The Role of Satellite Television in Developing and Sustaining Transnational Communities


Communication around the world has been changed forever by the emergence of satellite television. With the introduction in 1975 of cable-satellite in United States, television dominated by three national networks evolved into a multichannel system with a huge programme choice for the viewers. (Parsons)

However, “the concept of satellite communications was traced to a seminal 1945 article by science fiction author and engineer Arthur C. Clarke, in which he offered for the first time a published description of three strategically placed, manned space stations in geosynchronous earth orbit. Television and radio signals beamed from these platforms could, he noted, cover the globe”. (Parsons) It was an extraordinary intuition that a few years later started becoming reality.

The signals that cover the globe well describe the power of satellite television as a communication medium that disseminates information and entertainment all over the world and also spreads out culture, traditions and way of life even from and to the furthest lands. “At the forefront of the technological changes in broadcasting technology was the satellite, which abolished distance and allowed for the first time the linking of remote territories into new viewing communities”. (Sinclair, Jacka, and Cunningham)

People living distant thousands and thousands of miles have been linking simply by television signals beamed from platforms in the space. For example, a Pakistan family can watch in London ARY Television, a satellite television in hurdu that in a few years has been spreading in Middle East, Europe and Asia. The content, the language and the format of the programmes are specifically made for a hurdu audience that is localized not only in Pakistan, but also in Europe, as the family in London. The programmes are transmitted from Middle East; the family living in London can watch them in the same time another family in Karachi does the same.

Thanks to this extraordinary invention, people distant from homeland do have the big chance to

keep and strength their relations with the origin world, a world that otherwise could have been lost forever. They could have travelled and kept in touch with the telephone, but the linkage to the homeland, to culture and traditions, should not have been constant and strong as it is watching TV and absorbing the message that arrives from their countries of origin. Migrants are virtually united by television signals and they become a sort of aerial communities, transnational communities.

Low cost and accessibility

The global migration trends have been growing sensitively in the last years for different reasons: wars, poverty, diseases, and persecutions. The mobility of people that the U.S. based anthropologist Arjun Appadurai defined Ethnoscape is characterized by refugees and immigrants, but also by tourists, students and professional. “Ethnoscape denotes the flow of people – such as tourists, refugees, immigrants, students and professional – from one part of the globe to another”. (Thussu) However, transnational communities, that are the object of this research, are essentially immigrants and refugees, escaping from wars, tyranny, persecution, starving, illness, and poverty. These people leave their countries and start a new life in a world completely different. In this new world they feel the need to build bridges with their country of origin. Satellite television is one of these bridges, one of the strongest due to the diffusion and accessibility. In fact, the lowered cost and the accessibility of satellite technology have permitted the wide spreading of this communication system among transnational communities and new satellite ethnic televisions mushroom.

“Satellite communication is economically distance-insensitive; once the capital investment is in place, the cost of transmission within the footprint of satellite is equal to all points. And the cost of adding additional receivers within the footprint is only the cost of the receiving equipment itself”. (Parsons) Digital technology is making satellite television even more accessible and widespread. “Direct broadcast satellite  (DBS) signals which can be received by small, relatively inexpensive dishes are now becoming common as the new video digital compression technology increases the channel capacity of satellite transponders up to ten times, and hence greatly increase the choice that can be offered by DBS”. (Hoskins, McFadyen, and Finn)

Television as source of identity

There is no doubt about the role of television as a source of identity. “While questions of identity have become the central theme of cultural studies, television, as the major form of communication in western societies, is one of its longstanding concerns. However, the case for exploring the economic and cultural significance of television is particularly acute at present because of changes in the pattern of global communications including a significant rise in transnational television. In turn, the globalization of the institutions of television raises crucial questions about culture and cultural identities. Thus, the globalization of television has provided a proliferating resource for both the deconstruction and reconstruction of cultural identities. That is, television has become a leading resource for the construction of identity projects”. (Barker)

Television creates images and ideas in which people can identify themselves to belong to a group, to a nation. In the past this role was covered by the print, but with the advent of television the new medium of communication became a major producer of self-representation. The root of the self-national consciousness of belonging to a community is in Benedict Anderson’s theory on the origin and spread of Nationalism. “In an anthropological spirit, I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community […] It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”. (Anderson)

Citizens imagine and consider themselves being part of a nation within boundaries, linked by several factors as languages, traditions, and culture. The satellite television has expanded this idea. “Benedict Anderson’s concept of “imagined communities” has been one of the most influential tropes in theories of national consciousness for more than a decade, but as satellite television distribution transcends the borders of the nation-state, there is some value in applying it to the new audience entities which that process creates.”  (Sinclair, Jacka, and Cunningham)

“Benedict Anderson argued that print capitalism created the possibility of an imagined community, in which individuals came to feel intimately connected to millions of people they had never met. By the same token it is fair to suggest that migrant communities may be encouraged by the availability of different satellite channels to feel they belong to two or more imagined communities at the same time”. (Sakr)

