November 23, 2006

Why only one channel?

In the process of subscribing to TV Japan, I couldn't avoid a few moments of envy. In stark contrast to TV Japan's lowly single offering, Dish Network offers 17 Chinese channels, 16 Arabic channels, even 6 Korean channels. Spanish-language programming is, of course, a category all to itself, with as many packages and channels as the domestic English-language services.

This is somewhat ironic, considering Japan's growing influence in the U.S. on popular culture. Yet Japanese remains a "Less Commonly Taught Language," accounting for only 3.7% of higher education foreign language enrollments.

And if this story in the San Francisco Chronicle is any indication, current trends suggest that this is not likely to change drastically in the near future.

Piedmont High School staff had considered adding Japanese classes, but Chinese won out after community surveys, said Principal Pam Bradford. Now, Piedmont offers Mandarin starting in middle school, and its high school classes have a solid enrollment.

I doubt enrollment numbers, however, correlate strongly with satellite television subscriber numbers. TV Japan, for one, is primarily directed toward native speakers or students with near-native comprehension, something you won't achieve by taking a few college language classes.

So the reason ultimately comes down to the Japan's limited diaspora. A quick look at the U.S. demographic data lays out the facts pretty plainly. The Census Bureau tabulation of "languages spoken at home" reveals the following:

English only 

Immediately obvious is the classic 80/20 power law distribution (80 percent English, 20 percent everything else, with distribution falling off logarithmically). Chinese, Korean and Arabic have more satellite offerings simply because they have larger domestic audiences.

China's emergence as a world power has increased the supply of satellite feeds, and increased interest in the demand. I also suspect that like Spanish, the Arabic audience is more dominantly first generation, and for obvious geopolitical reasons is drawn to the cultural and informational content of the broadcasts.

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