Television in post-reform Vietnam: Nation, media, market.
By GIANG NGUYEN-THU
New York: Routledge, 2019. Pp. 150. Bibliography, Index.
At first glance, one might expect the first English-language monograph on contemporary Vietnamese television to be occupied with debates on the politics of censorship, copyright issues and the role of the media as a mouthpiece of the Communist Party. This Southeast Asian nation remains, after all, way down the undesirable end of the World Press Freedom Index--in its most recent iteration, Vietnam was sixth from bottom ahead of only China, Syria, Turkmenistan, Eritrea and North Korea (https://rsf.org/en/ranking, accessed 14 March 2019). Instead of adding to a valuable oeuvre of literature which approaches the state-sponsored media from this perspective (e.g., Thomas Bass, Censorship in Vietnam: Brave New World, 2017), Nguyen-Thu takes us down a different path, one that leads us into the private homes of Vietnam's ordinary citizens during the post-reform era.
Three case studies of domestic productions are the subjects of her analysis. Nguyen-Thu admits that her choices of programme, all broadcast on VTV (the national broadcaster), tend to be more popular in northern and central Vietnam than in the south, and further study of southern productions would certainly complement her research. More importantly, the examples are chosen to be distinct from regular news and current affairs programmes, which are still tightly monitored and controlled by the Party. This approach allows her to present a refreshing interpretation of the mundanity of local interactions with the media in everyday life.
Nguyen-Thu achieves this in part by drawing on several decades of personal experience. She was born in Hanoi in the 1980s, and recalls her family acquiring the first television set on her street, a second-hand JVC model from Japan. This was in 1986, when the government introduced economic liberalisation policies that contributed to the rapid growth of the television industry. State television was introduced in the North and the South in the 1960s. However, Nguyen Thu argues that spatial limitations in broadcasting reach, technical interruptions, wartime disruptions and widespread poverty meant that Vietnamese television did not achieve the status of a mass medium until 1991.
With this in mind, chap. 1 sketches the pre- and early post-reform history of the television network. Nguyen-Thu's anecdotes about this nascent period of mass-mediated television are appropriately balanced with critical scholarly distance, aided by her postgraduate study and postdoctoral engagements abroad. In a curious arrangement, she observes how 'private ownership of television [stations] is strictly banned in Vietnam, but private production of content has become a norm' (p. 16). Here the common term socialisation (xa. hoi hoa) is synonymous with privatisation; the state-owned media caters to its audiences by selling advertising and buying in productions from independent companies. One wildly popular Mexican telenovela broadcast in 1991, The rich also cry (Nguoi Giau Cung Khoc), presents an example that epitomised the ordinariness of post-reform life in contrast with the extraordinari-ness on display in pre-reform films depicting revolutionary heroism.
Chapter 2 continues to investigate popular television dramas by comparing and contrasting two domestic productions, Hanoian (Nguoi Ha Noi) and The city stories (Chuyen Pho Phuong). The former nostalgically reflects on a simpler life in the recent pre-reform era, while the latter seeks to inform and enrich an increasingly capitalist society with traditions from the feudal and colonial past. Chapter 3 draws on Frances Bonner's concept of 'ordinary television' (Ordinary television: Analyzing popular TV, 2003) to illustrate the limits of state-centred research on the media. By studying politically benign programming rather than state news or documentaries, Nguyen-Thu is able to explore how the popular media translates a moralist code into ethical options for viewers. This prepares the reader for subsequent analyses of emergent tensions in the contemporary period. Chapter 4 presents examples from the talk show Contemporaries (Nguoi Duong Thoi) to illustrate how neoliberal foci on the individual are reframed as new versions of self-centred rather than community-centred nationalism. Finally, chap. 5 examines the heart-wrenching reality show As if we never parted (Nhu Chua He Co Cuoc Chia Ly), which provides an antidote to the state's complex and suppressed recent history of division by reuniting long-lost families, thereby indirectly serving a political cause of healing emotional wounds in a collective setting.
One drawback is the text is devoid of footnotes or endnotes, which might have been used to cite YouTube or other easily accessible examples from the case studies. No illustrations are included either, presumably for copyright purposes, but this leaves the actors and their audiences faceless. The interview data is taken predominantly from media practitioners, which is insightful because we hear the background stories and motivating factors that informed production decisions. Nguyen-Thu's own experiences and occasional citations of blogs and media reviews represent those of the audience. More extensive treatment of the reception of these popular media through audience interviews could have provided an additional important perspective on the popular media.
Putting these minor criticisms aside, Television in post-reform Vietnam represents an important milestone in scholarship on Vietnam. Nguyen-Thu uses in-depth case studies to provide the first comprehensive account of popular television, and she achieves this from the perspective of one who experienced the entire period under study first-hand. Rather than providing an all-encompassing overview of this medium, the reader is treated to detailed case studies that illustrate the diversity of content and provide valuable insights on subtle changes to daily life in the early post-reform era. This book should be an essential resource for scholars of media studies and social change in postsocialist countries for many years to come.
LONAN O BRIAIN
University of Nottingham