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Commentary

Media, Culture & Society

Lacuna or Universal?
33(4) 631­–641
© The Author(s) 2011
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DOI: 10.1177/0163443711399223
for understanding cross- mcs.sagepub.com

cultural audience demand

Ulrike Rohn
University of Tartu, Estonia

Introduction
Why is some media content enjoyed by audiences across cultures while other content
encounters cultural barriers to its cross-cultural success? In many countries, locally pro-
duced media content outplays imported media content in terms of audience ratings. This
is in accord with Straubhaar’s (1991) notion of cultural proximity, according to which
audiences turn to media content produced outside their cultural environment only if that
from their own environment is unavailable, limited in terms of choice or obsolete.
Although the significance of cultural proximity as a positive influence on audience pref-
erences has been widely proven (Davis, 2003; Keane et al., 2007; Sinclair et al., 1996),
the concept does not explain the tremendous international success of some media produc-
tions, such as Harry Potter, Titanic or Lord of the Rings.
In order to address the complexity of cross-cultural audience demand, many authors
have taken the notion of cultural proximity further. Iwabuchi (2002: 133–5) emphasized
the active role played by the audience in the success of the international media trade by
proposing viewing cultural proximity as something that occurs as the result of a dynamic
process. In a later work, Straubhaar (2007: 195–9) suggested that in the same way that
audiences may have multi-layered cultural identities, they may also experience multi-
layered cultural proximity. As such, they may find elements of imported content cultur-
ally proximate to them, but not elements in domestic content, which detaches the concept
of cultural proximity from the idea that it is geographically determined. Furthermore,
Iwabuchi (2002) also stresses that a desire for proximity may attract audiences to media
content from other cultures, such as a ‘desired proximity’ to modernity (Featherstone,
1990). This opening up of the concept of cultural proximity helps to improve our

Corresponding author:
Ulrike Rohn, University of Tartu, Estonia
Email: ulrike@rohn.as
632 Media, Culture & Society 33(4)

understanding of cross-cultural audience demand. What has been missing so far,


however, is a categorization of, and terminology for, all possible phenomena and circum-
stances that may influence audiences’ receptiveness to media content that has been
produced outside their cultural environment. To this end, I propose the Lacuna and
Universal Model that provides a theoretical classification, systematization and termi-
nology of the various reasons that may lie behind the cross-cultural success or failure of
media content. The Lacuna and Universal Model is an analytical framework that helps to
understand cross-cultural audience demand by taking into account not only the immedi-
ate audience–text relationship, but also the contextual factors that may influence this
demand, and the role that media publishers and transmitters may play in the success
of cross-cultural media trade.

The Lacuna and Universal Model


The presumption pertaining to the Lacuna and Universal Model is that both the media
production and consumption processes leave a lot of room for cultural influences. Both
media producers and media audiences are influenced by their cultural baggage, consist-
ing of culturally dependent values, attitudes, tastes, experiences, knowledge and so forth.
Thus, the culture of the media producers influences the media content they produce, while
the culture of the audiences influences what media content they select, how they interpret
it, and if, and to what extent, they like it.
With the proposed model I argue that audiences do not select and enjoy media content
that has been produced outside their culture if they perceive a mismatch between their
own cultural baggage and that of the producer as incorporated into the content – a
phenomenon for which I suggest the term Lacuna. I also argue that audiences do select
and enjoy media content that has been produced outside their culture if no such mismatch
of cultural baggage is present, if audiences do not perceive such a mismatch, if they do
not attribute great importance to the perceived mismatch, or if they have no access to
alternative content – phenomena for which I suggest the term Universal. The Lacuna
and Universal Model differentiates three categories of Lacunae as well as of
Universals, which will be introduced later in this commentary.
The Lacuna and Universal Model is an interdisciplinary analytical framework for
understanding cross-cultural audience demand, inasmuch as it was developed based on
different research traditions and branches. These include research on processes of encoding
and decoding media messages and media reception in general (e.g. Barthes, 1977; Fiske,
1987; Hall, 1973; Jauss, 1982; Levy and Windahl, 1985; Rosengren et al., 1985) and
previous research on cross-cultural acceptance of media content (such as Chalaby, 2005;
Hoskins and Mirus, 1988; Liebes and Katz, 1993; Olson, 1999; Wasko et al., 2001), as
well as marketing studies that help in understanding strategies companies may use to
make imported media content more successful with audiences (such as Kotler and Keller,
2006; McCarthy, 1960).
Crucial to the elaboration of the proposed model were also research interviews with
international media managers from Time Warner, Disney, Viacom, News Corporation
and Bertelsmann. In these 29 in-depth interviews, which I conducted between 2005 and
2007 as part of a broader research project (Rohn, 2010), Western as well as Asian
Rohn 633

respondents explained why they thought that certain Western media productions, namely
content that had originally been produced for European or North American audiences,
was or was not successful with audiences in China, India or Japan. The following intro-
duces the Lacuna and Universal Model in detail, and provides real-life examples as pro-
vided by the interviewees.

