Friday, September 10, 2010

How an Obscure American TV Show Persuaded Turks to Play Basketball

Today's New York Times sports section has a fascinating story on how The White Shadow television series helped inspire young people in Turkey to play basketball, in a place where soccer had been king.

For those who weren't watching obscure TV shows in the early 1980s, the show starred Ken Reeves, who played a white ex-NBA star who was coaching basketball at the imaginary Carver High School, a predominately African-American and urban school dealing with issues of poverty, broken families, and racial tension. I remember watching a few re-runs after it first aired--after the days when I'd played YMCA basketball at the old downtown Y and dreamed of floating like "Dr. J." above the rim--and thinking that it captured the era pretty well. As an aspiring basketball player back then, the show spoke to me.

But I had no idea that the show was being exported to Turkey, where it became a smash hit on Friday nights beginning in 1980. Syndicated re-runs came in 1993 and 2001, further spreading the show's influence. According to a number of Turkish voices quoted in the story, people rushed home to watch the show after basketball practice or games.

The quote in the story that really caught my eye was from Robert Thompson, who teaches communication and media studies at Syracuse University. I think he describes the influence of media quite well:
“The exportation of American television was a form of empire building — empires of consciousness, not of geography — that shaped the desires, perceptions and goals of global populations in ways it is impossible to appreciate,” 
As a fan of the James K.A. Smith's book Desiring the Kingdom, I think this nails the way that media can capture our imagination. It doesn't seem rational or sensible, but compelling story-telling can capture the imagination in such a way that we desire to be like characters in television programs.

It reminds me of a student years ago who came to me to say that she was interested in going to law school. After we chatted, it became clear that a major reason why she wanted to go was that she loved watching Law and Order on TV. Although that was a pretty slender basis on which to base a career choice, I now understand why a TV program could be that basis. It's all about capturing the imagination and the desires.

Young people in Turkey were moved to play basketball because of The White Shadow--a slender basis on which to base a choice.  But that's how we affective, liturgical animals (to borrow Smith's terms) tend to operate. Something captures our desires and moves us.

Instead of cheesy 1970s television shows, however, I hope that Christians will be moved by worship.

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