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February 28, 2006

The Rise of Ethnic Channels

Recently, the Chronicle ran a nice article on the recent emergence of "ethnic" channels. The reasons seem to be simple economics:

... ethnic Asian American peers have quietly become the target audience for a growing number of media outlets, including Imaginasian TV, AZN TV, American Desi and MTV. "Asian Americans are the third-largest ethnic group in the country. They happen to be the fastest-growing group in the U.S.," says Nusrat Durrani, the 45-year-old general manager/senior vice president of MTV World. "More importantly, though, it's a very influential audience. It's the most educated, it's also the most tech-savvy, and it is an underserved audience."

Most of this activity has been quite recent and there's more on the way:

To fill the gap in the market, the past two years have seen a flurry of firsts. In August 2004, Imaginasian TV became the first 24-hour, seven-day-a-week Asian American channel. Comcast soon followed, transforming its International Channel into the primarily English-language AZN TV. American Desi, aimed at South Asian Americans, premiered in December 2004 on the Dish Network. Durrani's efforts at MTV World include MTV Desi, which launched in July, and Chi, which launched Dec. 6. MTV K, for Korean Americans, will premiere later this year, and a fourth channel is in development.

Some background on Nusrat Durrani, the biggest backer of this effort at MTV:

A native of Lucknow, India, raised on the sounds of Begum Akhtar and Osibisa, Cliff Richard and Little Richard, Durrani embodies a casual sort of progressive cool. He dresses in black-on-black high-end denim and keeps his hair in a fashionable George Harrison mop top. A poster for D.A. Pennebaker's Dylan film "Don't Look Back" that hangs in his office seems to have been chosen not just for what it signifies but also because its black-and-white op-art design nicely matches his outfit.

Durrani describes his first encounter with MTV in 1993 as something of an awakening. Although he had a comfortable job in marketing at Honda in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, he uprooted his family and moved to New York City in order to land a job at MTV. He started as an unpaid intern. At the end of 2004, he was named the head of MTV World.

Nice work if you can create it! Hats off to Nusrat for spotting the gap in the market and believing in it enough to take such a large risk. As for the channels themselves, they still face an uphill struggle, however, and there's been at least one casualty already:

But building from boutiques to big business is difficult work. The upstart Imaginasian has had to carve out cable contracts city by city, and is still available in San Francisco only on Comcast Channel 28 on weekday evenings and late-night weekends. Even with MTV's muscle, both MTV Desi and MTV Chi are sold only as part of ethnic-specific "international" packages. In a more troubling development, parent company Comcast fired most of AZN's staff a day after MTV Chi's launch. The network still broadcasts a trickle of new content, but many insiders worry that Comcast officials have already decided that a network-scale business model is premature.

The circumstances of the cancellation were apparently quite ironic:

Last Thursday, some of the biggest names in cable television gathered in the grand ballroom of Manhattan's Marriott Marquis to celebrate the man who's arguably the biggest name of all: Brian Roberts, CEO and chairman of Comcast, the industry's reigning colossus. The occasion was the 25th anniversary of the National Association for Multi-Ethnicity in Communications, an organization that has spent the past quarter-century helping to bring diversity to cable TV, both on screen and behind the scenes.

According to president Manish Jha, NAMIC named Roberts as recipient of its Silver Anniversary tribute not just because of his leadership in hiring and promoting minorities at Comcast but also because of his dedication to providing unique multicultural programming, as demonstrated by the company's recent launch of two highly touted new channels: TVOne, a joint venture with African American radio powerhouse RadioOne, and AZN TV, the "Network for Asian America." "We wanted to recognize this publicly," said Jha, when reached before the event. "We're pleased and we'd like to see this kind of commitment continue."

However, unknown to the folks at AZN, a purge was apparently already in the works:

But at the event, the mood at the AZN TV table was oddly strained; executives seemed less than festive. And then came the highlight of the program: a candid live interview with Roberts. "As Brian was speaking, he talked a lot about TVOne, going on and on about how great it was," says one AZN guest, who declined to be identified by name. "He basically didn't mention AZN at all. All of the invited guests at the table were looking around, thinking, 'What's going on?' It was quite surreal."

The surreality went deeper than AZN's guests knew. According to multiple sources -- who requested anonymity because severance and transition details are not yet final -- a hard decision had been made more than two weeks earlier: The network was slated to be stripped down to a minimal operational team, its senior creative staff eliminated and its ambitious plans to produce a rich stream of original content by and for Asian Americans terminated, all before even a single season of programming ever aired.