Imagined transnational communities

The rise of print capitalism in Anderson’ theory has provided the condition to create a national identity. The rise of satellite television is at the root of the process for developing and sustaining a transnational identity. In fact, the accessibility and the availability of different satellite channels have given the chance to migrant communities spread around the globe to watch programme, information, entertainment, films, advertisement, products that “speak one, single language”: the homeland “language”. Naomi Sakr analyses the role of satellite television particularly referring to the Middle East and points out: “Satellite television broadcast in Middle Eastern languages have the capacity to respond to population movements, linking communities in different parts of the globe on the basis not of their nationality or location but of their linguistic and cultural affinities”. (Sakr)

Anderson’s theory of imagined community can be adapted to the transnational communities that can feel to belong to supranational communities with the instrument of satellite. People that had to or choose to leave their country now have the big chance to interact across boundaries. Even if they are migrant, they are living in different and distant places, they can participate to the life of the nation where they were living years before or where the forebears come from.

Watching TV and programmes about homeland, transnational communities realize that they are still part, even only in their feelings, of a nation they do not live in anymore, but they also understand being part of a new community, a transnational, diasporic community. They are living the same experience of others that are in a different part of the globe. However, they cannot ignore to be part of a nation in which they are living, studying, working. “Minority media can become symbols of empowerment, they can inform and communicate symbols of community and they can potentially mediate a group’s participation in the public sphere of the country where they live in, in the public sphere of their country of origin and in transnational public spheres that emerge in the diasporic experience – as people who come from a common distant homeland and are presently spread around the globe seek communication and community”. (Georgiou)

The result is the production of several identities that characterize transnational communities. “It becomes possible to think of identities which are multiple, although also often contradictory, corresponding to the different levels from which the televisual environment is composed in a given market. An Egyptian immigrant in Britain might think of herself as a Glaswegian when she watches her local Scottish channel, a British resident when she switches over to the BBC, an Islamic Arab expatriate in Europe when she tunes in to the satellite service from the Middle East, and a world citizen when she channel surfs on to CNN”. (Sinclair, Jacka, and Cunningham) Relations across boundaries mean also globalization as “the identification of world-wide social relations which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa”. (Giddens) In the search of their local, their world of origin, transnational communities are developing on the shape of global.

Two faces: global and local

Transnational communities are both global and local. This dualism is well explored in a study of the social anthropologist Marie Gillespie about the role of television in the formation and transformation of identity among young Punjabi Londoners as the researcher states in the first lines of her book “Television, ethnicity and cultural change”. Punjabi Londoners “are young people of Punjabi family background, mainly in the 14-18 age group, living in Southall, west London, the largest Asian community outside the Indian subcontinent”. (Gillespie)

They are cosmopolitan, but they are also involved in diasporic media; they are international, but they bring also their parents’ national traditions. “To describe them as Punjabi Londoners is to frame them in terms of two significant and related, but by no means comprehensive, aspects of their identity: their cosmopolitanism, and their involvement in the particular media experiences and cultural practices of the Punjabi, or more broadly Indian, diaspora”. (Gillespie)

People prefer ethnic television

The role of satellite seems to be central for migrant communities dispersed in the world. It represents a strong instrument of dissemination and survival for jeopardized cultures and it maintains the linkage with the country of origin and among dispersed groups. “Among a growing number of such groups, one can mention the Jewish, Armenian, Palestinian and Kurdish diasporas; Iranian exile groups in the U.S.; North African migrant communities in continental Europe; Pakistani and Indian communities in Britain. Though they do form small-scale communities locally – neighbourhoods, ‘street-corner’ or ‘housing-project’ societies – such groups often do not share a common space. Typically, they are spread over the territories of many nation-states and their members are exposed to an unusually vast range of potential identities”. (Dayan)

Groups and communities are growing dramatically especially in Western countries and ethnic television is becoming more important and stronger than hitherto. For this reason there are concerns that this satellite television is threatening long established television, such as BBC, as the Guardian newspaper reported.

“The BBC’s annual report showed that the corporation’s reach among Asian audiences – where it is already less popular than among the general population, is falling, and research published recently showed why. More than 70% of British Asian homes – twice the national average – have Sky digital or cable TV. The TV diet of more than two thirds of Asian viewers is made up of Asian-interest channels, featuring dramas set on the subcontinent, news from “back home” and Bollywood music. […] The BBC is concerned that, despite strenuous efforts to attract larger Asian audiences, increasing numbers of Britain’s 4.5 million ethnic minority viewers are paying the license fee for services they are no longer interested in consuming. The corporation’s annual report noted that radio’s reach among ethnic minorities had fallen from 46.9% to 45.2% and TV’s from 78.6% to 78.3%”. The decrease of the audience ratings is not high, but the phenomenon concerns corporation’s managers, as Vasagar and Brown reported on the Guardian. Transnational communities do watch the television of the country in which they live, but they are spending more time seeing programmes made by satellite television produced and originated from their homeland. The more time they spend seeing programme in their language from their countries, the less time they watch TV of the nation in which they move.

