competition in Europe from the United States and Japan. The new requirements and stringent guidelines induced by Europe's unification into an economically more competitive and formidable trading community also dictate changes in the present broadcasting structures.

But perhaps of most significance is the growing demand on the part of investors for more advertising outlets, a problem exacerbated by European integration, rapidly changing economic structures, and the needs of capital within Europe.

The Bangemann Report claims that these newer concepts in European public information exchange and public discourse have "…the potential to improve the quality of life of Europe's citizens, the efficiency of our social and economic organisation and to reinforce cohesion." It presents the dominance of the market and commercial broadcasters as an improvement over the "something-for-everyone," state-controlled programming on radio and television which have long characterized the public service sector in Europe. Commercial broadcasting is, according to this argument, better because it supposedly reflects the tastes and real viewing and listening appetites of European audiences. From Italy to Scandinavia and from Great Britain to the Urals, European versions of the Nielsen Co. are springing up to carry out "viewer surveys" in which the "guy next door" is asked what "he" thinks about what programs should be on the tube.

This relatively new undertaking in Europe is, above all, beneficial to commercial broadcasters and their customers, the advertisers, who now intend to emulate the time-proven "style" of commercial broadcasting which is well known in the United States. The threat of the commercial broadcasting style has put the providers of public service broadcasting on the defensive. Experience with market competition, in some cases, has had disastrous consequences for state broadcasters, causing feelings of perplexity, resentment and, sometimes, a retreat from reality. Public service broadcasters claim that they are being pursued by commercial competitors and other advocates of advertising on radio and television with accusations of "monopoly" and even "financial tyranny." In the brand new market-oriented economies of the former Soviet Union and its allies, young entrepreneurs are righteously demanding the "de-monopolization of Radio and TV broadcasting structures," while media moguls, research foundations and other interested parties from Western Europe, and even the United States, are touting the virtues of "preserving a plurality of viewpoints" and offer grants to researchers interested in "strengthening independent media."

Most significantly, commercial broadcasting is changing the nature of television news programs in Europe. From now on, it is promised, newscasts will be "punchier," and will avoid the "trivial government business" that fills up so much time in public-service broadcasts. Breakfast talk shows, sitcoms and feature films, as well as top sports events, and music videos, are now "in." Classical concerts and documentaries are "out." Commercial television is bringing Europe into the "mainstream... as a hip style-setter," with programming aimed at the "average citizen." If this trend continues, the beginning of the 21st century could mark a shift in Europe to the dominance of commercial broadcasting, accompanied by a corresponding shift in the use of the commercial style of discourse in the exchange of public information.

The present critical study

There are many differences between state supported public service broadcasting companies and their commercial competitors. This study focuses critically on the discourse style which is now used in American commercial television news and public affairs broadcasts. This study also analyzes the commercial broadcast style of CNN, using the cross-cultural assistance of a Finnish audience reference. The questions of why and how certain differences in communication styles originate, what their purposes are, as well as why and how they are perpetuated, are investigated.

This study is based on cross-cultural expectations and the various meanings attributed by Finns to American commercial television's style of discourse, in particular that which is used in news and public affairs programs on CNN. It is important to clarify the reasons, whether historical, political, psychological, or otherwise, behind the rejection or acceptance of a particular style of discourse. Finnish audiences have constructed their television-news-reporting expectations over a period of years while viewing their own national broadcaster. It is their own national broadcaster which has set the standards and with which their expectations have developed for the presentation of news and public affairs. This style, to which they are accustomed, also represents credibility and newsworthiness in public discourse.

In keeping with the concept of critical discourse analysis (see Teun A. van Dijk), I have also attempted to include, where possible, a cross-cultural explanation of historical, political, economic, ideological and other phenomena which lead to misunderstandings, gaps, or "lacunae" in the decoding of meaning between the American commercial style and Finnish audiences. In most cases, I have discovered, history and those social classes which create history are the determining ingredients which set the pattern for perception among audiences and broadcasters alike, developing a culturally linked, implicit understanding, or anticipation of precisely what television news discourse should or should not be.

For most English-speaking readers who are not familiar with Finnish television news, the first part of my investigation includes a brief review of Finnish society and its relationship to its state broadcaster. The relatively recent appearance of satellite broadcasting and the widespread use of cable, however, have upset the broadcasting status quo in Finland, as in the rest of Europe. Now, for the first time in history, foreign broadcasters, such as CNN, have broader access to European Finnish audiences. Even if large numbers of Europeans do not watch CNN, the American concept of commercial broadcast news discourse is gaining in credibility and acceptance, a fact which will seriously challenge Finland's public service discourse style.

The second part of this study considers the origins of the commercial discourse style and how it has developed in the United States, a style which resulted from the indispensability of advertising in the new economy which emerged after the American Civil War and the resulting commodification of newspaper readership. Radio later modified the new style of journalism to fit the parameters of an oral, advertising medium, and the appearance of television extended the concept of commercial public discourse as it had been developed in radio. Although radio and television in the United States both appeared in the shadows of World Wars I and II respectively, entertainment became firmly established as an essential component of American broadcasting. As later became evident during the Vietnam War, commercial television news was able to develop and further enhance its style of discourse, as inherited from radio, adding other innovative modifications, to the advantage of sponsors, such as cueing, framing and concision. McCarthyism and the cold war, both concurrent phenomena during American television's most formative years, dominated public discussions in the United States and must therefore be critically analyzed. These political and social phenomena also demonstrate that commercial television, in spite of many claims to the contrary, can be just as sensitive to political restraints as Europe's state broadcasters (a fact which was, once again, demonstrated by CNN's reporting of the Persian Gulf War).

