While the United States is the world’s biggest exporter of television, it only imports 2 percent in foreign programming. The dominance of the U.S. television industry is a global phenomenon, and Canada represents an extreme example of subjection to media imperialism.1 As the average Canadian in 1993 spent 22.8 hours a week watching television, one wonders how media imperialism is affecting Canadian culture and sovereignty.
Television was invented in Helenburgh, Scotland and introduced to the world by radio in 1939 at the New York World’s Fair. It has been called “the tube,” “the idiot box,” and even “an instrument of cultural genocide.” The National Film Board’s Magic in the Sky documentary details the effects of television on the isolated Inuit communities in the Canadian far north. Television did not come to the Inuit communities until 1972 when the Canadian government wanted to ensure that communities with over 500 people would have access to television. Most communities readily accepted the offer with the exception of six communities. Anik is the Inuit word for brother, and the name the Inuits gave to the satellite that brought television and the world into their living rooms. It was an event which would alter their lives forever.
John Amagoalik, President, Inuit Tapirisat of Canada describes the initial effects of television in the Inuit communities: “When television first came, the effect of the television on the community was very drastic. People no longer visited their neighbours. Children did not play outside and the interactive activities of the community in general were broken down. The home, the family was the last refuge of the Inuktitut language, and television, by coming into the home, was invading this last refuge.”3 The average Inuit did not understand the English language and could not distinguish between war and violence on the news or actors acting in a drama.
Television created an unreal world for the Inuit communities and did not reflect their northern reality. “The foundation of our culture has always been the concept of sharing things… commercials and game shows suggest that people should go after these things for their own benefits.”4 It was to avoid these negative effects that a village 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle refused the offer of television unless the villagers themselves could control the content and production of their own television programming. It was also the refusal of this village that led the government to sponsor Inukshuk for a six month experiment.
Inukshuk was the Inuit channel whose goal was to “use TV to understand themselves and broaden their horizon.” It was a chance for the Inuit to produce, direct and write for their own TV network. They felt they had a rich culture that deserved to be known in Canada and around the world. Inukshuk put the power of the camera into Inuit hands. Prior to Inukshuk, Inuit people were known only at the other end of the lens and represented by the white person’s perception of them. For example, the movie Enuk, which starred Anthony Quinn as an Inuit, used Hawaiians as “Inuits” and even styrofoam igloos, gave a false representation of the Inuit people. Everyday activities of the Inuit were portrayed as extraordinary events.
The six month experiment proved successful, but it was just that – a six month experiment. After this time period, Inukshuk was cancelled and this left the community with only one hour of satellite viewing, 5 days a week. Now, CBC northern television service is available in all Arctic communities regardless of size, carries two hours a week of its own programming in the Inuktitut language and an additional six hours of Inuit Broadcasting Corporation (IBC) and Taqramiut Napingat Inc. (TNI) programming.
The rest is mainly southern fare, including U.S. entertainment shows.5 For years, the world outside the Inuit communities had been saying that Inuit culture and language were dying and it was believed Inuits would assimilate into the rest of society. However, that assimilation has yet to occur. Television, for better or worse, has made the world smaller for the Inuit people and for all Canadians. It is our TV viewing that shapes our understanding of the world and ourselves. However, it is saturated with U.S. influence and media imperialism. How much television has affected our culture and sovereignty is yet to be seen. Only time will tell.