Croatian television: a case study

The BBC Monitoring World Media transmitted an excerpt from report by Croatian radio delivered the same day. The news was concise, but clear and detailed: “Announcer Croatian TV will begin a 24 hour transmission of its satellite programme for Croatian emigrants late on Tuesday 14 October and early on Wednesday morning 15 October, Croatian Radio-TV HRT reports. The transmission of the satellite TV programme for Croatian emigrants in North and South America, Australia, New Zealand and Europe will officially begin on Wednesday 14 October at 0130 1130 gmt”. The headline of the news was: “Croatia: TV set to transmit 24 hour satellite programme for Diaspora”.

The case of Croatian TV is not the only one, but it is one of the most recent projects in the world to set a satellite television with programmes that must reach the Croatian population disseminated in several continents. The Croatian project is very ambitious and it is explained in detail in the Croatian Radiotelevision website that has two versions: in Croat and in English. In the website, it has been announced that the television “starts to broadcast on a regular basis 8 hours of programming for Croatian citizens abroad. The programme is broadcasted free to air for Europe from 2 am to 10 am CET and from 8 am to 4 pm for South America. In North America on the East Coast the broadcast begins at 8 pm and is broadcasted around the clock, 3×8 hours. On the West Coast (Los Angeles) the program begins at 5 pm local time and it is broadcasted around the clock too. The same round-the-clock programming is broadcasted over Australia and New Zealand, starting at 10 am (Sydney) and 8 am (Perth). New Zealand will see the start of broadcast at noon”. It means that a Croatian family that ten years ago escaped from the country due to the war in the Balkans and went to North America, on the East Coast, where Croatian friends or relatives were living, now has the chance to get inside the origin country life trough the instrument of satellite. “The program is bringing prime time shows from HRT’s own production. A part from news and current affairs programs like Croatia Today, Prime Time News and Meridian 16 and weekly interviews and news magazines, the programming will include sports, entertainment and musical shows. Also, there will be a pick up of children’s shows, education programs, youth interest programming, science shows, as well as those from  realms of culture, documentaries, religious programming and drama”.


The study shows that the role of satellite television is central for survival and development of transnational communities, people that for different reasons left, leave, are leaving and will leave the homeland for living in another countries more or less distant from their world of origin. Before the emergence of satellite television minorities could have had the chance to keep in touch with their countries thanks to the telephone and travelling; satellite television gives them the concrete opportunity to build a solid bridge to their culture and tradition that otherwise, living far away, could have been lost or weakened. There is evidence that this medium of communication helps to preserve and to strength the original identity of these populations. When people watch satellite television from a “foreign” country they feel to belong to a group of migrants that is spread through the globe; at the same time they also understand to belong to their native land. Therefore they feel being part of the nation in which they live and study or work, part of their country of origin and part of the globe in which they know other people with the same origin are living. Several identities characterize transnational communities that thanks to satellite television are becoming stronger and bigger than hitherto. “We may be entering a new, postmodern epoch in which the idea of a single, nation-state based identity is giving way to a more fragmented and hybridised spectrum of cultural identities. The new media – cable, satellite, video, and the Internet – offer rich sources for constructing these diasporic and hybrid identities”. (Thompson)



Anderson, B (1983) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and the Spread of Nationalism London, Verso

Barker, C (1999) Television, Globalization and Cultural Identities Buckingham-Philadelphia, Open University Press

Dayan, D (1999) Media and Diasporas in Jostein Gripsrud, Television and Common Knowledge London, Routledge

Giddens, A (1990) The Consequences of Modernity Cambridge, Polity

Gillespie, M (1995) Television, Ethnicity and Cultural Change London, Routledge

Hoskins, C, McFadyen, S and Finn, A (1997) Global Television and Film Oxford, Oxford University Press

Sakr, N (2001) Satellite Realms Transnational Television, Globalization and the Middle East London-New York, I.B. Tauris

Sinclair, J, Jacka, E and Cunningham, S (1996) New Patterns in Global Television Peripheral Vision Oxford, Oxford University Press

Thussu, D K (2000) International Communication Continuity and Change London, Arnold Publisher

Journal Articles

Parsons, P (2003) “The Evolution of the Cable-Satellite Distribution System” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Mediav. 47 i. 1

Thompson, K (2002) “Border Crossings and Diasporic Identities: Media Use and Leisure Practices of an Ethnic minority”Qualitative Sociology v. 25 i. 3

Newspaper articles

Vasagar, J and Brown, M (July 21, 2003) “Many Britons are shunning UK Television” The Guardian London


Georgiou, M (2002) “Mapping Minority Media in the EU: Mapping Participation in Communities Beyond a Bounded Europe” Barcelona

HRT: Naslovnica


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