TV, Values, and Culture in U.S.-Canadian Borderland Cities: A Shared Perspective

Stuart H. Surlin (University of Windsor)

Barry Berlin (Canisius College)

The debate over Canadian culture and identity is an on-going and seemingly endless one. There are those who feel strongly that Canada has a unique culture, and there are those who see Canadian culture as largely a carbon copy of the United States. Much has been written on the issue, and much of it is analytical. There is little, however, that empirically deals with these cultural questions. Empirical studies of cultural components--Canadian values, attitudes, beliefs, norms, status--are few. Empirical studies on the effects of U.S. mass communication penetration on Canadian culture are also modest in number.

Since the 1960s, in a series of works, Seymour Martin Lipset, a sociologist who has resided at universities in Canada and the United States, has emphasized the distinctiveness of each country's values. Lipset (1985, 1990) and others (Naegele, 1968; Clark, 1976) have posited that Canadians are more conservative, more traditional, more collectively-oriented, less individualistic, less optimistic, have less faith in the future, are less willing to risk (capital or reputation), exercise greater caution, reserve and restraint, are less religious and less moralistic.

Since Canadians in high number watch U.S. television, read U.S. books and magazines and view U.S.-made films (Siegel, 1983, Canadian Department of Communications, 1987), many Canadians fear that the presumed cultural differences are being lessened as Canadian culture is being attacked through the "Trojan horse" of United States mass media. However, these concerns are still based upon two impressionistic assumptions: there are significant differences in values and that these differences are, in effect, being sanded away by U.S. mass media.

A review of the sparse empirical literature on value differences finds mixed results. On the other hand, U.S. media effects literature reveals an impact on Canadian cognitions (e.g., knowledge of U.S. public affairs), but is inconclusive concerning U.S. media effects on attitudes, values, beliefs, norms, etc. Overall, only limited effects have been demonstrated empirically.

Relevant Empirical Literature: Value Differences and Media Effects

One of the first empirical studies exploring cross-national differences in values (Arnold & Tigert, 1974) rejected some of the expected differences and supported others. Arnold & Tigert found that Canadians do not appear more conservative than Americans, that Canadians are, in fact, more favourably disposed to changes in traditional values than Americans, that Americans do not appear more optimistic than Canadians and that Canadians did not show more concern over security and personal well-being than Americans. However, the empirical study concurred in several areas with expected differences. Arnold & Tigert found Americans are more independent and confident than Canadians, Canadians are more conservative with respect to the use of credit, and Americans show a higher moral conservatism.

Tate & Surlin (1976) surveyed random samples of adults in Saskatoon, SK, and Athens, GA, concerning the TV program All in the Family, and found Canadian adults had an understanding and perception of the show's humour and realism that was different than American adults. They reasoned that this was due to cultural differences. At the time, Saskatoon did not have cable TV service bringing in large quantities of U.S. programming.

In surveys conducted in Oregon and Ontario, Crawford & Curtis (1979) similarly found support for some expected value differences and little support for others. They found empirical support for the view that Americans are higher in achievement and elitism values but rejected the expected view that Canadians hold more traditional views and are more collectively- oriented.

In a study by researchers at two Canadian and two United States universities, no significant differences in political ideals were found between Canadians and Americans (Sniderman et al., 1988). Researchers studied six value dimensions and five appeared to show little difference. Two concerned "police powers" in the two countries and the remainder related to "liberty/freedom of expression."

In an early study of U.S. media effects, Beattie (1967) surveyed first-year students at 11 Canadian universities and found students scored higher on knowledge of American persons and events than on knowledge of Canadian public affairs. Sparkes (1977) found no difference in social-political attitudes held by Canadians irrespective of whether they solely watched U.S. or Canadian television programs. Social background and interpersonal behaviour were stronger predictors of attitude and information acquisition than media exposure, according to research by Payne & Caron (1983).

In one of the stronger findings of effects, Barnett & McPhail (1980) found that the more Canadians watched American television, the less Canadian they feel. Baer & Winter (1983) found that viewership of American television news leads to Anti-Canadian government attitudes by Canadians, but the viewing of Canadian television news does not have the same effect.

Research Objectives

There are five objectives of this research. This study seeks to:

(1) Determine if student samples in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, and Buffalo, New York, U.S.A., have similar personal values.

(2) Test the existence of a regional "borderland." The concept of a Canada-U.S. borderland, an area shared by two nations with common social characteristics in spite of a political border, has drawn mixed support (McKinsey & Konrad, 1990). The border's length, the Quebec region, and empty sections are cited as problematic. However, the border can also be examined in subsections, where one might find zones of cultural synthesis. In this instance, the authors are looking at a subsection in the Great Lakes region and hypothesizing that if similar personal values, attitudes, and perceptions are found, especially in cities not sharing a contiguous border, they are evidence of a regional borderland.

