Television, it turns out, is the kudzu of consumer durables. It spreads across communities with incredible speed. Just look at the story of expanding TV access in the rural areas of one poor country, Indonesia: Within two years of village electrification, average television ownership rates reached 30 percent. Within seven years, 60 percent of households had TVs -- this in areas where average surveyed incomes were about $2 a day. Fewer than 5 percent of these same households owned refrigerators. Television is so beloved that in the vast swaths of the world where there is still no electricity network, people hook up their TVs to batteries -- indeed, in a number of poor countries, such as Peru, more homes have televisions than electricity.
Soaps, soaps, and more soaps. But not all of the dramas are created equal.
As a result, the television is fast approaching global ubiquity. About half of Indian households have a television, up from less than a third in 2001; the figure for Brazil is more than four-fifths. (In comparison, just 7 percent of Indians use the Internet, and about one-third of Brazilians do.) In places like Europe and North America, 90-plus percent of households have a TV. Even in countries as poor as Vietnam and Algeria, rates are above 80 percent. But the potential for real growth in access (and impact) is in the least-developed countries, like Nigeria and Bangladesh, where penetration rates are still well below 30 percent.
If an explosion of access is the first global television revolution, then an explosion of choice will be the second. By 2013, half of the world's televisions will be receiving digital signals, which means access to many more channels. Digital broadcast builds on considerably expanded viewing options delivered through cable or satellite. Indeed, nearly two-thirds of households in India with a TV already have a cable or satellite connection. And in the United States, a bellwether for global television trends, the spread of cable since 1970 has meant an increasing number of broadcast channels are sharing a declining proportion of the audience -- down from 80 percent to 40 percent over the last 35 years. The average American household now has access to 119 channels, and a similar phenomenon is spreading rapidly around the globe.
The explosion of choice is loosening the grip of bureaucrats the world over, who in many countries have either run or controlled programming directly, or heavily regulated the few stations available. A 97-country survey carried out a few years ago found that an average of 60 percent of the top five television stations in each country were owned by the state, with 32 percent in the hands of small family groupings. Programming in developing countries in particular has often been slanted toward decidedly practical topics -- rural TV in China, for example, frequently covers the latest advances in pig breeding. And coverage of politics has often strayed from the balanced. Think Hugo Chávez, who refused to renew the license of RCTV, Venezuela's most popular TV network, after it broadcast commentary critical of his government. He regularly appears on the state channel in his own TV show Aló Presidente -- episodes of which last anywhere from six to a record 96 hours.
But increasingly, the days when presidential speechmaking and pig breeding were must-see TV are behind us. As choices in what to watch expand, people will have access both to a wider range of voices and to a growing number of channels keen to give the audience what it really wants. And what it wants seems to be pretty much the same everywhere -- sports, reality shows, and, yes, soap operas. Some 715 million people worldwide watched the finals of the 2006 soccer World Cup, for example. More than a third of Afghanistan's population tunes into that country's version of American Idol -- Afghan Star. The biggest television series ever worldwide is Baywatch, an everyday tale of lifesaving folk based on and around the beaches of Santa Monica, Calif. The show has been broadcast in 142 countries, and at its peak it had an audience estimated north of 1 billion. (Today, the world's most popular TV show is the medical drama House, which according to media consulting firm Eurodata TV Worldwide was watched by 82 million people last year in 66 countries, edging out CSI and Desperate Housewives.)