Three types of Lacunae


The term Lacuna has been widely used in the scientific community of translation and
literature to refer to ‘the gap in the text’, that is, to linguistic components that exist in one
culture but not in another. The Russian ethno-psycholinguists Sorokin (e.g. 1993) and
Markovina (e.g. 1993) were the first to introduce the term as an instrument for intercul-
tural research. The so-called Lacuna theory was then further developed by Schröder
(e.g. 1995) and Ertelt-Vieth (e.g. 2003). The latter studied the misinterpretations and
misunderstandings experienced by German native speakers visiting Moscow, and divided
Lacuna into mental Lacuna, activity Lacuna and object Lacuna.
In the context of understanding cross-cultural audience demand, I propose using the
term Lacuna for gaps or mismatches between the cultural baggage of the media producers,
which influences the topics and the style of the content, and the cultural baggage of the
audiences, which influences the kind of media content they select, how they understand
it and to what extent they enjoy it. Where audiences perceive Lacunae in content pro-
duced outside their culture, they apply a ‘cultural discount’ (Hoskins and Mirus, 1988) to
it. As a result, they either do not select the particular content, or do not understand and
enjoy it. From the perspective of a media company engaged in the international media
business, Lacunae represent cultural barriers to the cross-cultural success of their media
content. Depending on which culturally dependent properties of producers’ and audiences’
cultural baggage do not match, I propose three different categories of Lacunae: Content
Lacuna, Capital Lacuna and Production Lacuna.

Content Lacuna
I propose the term Content Lacuna for the phenomenon where audiences find media
content from outside their culture irrelevant or even inappropriate. The extent to which
audiences find media content relevant largely depends on the extent to which they are
able to make a connection between themselves and the content, which influences greatly
how attractive they perceive the content to be (Levy and Windahl, 1985). The director of
Bertelsmann’s international magazine division, for instance, stated in an interview that
Chinese women preferred Japanese over Western fashion magazines because of the
Asian appearance of the photographic models.
When media content conflicts with audiences’ pre-existing attitudes and values, they
find it inappropriate and do not enjoy or select it (Festinger, 1957; Lazarsfeld et al.,
1944). The managing director of FremantleMedia Japan, for instance, observed that
many of the Western reality television formats were not suitable for the Japanese market,
where personal feelings, expressions and affections are regarded as private matters that
should not be brought up in public other than by celebrities.
634 Media, Culture & Society 33(4)

Capital Lacuna
I propose the term Capital Lacuna to describe the phenomenon where audiences outside
the producer’s culture lack the necessary knowledge to understand the content and, as a
result, do not enjoy it.1 Capital Lacuna, as I use the term, also partly relates to Bourdieu’s
(1986) concept of ‘cultural capital’, and especially to the idea of ‘cultural capital in the
embodied state’, since it refers to forms of knowledge that a person may have as a result
of the processes of socialization and acculturation. This also includes linguistic capital as
a sub-form of cultural capital, that is, the language skills a person may have (Bourdieu,
1991). However, Capital Lacuna does not imply that the cultural capital a person pos-
sesses gives him or her a higher status in society. Instead, it simply means that people
who share the same culture also share culturally dependent knowledge. As a result, they
may not understand media content produced for a different culture since they lack the
knowledge the producer took for granted when producing the content for the original
target audience. Although a person’s knowledge may influence the kind of content he or
she finds relevant, the focus of Capital Lacunae, in contrast to Content Lacunae, is not on
the perceived irrelevance of the content, but on the lack of understanding of it. In the case
of Capital Lacunae, audiences would like to understand the content, but cannot.
The most obvious Capital Lacunae occur when content is in a language that is foreign
to the audience. Language barriers may also occur with translated media content, since a
translated version never conveys exactly the same message as the original (Sapir, 1986;
Whorf, 1964); hence there is the risk that the audience will not understand the text in the
intended way and, as a consequence, will not enjoy it.
Audiences may also lack the culturally dependent, genre-specific interpretation skills
it takes to understand and enjoy imported media content (Fiske and Hartley, 1978;
Livingstone, 1998). Furthermore, they might not understand or enjoy imported content
because they are unfamiliar with the people, places, events and so forth, to which it
refers. In particular, quiz shows require a lot of cultural-specific knowledge, and none of
the questions in the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, for instance, are
taken from the original UK programme, even though the questions are also in English.
Instead, they are developed uniquely for the Indian audience. The interviewees at
Bertelsmann Shanghai and Random House Kodansha in Tokyo observed that the legal
thriller The Firm by John Grisham was not successful in these countries, where readers
lacked the crucial knowledge about the legal system in the US needed to fully appreciate
the story.