A convergence of personal values, attitudes, and perceptions would be evidence of a cultural transfer that would logically involve exposure to U.S. mass communication systems. However, the authors are not hypothesizing a direction; either exposure to U.S. mass communication leads to homogenization or similar personal characteristics lead to U.S. media exposure.

(3) Measure media use by both samples.

(4) Determine the values Windsor and Buffalo student samples perceive in United States-produced television program content.

(5) Measure student attitudes toward culture and the perceived impact of television upon oneself and one's culture.


Respondents were a convenience sample of college/university students at the University of Windsor in Windsor, Ontario, and Canisius College, Buffalo, New York. First- and second-year students were used and an attempt was made to keep sample sizes in a near-equal range. Registration data indicates that a vast majority of Windsor and Canisius students, approximately 85%, are drawn from the metropolitan area of their respective schools. Foreign students were excluded as respondents. Also, data were collected within several months at both campuses (late 1986). The two test sites are subject to significant penetration of the other country's media. Windsor receives Detroit newspapers and broadcast signals while Buffalo receives Toronto newspapers and Ontario broadcast signals.

Two sets of personal values are being analyzed. The first values are general conceptions of good and desirable goals, ends for which people should strive. The second are standards by which actions, usually in pursuit of the goals, should be evaluated (Curtis & Lambert, 1980). Rokeach (1973) calls the two posited type of values "terminal" (e.g., "a comfortable life") and "instrumental" (e.g., "ambitious"), respectively.

On a paper-and-pencil questionnaire, respondents were asked to arrange 18 terminal values and 18 instrumental values in order of importance to themselves, as guiding principles of their lives.

Respondents were then asked to watch a five-minute scene extracted from a Cosby Show and a 30-second television commercial for Oldsmobile. A VHS tape playback unit was used. The program segment was shown once and the ad was shown twice.

The Cosby Show segment involves a discussion held between Dr. Huxtable (Bill Cosby), father of the house, and Elvin, a college student boyfriend of Huxtable's daughter. Elvin admits that he is perplexed about his modern-day role as a man. Cosby (Dr. Huxtable) tries to give him some fatherly advice.

The Oldsmobile ad opens with a car being driven during a misty morning in the Wall Street area of Manhattan. Since it is very early, the sound of the car door slamming shut reverberates through the "canyon" of buildings that comprise Wall Street. "Quality" is the key sales point.

After viewing each audiovisual stimulus respondents were then asked to mark whether they saw specific values supported by the content. The same 18 terminal and 18 instrumental values were used. For ease of response, a shorter list of seven terminal and nine instrumental values were used in comparing responses to the ad. The chosen values were ones believed to be either strongly projected or almost totally non-existent in the ad, as decided by a panel of judges. Each student in both samples were asked questions about media behaviour, cultural identity and perception of TV's impact on self and culture.


The Windsor and Buffalo students were strikingly similar in self-described personal values. Thirty-five of the 36 values were similar. Only one value--the terminal value of "family security"--was significantly different. The Buffalo sample values family security more highly.

Canadian students ranked the 18 terminal values in the following order (from most to least important): "happiness, true friendship, self-respect, freedom, a comfortable life, mature love, family security, an exciting life, a sense of accomplishment, inner harmony, wisdom, a world of peace, pleasure, equality, social recognition, salvation, a world of beauty, and national security." While Canadians ranked the 18 instrumental values in the following fashion (from most to least important): "honest, loving, responsible, independent, ambitious, broadminded, intellectual, capable, forgiving, cheerful, imaginative, helpful, self-controlled, logical, courageous, polite, clean and obedient."

Student samples in both countries did not significantly differ in their use of media. In both groups, listening to the radio ranked first with TV viewing following closely behind, followed by listening to records/tapes, reading for enjoyment, and reading a newspaper.

In terms of perceived media content values, there were essentially no differences in terminal values perceived to be supported within the Cosby Show segment between the Windsor and Buffalo samples. In ranking perceived terminal values, the top six were: (percentage of perceived support by Canadians and Americans, respectively) "equality" (88%-86%), "happiness" (87%-86%), "family security" (78%-80%), "self-respect" (78%-80%), "a comfortable life" (75%-70%), and "freedom" (70%-72%). The striking similarities in perception of content values held true for perceptions of instrumental values in the program segment. The top six instrumental values were: (percentage of perceived support by Canadians and Americans, respectively) "helpful" (86%-86%), "polite" (84%-86%), "loving" (83%-81%), "capable" (83%-82%), "independent" (81%-80%), and "broadminded" (78%-78%).

