An 'Invasion' by Hollywood, Microsoft Has Many Nations Trying to Fight Back
A FRENCH archaeologist turns from images of prehistoric bison on his computer screen to take a phone call. It's a short conversation, and he ends it with a polite but firm ''non''.
''Yet another caller who wants to make a CD-ROM of our images,'' says Norbert Aujoulat, who is developing a database of paleolithic cave art for France's National Center of Prehistory in Perigueux. ''We get them all the time. But these are images of Perigueux, and they must remain a product of Perigueux.''
This conversation is a skirmish in a worldwide battle to defend national cultures and values against powerful Western -- and especially US -- media giants.
Television and the draw of Hollywood productions decimated Europe's film industry in the 1980s. New multimedia industries, dominated by United States and Japanese firms, now threaten deeper inroads into what Europeans see as their cultural heritage.
''Europe has the largest cultural patrimony in the world, and Japan and the US are using our culture as raw material,'' French Culture Minister Jacques Toubon told his European counterparts in a Bordeaux meeting in February to discuss a common strategy on cultural policy.
''We don't want to just accept programs from Microsoft. We want to edit our own works and develop a European multimedia industry in the service of our own culture and create jobs. We must make sure we are not dominated in this industry as we have been in the audiovisual,'' he says.
This issue involves more than national pride. Europe faces a $2.4 billion trade deficit with the US in the audiovisual industry. A failure to get into fast-moving multimedia industries could be even more costly, both in terms of jobs and control of culture.
''The cultural issue is real,'' says Stanley Crossick of the Belmont European Policy Center, a Brussels-based consulting group. ''Europeans don't want their kids sitting in front of a multimedia set and find that the only encyclopedia they have is [Microsoft's] Encarta. Geography and history are political. They are part of our culture.''
France insists that the reason it still has a viable film industry is that the government has been willing to enforce strict quotas on the content of television programming and heavily subsidize filmmakers and distributors.
''Film is a reflection of our culture, not a consumer product,'' says Patrick Ciercoles, spokesman for the French National Center of Cinematography, which annually distributes some $420 million in aid to French filmmakers and distributors.
''We have to elevate public taste, otherwise we'll wind up turning viewers into idiots, which is what commercial television and inferior American programming are doing,'' he says.
US film industry wants no quotas
France's cultural-policy nemesis, the Motion Picture Association in the US, is lobbying hard to curb national restrictions on programming content. A key decision comes this month, when the European Commission takes up revision of its audiovisual quotas.
''The French government says we have cultural hegemony and are trampling all over the world, but it's a voluntary act to go in and see our films,'' says Michael Bartholomew, MPA spokesman. ''In Europe, there's a whole generation of filmmakers who have grown up dependent on quotas and subsidies, and as a result they're not producing films people want to see.
''Moreover,'' Mr. Bartholomew adds, ''the development of an information society will need substantial new investment. Europe needs a climate that will not deter investors.''
Europeans backed off French calls for control of content at February's meeting of the Group of Seven (G-7) industrial nations on the Information Society. Instead, the closing statement called on the private sector to build information networks that provide ''abundant capacity'' to accommodate locally produced information.
In Asia and Africa, traditional means of defense against so-called cultural imperialism, such as censorship and cultural quotas, are also losing ground. The new information age is fueled by massive private investment by the computer, telecommunications, and television industries. Governments aiming to block change find their own national industries losing market share and the capacity to compete.
Save culture: produce your own
''We don't want to be consumers of a predetermined product,'' South Africa's Executive Deputy President Thabo Mbeki told G-7 delegates at the Brussels meeting. ''We want to be producers and exporters of our own news, education and cultural programs, games, movies, and songs. We don't just want to be watching MTV video.''
But censorship and controls are not enough to defend local cultures, he added. ''The best assurance against the swamping of our cultures is the reinvigorating of local cultural capacities.''
To that end, Mr. Mbeki called on Western industries to develop private partnerships in Africa, including construction of a fiber-optic cable encompassing all of Africa.
Thus far, however, the target markets for global multimedia companies have not been in Africa, but in Asia, where growth rates of sales of TV sets are expected to double worldwide by 1996.
Many Asian governments that have long resisted such private partnerships with US and other Western companies are now encouraging them. Singapore, for example, which had banned household reception of satellite transmission, now offers tax incentives to broadcasters. Last week, US media conglomerate Time Warner Inc. reportedly signed a pact to sell television programming in China. South Korea, long a critic of Western cultural imperialism, last week raised its quotas on foreign programs from 20 percent to 30 percent.
Indonesia and Malaysia have called on domestic TV stations to curb sex and violence in programming, but satellite TV is proving difficult to control. Rupert Murdoch's Star TV now reaches 40 million viewers in Chinese-speaking countries. China's National Aerospace Corporation plans to set up a satellite-TV operation this year, and Malaysia plans to launch its own satellite-transmission station this year, according to a report this week in The Nikkei Weekly. Malaysia maintains a ban on household satellite reception.
In North Africa and the Middle East, satellite television offers unprecedented access to ideas and images at odds with national cultures or government policy. In Gaza, new apartment complexes are being fitted with satellite receivers. In Saudi Arabia, a household satellite receiver costs about $10,000.
''That's censorship by the dollar,'' says Rene Naba, former director of Arab reporting for Agence France Press.
And in February, Islamic groups in Algeria and Tunisia called for governments to ban parabolic receivers -- dubbed ''paradiabolic'' receivers -- in a bid to limit the influence of Western values and images. But efforts in both countries have met with public resistance. Morocco recently abandoned a plan to tax the white dishes.
''Islamists tried but didn't succeed in banning parabolic receivers,'' says Algerian filmmaker Ali Akika. ''I know many Algerians who voted for the FIS [Islamic Salvation Front], but who kept their parabolic receivers. They just want to know what's happening in the world.''