Production Lacuna
I suggest the term Production Lacuna to give a name to the phenomenon when audiences
do not enjoy foreign-produced media content because they do not like its style. Both the
production style the producer employs, and that which the audience is used to and enjoys
are influenced by culturally defined tastes and standards. If these styles do not match, the
content may appear unusual, strange or even disturbing to the audience.
Culturally defined tastes and standards in media production encompass a wide array
of elements. In publishing, they include the design and the material used. In Japan, for
Rohn 635

instance, readers are used to books and magazines arranged in reverse order compared
with Western books and magazines. In audiovisual production, aesthetic tastes and stan-
dards are mirrored, among other elements, in the source and use of light, the camera
angle employed, the use of color and music, or the studio design. In India, many of these
techniques are often used to produce ornamental and somewhat artificial scene settings,
representing a very glamorous world. As a result, Western productions, in which such
techniques are employed mostly to help create a realistic image of the depicted event
(Burch, 2002; Kolbusz-Kijne, 2004: 193–4, 210), encounter Production Lacunae.
What is more, the way stories are told differs widely across cultures, in terms of both
pace and complexity. A representative of Bertelsmann Shanghai reported that, unlike
Chinese fiction authors, who provided a lot of background information to their readers
and told their stories from different angles, Western authors often focused on one
protagonist only, making storytelling too fast for Chinese readers to enjoy. For Japan, the
managing director at FremantleMedia contended that Western formats with a relatively
simple storyline, such as The Price is Right or The Weakest Link, were not popular in
Japan.
Unlike Capital Lacunae, which include the phenomenon where audiences do not
understand particular foreign media content because they lack the culturally dependent
knowledge of its genre, Production Lacunae include the phenomenon where audiences
do understand the genre, but simply do not enjoy it, or dislike the loosening of familiar
genre rules. The editor-in-chief of Fortune China, for instance, reported that the maga-
zine received negative feedback from Chinese readers when it published translations
of humorous articles which had been much appreciated in the original US version.
The Chinese readers expected nothing but serious business information from the
magazine.

Three types of Universals


I propose the term Universal to describe attributes of media content, as well as of the
relationship between content and audiences, that help to overcome cultural differences
between the production and the consumption cultures. Where Universals exist, audiences
both select and enjoy media content, despite its being produced in a different cultural
environment. I propose three types of Universals: Content Universal, Audience-created
Universal and Company-created Universal.

Content Universal
I propose the term Content Universal to refer to content attributes which can be enjoyed
by audiences across cultures. The term is not limited to those attributes that are appreci-
ated by all cultures around the world, but may also apply to attributes that make particu-
lar media content successful in a particular culture outside the culture of its production.
Foreign media content is always more likely to be well received when it satisfies a
demand not satisfied by the domestic media. This is especially the case when it represents
something new and refreshing compared with the usual media content supply. The Chinese
versions of the UK casting show Pop Idol, for instance, have been hugely successful with
636 Media, Culture & Society 33(4)

