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From "House of Cards" and "Breaking Bad" to Miley Cyrus and "The Wolf of Wall Street," violence and vulgarity now pervades much of U.S. popular culture. As the U.S. has cut its public diplomacy programs, cultural critics say Hollywood -- and the distorted image it exports -– has become the de facto U.S. ambassador, giving audiences abroad an exaggerated view of American values and lifestyle. We talk to cultural critic and author Martha Bayles about how our pop culture affects how Americans are perceived in foreign countries, and learn how those on the front lines of public diplomacy can alter that image.
In 2004, the TV division of China's Hunan Broadcasting staged "Super Girl," a singing contest inspired by the Western "American Idol" format. "Super Girl" became a sensation in China, with a finale that drew more than 8 million text-message votes -- a phenomenon that concerned Communist Party leaders. In 2008, "Super Girl" was cancelled to make room for the Beijing Olympics. Eventually the competition was restored, though the SMS voting portion was removed.
Hosted by two Iranian Americans based in Washington, "Parazit" reached a significant audience, despite heavy jamming by the Iranian government. (Parazit means “static” in Farsi). It also circulated widely in social media. Parazit ended in 2012, reportedly because of disagreements between the two hosts.
In 2008, the New York Philharmonic visited the capital of North Korea in the first visit by an American cultural organization to the country. The orchestra's program included works by Gershwin, Dvorak and Wagner, among others. As a finale, the philharmonic played "Arirang," a North Korean folk song.