The third section considers the question of media control, in particular those arguments submitted by such outspoken critics as Noam Chomsky and Todd Gitlin, who take an "instrumentalist" view of the media. "Instrumentalists" insist that television, whether it is produced commercially or as a state-supported public service, is used as an instrument of control by powerful economic and political interests, which set the information agenda for public consumption. Other critics, including many structuralists, strongly disagree. Audiences, say some of these critics, are the ones who ultimately decide what is shown on commercial television. This section also seeks alternatives to the instrumentalist and structuralist approaches to media criticism.

The fourth and final part of my investigation is derived from opinions expressed by Finnish audiences, in interviews and other critical literature, in which interpretations of selected CNN broadcasts are analyzed. The object is to explain the differences in perceptions of CNN and its style cross-culturally and to uncover the implicit acceptance of the commercial discourse style by American audiences, one which is not yet taken for granted in Finland.

My first empirical study makes use of the lacuna, as developed by Astrid Ertelt-Vieth, which reveals cross-cultural differences without trying to "solve" them or "appreciate" them. My second study looks at the American media's practice of framing the news, from a cross-cultural perspective, with special emphasis on CNN's framing of the news from the Persian Gulf War. The third study, using examples of debates as presented on CNN's current affairs program, Crossfire, is an attempt to construct a cross-cultural definition of "concision" with assistance from a Finnish television audience.

Aims and methodology

This study is based on data provided by Finnish viewers of selected programs from CNN International. The audience reception model is derived from three sources. First, my own work among Finnish students has enabled me to have access to hundreds of cultural informants, namely students from the faculties of the social sciences, the humanities and education. I have also attempted to adapt John Fiske's model of audience elicitation, in which he "audienced" a number of television programs with students. This particular approach is especially expedient when considering the resources available to me as a teacher of English as a foreign language. Teaching English as a foreign language enables me to discuss these matters at length. Of great importance is that leading and specific questions not be asked about the television programs which I watched along with the audiences. Rather, an attempt was always made to monitor responses during viewing and then encourage the audience to tell its opinion about the programs in their own words, as a group and as individuals. The third source of inspiration is taken from the work done by Ertelt-Vieth, who elicited information from native speakers of German visiting Moscow. Her information concerned Moscovites and their linguistic and cultural practices. In this way, it became possible to explain the meanings of various lacunae which appeared in the process of cross-cultural interaction. Ertelt-Vieth's approach takes into consideration the existence of misinterpretation and misunderstanding of culturally specific codes. Such cross-cultural misunderstandings are commonplace in the EFL classroom and are dealt with on a daily basis by EFL teachers.

My method of investigation is to a certain extent borrowed from that used in critical discourse analysis (CDA) by Teun van Dijk and Gunther Kress. As explained Kress, CDA is concerned with revealing "the complex of processes involved in the production, communication, and reception/reproduction of texts." Kress stresses the fact that CDA also uses an overtly political agenda and seeks to uncover those aspects of discourse within a culture which are taken for granted. A detailed discussion of CDA is contained within succeeding chapters of this study.

This study concludes that the commercial discourse style, as used in the United States for news and public/current affairs programs, and now emulated around the world, has some basic characteristics which cause it to differ from the style most often used in public service broadcasting in Finland. Because of the structures of the various discourses within this broadcast genre, structures which were imposed by the pressures of its encompassing commercial objectives and design, it has an inherent inability to communicate information in the same way as the written word. It is precisely the written word which is the current style of discourse preferred-and taken for granted-by audiences and Finland's public service news broadcaster (YLE, Yleisradio), as well, in other public service news and public affairs programs in Europe. This is not to say that public service broadcasting can always offer superior programming or better news, or that it cannot emulate the commercial discourse style, for these are matters which are ultimately decided at parliamentary or government levels. While commercial broadcasting is without a doubt an essential marketing element within today's western economies, the discourse style which must be used puts it at a disadvantage. Commercial broadcasters of news have a double burden to carry: They must be able to communicate genuine public information (something audiences can use and will want to watch), but they must do so in such a manner that audiences will choose to remain in front of their television sets long enough to see the next commercial (the real purpose for the commercial broadcast). Public service news broadcasters, however, are also at a disadvantage with their style of discourse, since the written word does not compete as well under competitive market conditions with that of commercial broadcasters, especially in times of budget cuts and other obstacles to public service financing. On the other hand, public service broadcasters can, if they so choose, emulate the discourse style of their commercial counterparts.

When we stop to consider the essential importance of television news and public affairs as we know them today, one cannot help but contemplate the alternatives. An alternative to public service and commercial television should definitely be considered, as the Bangemann Report forces us to do, but any alternatives must successfully, both economically and democratically, strive to serve all of society's needs and interests, which includes audiences and broadcasters, and not only advertisers and market investors.


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Copyright © 1999 by Brett Dellinger. All rights reserved.

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