audiences because of their lack of predictability, which stands in contrast to most enter-
tainment shows in China.
Also, a high-quality media production might assimilate cultural differences in media
content. The general manager of Viacom’s Nick Network Asia, for instance, contended
that the success of the company’s animation programming in China was due to its rela-
tively high production quality compared to most Chinese animations.
Some media explicitly target an international niche audience. CNN International, for
instance, provides news and information representing Content Universals to the interna-
tional news aficionado. Outside this niche, most news does not travel across cultures, but
the more the coverage concerns an immediate event of international relevance as it
happens, and the less background information and explanation is provided, the more
likely it is to represent Content Universals.
Also content that lacks an obvious cultural origin – that ‘does not imprint a particular
culture or country’ (Iwabuchi, 2002: 28) with racial or ethnic features – finds it easier to
attract audiences across cultures. According to a representative of Viacom, the company’s
animation programme Dora the Explorer was very successful throughout Asia because
the main character did not resemble any particular ethnicity. Media that lacks an obvious
cultural origin also avoids political, religious or other value-loaded statements that could
offend people from another culture, and it avoids addressing problems specific to audi-
ences in a particular cultural environment (Havens, 2000).
Furthermore, content that arouses emotions in such a fundamental and immediate way
that this experience is detached from any culture represents Content Universals. Such
content allows audiences to experience what Barthes (1975) calls ‘jouissance’. Audiences
around the world have been captivated by the romance in Titanic or the spectacle of The
Lord of the Rings, for instance. In a similar way, many cartoon characters offer the universal
appeal of childhood and the simplistic joy of watching something ‘adorable’ and cute
(Dorfmann, 1996).
Media content that allows for escapism into a fantasy world always finds it relatively
easy to be appreciated across cultures. The Da Vinci Code or Harry Potter represent
Content Universals as they provide a fantasy world that has no connection to any audi-
ence’s cultural situation. In some cases, media may even represent a world that audiences
long for, or which they find to be nicely exotic, thereby providing for the above-mentioned
‘desired proximity’. The director of Bertelsmann’s International Magazine Division, for
instance, pointed out that the Chinese edition of the magazine Car & Motor included
photographs of streets and landscapes in Western countries to stimulate dreams of road
trips in far-away countries.

Audience-created Universal
Audience-created Universals refers to the phenomenon where audiences enjoy foreign-
produced media because of the particular way in which they read it. Audience-created
Universals are the result of a dynamic process, by which audiences associate the attrac-
tiveness of foreign-produced media with the perception of cultural similarity (Iwabuchi,
2002: 133–5). This dynamic process, through which audiences self-create Universals, is
possible to the extent that the media text is ‘open’ (Eco, 1989) or provides for ‘semiotic
Rohn 637

democracy’ (Fiske, 1987), whereby it delegates meaning-making to the audience. Olson


(1999) speaks of a ‘transparent text’, which includes narratological devices such as open-
endedness or the leaving out of detail, that allow readers to project their own narratives,
values and meanings onto the text. Though the prerequisite of Audience-created Universals
is the transparency and openness of the text, the focus of Audience-created Universals,
in contrast to Content Universals, is not on content attributes, but on the audience–text
relationship in the process of reading. Random House’s motivational book on change,
Who Moved My Cheese?, for instance, was internationally successful, as the interna-
tional director of the Random House Group claimed, because readers from different
cultures projected their own experiences, hopes, or fears connected with change onto
the text.
The dynamic process of self-creating Universals can also be seen in the context of the
concept of polysemy (Fiske, 1986), which suggests that audiences select meaning from the
content as though selecting from a smorgasbord. Hence, audiences may selectively
perceive content elements and meanings that suit their own cultural baggage and ignore
others. Indian readers of The Da Vinci Code, for instance, focused their reading on the topic
of the sacred feminine, which plays an important role in Indian cultures (Kumar, 2005).

Company-created Universal
I suggest the term Company-created Universal when foreign-produced media is successful
because companies have managed to create a competitive advantage for it relative to
other media in the market. Whereas media producers can, to some extent, enhance the
cross-cultural success of their media content by producing content that represents
Content Universals or that allows for Audience-created Universals, it is the publishers
and transmitters who may create Company-created Universals once the content has been
produced. Publishers such as publishing houses or television stations, and transmitters
such as book retailers or cable operators, may strategically position foreign media so as
to divert the audience’s attention away from possible Lacunae and/or to call their attention
to possible Content Universals. Such positioning can be achieved through marketing strat-
egies, which include tools that concern promotion, place and price (McCarthy, 1960).2
Through promotion, companies may attract attention to an otherwise unnoticed media
product by advertising or by making it known through public relations activities. Olson
(1999: 110) points out that media products find it easier to transcend cultures when they
are ‘omnipresent’ in the market. Large international media conglomerates usually have
the financial means to devote large amounts of resources to promoting their media,
something that many of the smaller domestic companies lack. A senior producer with
Disney in India, for instance, emphasized that the huge success of the movie The Lion
King in that country was largely the result of the large amount of promotion the movie
received. Large international companies can often also utilize internationally recognized
brands that may help them find transmitters and audiences. MTV, for instance, attracts
audiences across cultures by delivering to them the feeling of being part of a global youth
culture, and the perceived prestige that a reader may gain when reading internationally
acclaimed magazines, such as Time, may water down possible Content, Capital or
Production Lacunae.
638 Media, Culture & Society 33(4)