The same pattern was found in the two types of values perceived in the ad. The rankings of the seven terminal values and nine instrumental values were, in fact, precisely the same for both respondent groups. The percentage of Canadians and Americans respectively, who perceived the following terminal values in the ad are: "a comfortable life" (94%-97%), "social recognition" (94%-95%), "a sense of accomplishment" (88%-87%), "a world of beauty" (75%-68%), "inner harmony" (27%-26%), "a world at peace" (25%-19%), and "equality" (3%-4%). The instrumental values were perceived as following: "ambitious" (73%-71%), "independent" (54%-63%), "imaginative" (51%-57%), "responsible" (40%-34%), "broadminded" (15%-8%), "cheerful" (8%-6%), "helpful" (4%-3%), "loving" (2%-3%), "forgiving" (0%-2%).

In an attempt to test the internal validity of Rokeach's values as equivalent concepts in each country, operational definitions of seven values were devised. Respondents were offered a choice of values in order to match the correct value to the correct operational definition. In only two of the seven cases, did less than at least three-fourths of all respondents correctly match the value with its definition. Thus, the internal validity of Rokeach's value system across Buffalo and Windsor college student samples is supported.

Table 1
TV Viewing and Attitudes Toward TV, Advertising, and Culture
by College Students in Canada and the U.S.
(Significant zero-order correlations)
(N = 248)
Amount of % U.S.-produced
TV viewing TV content
( score = TV) ( score = U.S.)
viewing content
Canada U.S. Canada U.S.
(n = 130) (n = 118) (n = 130) (n = 118)
Attitude toward
Prime-time TV .24 .40 .16 --
( score = negative attitude) (.004) (<.001) (.04)
Prime-time TV advertising -- .25 -- --
( score = positive attitude) (.004)
Cultural identity
Unique culture -- -- .20 --
( score = disagree) (.01)
Culture worth preserving -- -- .17 --
( score = disagree) (.06)
Cultural consciousness
TV undermines culture -- .18 .18 .28
( score = disagree) (.03) (.02) (.001)
TV undermines relations
with friends/family -- -- .17 --
( score = disagree) (.03)
TV undermines relations
with others -- .19 .15 .15
( score = disagree) (.02) (.04) (.05)

The Canadian sample viewed news significantly less often from U.S. stations than did American respondents. The Canadian sample self-reported a similar amount of U.S.-produced entertainment programming viewing as the American sample. Windsor respondents rated TV advertising less positive. The Canadian sample felt less culturally unique than Americans. On a five interval scale where "l = strongly agree" and "5 = strongly disagree," Canadians averaged a response of 2.66 to the statement "There is a unique culture in this country," while Americans averaged 1.96. Canadians who are heavy viewers of U.S.-produced TV programming are less apt to believe that Canada has a unique culture (see Table 1).

In general, Windsor respondents present a consistent pattern of response in that those who view a higher percentage of U.S.-produced television programming exhibit a more favourable attitude toward TV programming, believe that Canada is culturally less unique, believe that Canadian culture is less worth preserving, and are less conscious of the potential for television to undermine culture and interpersonal relations (see Table 1). Buffalo respondents who watch a higher percentage of U.S.-produced television programming also demonstrated a lowered consciousness concerning the potential harmful effect of television upon culture and interpersonal relations (see Table 1).

It is noteworthy that both samples of respondents were quite "neutral" in their average rating scores on a five-interval rating scale, toward the potential negative impact TV has upon our lives and culture. It is especially notable considering that respondents are mass communication majors, albeit at an early period in their education.


Self-rated personal values of Canadian and American college student samples in Windsor, Ontario, and Buffalo, NY, are strikingly similar. These similar Canadian-American personal values combine with similar media behaviour, similar perceptions of values embedded in TV entertainment programming and advertising, and similar ways of rationalizing TV's negative impact on culture and personal relations. Both national respondent groups seem to be immersed in similar media-cultural environments.

Canadian heavy viewers of U.S.-produced television seemed particularly unconscious of Canadian culture and of television's potential harm to inter-personal relations. These viewers may be either consciously attempting to become more "American" through their viewing habits; or, they may be exhibiting the subconscious acculturating effects of U.S. television viewing.

From the perspective of an open-systems model (DeFleur & Ball-Rokeach, 1982) and the implications from the literature, U.S. media domination may be one of the acculturating agents, along with similar social forces; social contacts and other interpersonal variables as well as similar social backgrounds; history; a shared language; proximity; and, economic interrelationships. Therefore, while the authors cannot reject the effect of U.S. media domination, causal direction is undetermined, other agents cannot be discounted, nor can degree of effect be apportioned to any of them.

However, one conclusion is clear. The English Canadian and U.S. students in this study exhibit a highly similar Borderland value system and cultural perspective.


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