Foreign Tube

Tom Swick: On the pleasures of watching television in a faraway place

02.15.10 | 10:41 AM ET

TV in TenerifePhoto by Tom Swick

I never order room service, but I do watch TV. A nation’s television reveals more about its character than even its most traditional covered dish.

And there are countries with hotels where you can travel the world through the click of the remote.

I hit the jackpot in Tenerife. First came the local stations, then those from the various regions of mainland Spain. I watched some jai alai on Euskadi TV, feeling a little odd listening to the commentary in an incomprehensible tongue of a sport that’s played a few miles from my home.

The Canary Islands, I learned, are popular with Germans; about 20 channels from Germany followed. They featured a lot of panel discussions, one about wine. I could tell by the poured bottles, exotica to an American viewer. Another show was on pet adoption, and the first homeless dog—it’s all in the timing—was a German shepherd.
A choir singing what I thought were German hymns turned out to be from The Netherlands. (Perhaps the dog had actually been Alsatian.)

A reporter for Turkish Radio and Television spoke outside a Tudor-style restaurant in Strasbourg, France, and then went inside for tarte flambée, no doubt pronouncing it delicious—the same word I would use to describe the experience of sitting in a hotel on a Spanish island off the coast of Africa and watching a Turk eat a specialty of Alsace.

The French, meanwhile, were in Quebec, interviewing a farmer who raises free-range pigs, one of which was presently turned into ragout.

The Algerian channel aired a cooking show (shrimp in pastry), the Moroccan channel offered a soap opera (subtitles in French), and TV Dubai ran a sitcom in which, during the seemingly endless intro, a heavyset man in a robe wiped his tears with strands of his hair. And I thought: If Americans could see Arab sitcoms it could only be for the good, because it would show the benign universality of the buffoon. 

Mr. Bean turned up on somebody’s channel, as he tends to all over the world. 

The Russian station that didn’t offer news was showing a war film. Old movies for New Russians.

Disappointingly, Al Jazeera International presented an historical documentary about Mozart.

Cubavision Internacional gave me a frisson of the forbidden, while also hinting at a historical fact: A lot of Canarians emigrated to Cuba. Television studios purposefully present an idealized picture of society, but it was hard to ignore, behind the newsroom anchor, the flickering screen of an ancient computer. (Hungry for frissons, I’d keep checking back, finding musical programs or old black-and-white films.)

A few clicks away an Armenian woman with Piaf brows sang melancholy songs while, just around the corner, a brightly-dressed pair performed Kurdish dances. Music has a transportive quality that the spoken word lacks, and as my room in Puerto de La Cruz filled with the melodies of Central Asia, I thrilled to a dual displacement, the couch-traveler trick of being in two foreign places at the same time. 

Over on VTV4, a young Vietnamese woman was having an argument with her father about her boyfriend. (At least that’s what it looked like to someone dependent on facial expressions.)

BBC 2 broadcast the concert of a Chinese tenor singing the hymn, based on the George Herbert poem, “Let All the World in Every Corner Sing.”

Arirang TV featured a quiz show for learning Korean, while on Rai Educational 1, two Italians were busy teaching English. “I want a beautiful TV,” the man said to his friend slowly, stopping before the last set in a row. “This is the MOST beautiful TV.”

He took the words right out of my mouth.

Tom Swick

Tom Swick is the author of two books: a travel memoir, Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland, and a collection of travel stories, A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler. He was the travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for 19 years, and his work has been included in "The Best American Travel Writing" 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2008.

7 Comments for Foreign Tube

Darrin 02.15.10 | 1:02 PM ET

Enjoyable piece!  I’ve found that the commercials reveal just as much about a country as the programs.  Since they are geared toward a specific demographic, they show an idealized version of what the advertisers think the demographic wants.  In Thailand, I enjoyed watching a prepared food commercial that showed a happy, American-suburb-style family, except that their cookie-cutter house was on a canal, not a cul-de-sac.

Anabela Salvador George 02.15.10 | 7:13 PM ET

Great topic Tom! I’ve always found it enjoyable to watch TV in foreign countries for the same reasons. It really is quite entertaining and insightful!

Bird 02.16.10 | 3:03 AM ET

Yes.. you are right Darrin. We have many enjoyable food TV program in Thailand.. I’d love watching too.. By the way, I also like TV champion which some kind of funny program in Japan.

tom swick 02.16.10 | 4:31 PM ET

Darrin, good point. When I travel I look at newspapers in part because the ads often tell more about the place than the news stories do.

Tim 02.17.10 | 12:23 AM ET

When I go travel, not only seeing the TV program but also watching the ad on the TV. Found it is very interesting as well. Some countries like laos, Vietname, the ad is so simple but it goes to the point and easily to reach the customer with less cost in production. Whereas some countries like US, Spain, the ad is more complicated. Sometimes need to imply what it means and costly in production. I just feel whether we need the complicated ad to make the marketing strategy works :). 02.22.10 | 11:14 AM ET

Watching television in a foreign country is always an experience.  As Darrin mentioned, the commercials “reveal just as much about a country as the programs.”  Certain areas of Europe are known for having racy commercials.  In the USA, television viewers think our commercials are steamy—they haven’t seen anything yet.

Jenny 02.23.10 | 4:30 PM ET

And sometimes, when you’re a little homesick, you can find programs like US Womens’ Rodeo Bronco Riding - which I found when I spent a rainy afternoon in the lobby of my Hue, Vietnam hotel. It was wierdly funny but, somehow, made me feel a little less homesick!

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