With regard to place as a marketing tool, companies may contribute to the success of
imported media content by placing it on an attractive channel and at an attractive time,
such as airing an imported programme during prime time. The CEO of Random House
Kodansha stated that the Japanese edition of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth was successful
with readers because it was released when Al Gore visited Japan.
Companies may also create Universals for foreign media when offering them at a
comparatively low price. In countries where most television stations air foreign pro-
grammes because they are relatively cheap to purchase, such programmes do not have to
compete with many locally produced programmes. Sometimes, a low price might also be
the reason why a foreign media product is even given the chance to prove its success with
audiences, as the low price might counteract worries regarding possible Lacunae on the
part of the importing company.3

Concluding remarks
This article puts forward the Lacuna and Universal Model that offers a new terminology
for and a theoretical classification of the various factors that may lie behind the cross-
cultural success or failure of media content. As such, the proposed model takes further
the original notion of cultural proximity (Straubhaar, 1991) as well as its various elabora-
tions (Iwabuchi, 2002; Straubhaar, 2007) by offering an analytical framework for study-
ing cross-cultural audience demand.
The Lacuna and Universal Model argues that media content produced outside the
cultural environment of the audience is successful with that audience when it (1) provides
for Content Universals, meaning that it exhibits attributes that appeal to audiences across
cultures; (2) allows for Audience-created Universals, meaning that it is open to alterna-
tive readings; or (3) has been successfully marketed by media publishers and transmit-
ters, a phenomenon here termed Company-created Universal. The suggested model
further argues that audiences either do not select or do not enjoy foreign media content
when it has obvious (1) Content Lacunae, meaning that audiences do not find the content
relevant or appropriate; (2) Capital Lacunae, meaning that audiences do not understand
the content; or (3) Production Lacunae, meaning that they do not like the style of the
media content.
In addition to the bringing together of existing literature, the model was developed
through in-depth interviews with managers of some of the largest Western media compa-
nies that operate in China, India, and Japan, with these interviews being conducted as
part of a broader research project (Rohn, 2010). The advantage of these interviews as an
integral part of designing the model was that these managers had an international perspec-
tive and a broader awareness of cross-cultural differences in media content taste than
audiences usually have. However, they were not always able to explain why particular
imported media content was not successful with audiences. Hence, I recommend that
future research should apply the terminology of the model to studies that take into
account the audience’s perspective. Such a shift from the perspective of the media com-
panies, which plan, monitor and assess their operations in terms of national boundaries,
to the perspective of audiences will also allow the study of cross-cultural audience
Rohn 639

demand within, or overlapping, national cultures. The crucial benefit of the Lacuna and
Universal Model is that it provides a categorization and terminology that, when applied
in longitudinal studies, may detect changes in the relative significance of the various
Lacunae and Universals over time, and thereby provide further insights into the processes
of cultural homogenization, hybridization, or the maintenance or reinforcement of cultural
differences.

Notes
1. Misunderstandings do not always lead to a negative evaluation of media content. In fact, audi-
ences sometimes enjoy content because they do not understand it in the way that the producer
wanted them to. If this happens, I suggest the term Audience-created Universal, which I intro-
duce later in this article. Capital Lacunae occur only when the misunderstanding of content
leads to a negative evaluation.
2. McCarthy (1960) proposed four marketing tools: promotion, place, price and product. The last
of these refers to the production of product variations or innovations. In the context of inter-
national media business, this may include producing content uniquely for the local audience.
Since Company-created Universals play a role only when the content is already produced, they
concern only the marketing tools of promotion, place and price.
3. According to Crofts (1995: 102) the Australian soap Neighbours was introduced to the UK
only because it was comparatively cheap to buy. To the surprise of the importing broadcaster,
the programme did not suffer from cultural barriers but instead was a success with audiences
(Kingsley, 1989: 241).

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