Turn on a television set anywhere in the world and you are likely to be in familiar territory. American crime shows and talent contests are international hits. If it’s not American Idol it’s Indian Idol or some other blockbuster copycat. And there are the international broadcasts of Fox News and CNN. It’s easy to scream cultural imperialism at your transcontinental tube, but it would be a mistake. Media sensations hatched in the United States may dominate global ratings, but they seldom lead in the living rooms and wired cafés of Amsterdam, Kabul, Seoul, or Cape Town, where the desperate contestant is no competition for the timeless drama of the soap opera.
In 1997 South Korea invaded China. There was no army, just a soapy television drama called What Is Love? that quickly became the most popular foreign-made show in China. The show launched a movement called Hallyu or Korean Wave that marched through Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, and Vietnam. The secret was high-quality drama at a bargain rate. Once-dominant Japanese dramas were more expensive to air, and the market took it from there. The movement spawned superstars and an endless succession of shows with dreadfully sappy names like Star in My Heart and I’m Sorry, I Love You. Wherever you are, you’re probably missing one of these prized productions right now.
Laila Rastagar is a 22-year-old censor for Afghanistan’s privately owned television network, Tolo TV, which enjoys a 60 percent market share. She sits at a computer all day and blurs indecent images—from wildly popular soaps produced mostly in South Korea and India. The Afghan government is handling its media with an ever-heavier hand. “Some stations have gone more conservative and others more defiant as the culture war builds over what’s legal, and what’s Afghan,” reports the Associated Press. “The baseline of acceptability can be hard to define in a country that has swung from miniskirted university students in the 1970s to mandatory burqas under the Taliban and now is trying to settle somewhere in between.”
According to a 2008 study, four of the five “soapies” most popular with South Africans under 23 were locally produced. “Young consumers are overexposed to the lives of the rich and famous across the world,” youth marketing executive Liesli Loubser explains to the South African Times. “When young people watch their local soapies, they can relate far easier to the lives of the characters.”
Saudi Arabia is obsessed with a Turkish soap called Noor that flopped in Turkey and was repackaged for the Arab world. Noor is named after its fiercely independent female lead—a successful fashion designer with a heartthrob husband who treats her as an equal. This dynamic probably explains the success of the show among Saudi Arabia’s women. “Our men are rugged and unyielding,” a 26-year-old housewife told Reuters. “I wake up and see a cold and detached man lying next to me, I look out the window and see dust. It is all so dull. On Noor, I see beautiful faces, the beautiful feelings they share and beautiful scenery.” The show is dubbed in colloquial Arabic, whereas most shows, like the also-popular Mexican soaps, are dubbed in formal Arabic, giving them an academic feel. “I don’t like all that Maria Mercedes nonsense,” 16-year-old Dania Nugali told Reuters. “I feel like I am in Arabic literature class when I watch Mexican shows. But when I watch Noor, I definitely feel that it is entertainment.”
The soap-opera-as-ambassador model has its limits. In 2007 the Thai soap Mekong Love Song was yanked off the TV schedule in neighboring Laos for apparently mocking the country with a scene in which a Thai actor threw the national flower of Laos into a dustbin. In 2003 false reports circulated around Cambodia, where Thai soaps first appeared on bootleg VHS tapes, that a Thai soap star had challenged Cambodia’s claim to the iconic Angkor Wat temple. Cambodians rioted and attacked Thai-owned stores.
Thai soap controversies inside Thailand tend to be relatively benign. Last year a drama centered on a group of catty flight attendants was compelled to exercise restraint after a local airline union complained to the culture ministry. In a press conference, a producer promised change: “There won’t be any more catfight scenes between flight attendants while they are on duty or in uniform in public. The skirts our actresses wear are not shorter than those worn by hostesses at other international airlines. But we will make our skirts longer.”