The reason for the termination may have been more to do with arcane IRS regulations than the size of the Asian American market:

And hidden behind the hype and glory of AZN's launch were some financial intricacies that suggest the channel is ultimately as valuable to Comcast dead as alive, if not more so. This is because the deal that landed the channel in Comcast's lap was actually part of an intricate fiscal tango in which Comcast received $545 million in tax-free cash, called a "cash-rich split-off."

So, the jury's still out on the viability of the channels. However, the MTV properties may have a slightly easier time of it. MTV Desi, for example, certainly leverages off of some shows from MTV India. Though MTV Desi probably programs more South Asian Massive style of music, both MTV Desi and India still have Bollywood in common (in terms of audience sensibilities and preferences). Ditto for the other MTV channels - the huge audience for J-Pop, Mandopop and Cantopop in the USA probably ensures production costs are lower because of shared programming from their MTV Pacific counterparts. Nonetheless, it's a challenge, to say the least. However, given MTV's previous track record for trend spotting, it'll be tough to bet against them.

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- February 28, 2006 5:47 PM // Diaspora , Music , TV

February 24, 2006

Bush Worship

Yes, I know many folks in India have every reason to like Bush what with outsourcing and all but isn't this going a little too far? Praise him all you want but at least have the gumption to carry a real picture of the man (as opposed to a heartthrob from downunder). Have a look at the screenshot below to see what I'm getting at:


I doubt Russell Crowe will be too pleased either.

Update: If, on the other hand, you want a satire poster of Bush pretending to be Mr. Crowe, go here.

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- February 24, 2006 11:39 AM // India , Politics

February 20, 2006

Indiana Jones and The Geritol Quest

Ain't It Cool reports that The Beard Himself (aka Spielberg) is starting to talk about his followup to Munich. Seems like it could be the fourth installment in the Indiana Jones series. No title is known yet but given the age of the principals (Harrison Ford, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas) involved, the wags have already started speculation. Some are excerpted below:

Indiana Jones and the Colonoscopy of Doom
Indiana Jones and the Trip to Florida
Indiana Jones and the Flatulence From Hades
Indiana Jones and the Hip Replacement Surgery
Raiders Of The Lost Colostomy Bag
Indiana Jones and the Gargantuan Doctor Bill
Indiana Jones and the Slow Moving Supermarket Line
Indiana Jones and the Ben Gay Pilgrimage
Raiders Of The Last Depends Package
Indiana Jones and the Phantom of the IHOP
Indiana Jones and the Damn Kids Who Won't Get Off My Lawn
Indiana Jones and Harold and Maud
Indiana Jones and the Raiders of Social Security
Indiana Jones and the Sponge Bath of Doom

You get the idea :-)

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- February 20, 2006 11:35 PM // Film

February 17, 2006

Tracking Cattle

On heavy rotation on CNN (US version) earlier this week, there were two RFID related stories. The first dealt with implanting RFID microchips in cattle for tracking purposes. The setting? New Delhi. I couldn't find a link on CNN but the San Francisco Chronicle has the scoop:

With the Indian economy's expansion in the last 15 years, driving Delhi's modern makeover, the presence of snorting livestock has become intolerable, many here say. "Everyone should be in their own natural habitat," said Meera Bhatia, a lawyer who filed a suit to compel the government to fix the cow problem. "It's not that complicated."

The Delhi cattle roundup is part of a nationwide trend. India's cities have in recent years sought to shed what some see as a medieval image that is inconsistent with the country's superpower ambitions...

Delhi's High Court ordered the city to address the cattle menace in 2002. "The capital city of Delhi should be a show window for the world," wrote judges R.S. Sodhi and Anil Dev Singh in their ruling. "The stray cattle on the roads gives a wrong signal."

Authorities tried a series of failed schemes: small fines, a threat to cut off cattle owners' electricity, a $50 bounty offered to the public for captured cows. The new plan -- involving a beefed-up staff of cattle catchers, microchip tracking devices and a massive new dairy farm -- is foolproof, say several people involved in its planning...

The linchpin of the strategy is the use of microchips implanted in the bellies of the city's cattle...

As many as 7,000 of Delhi's cattle have so far been micro-chipped, and officials plan to have them all tagged within 18 months.

This brings us to story #2 on CNN. Being an advanced economy, the USA, naturally, has to stay one step ahead:

CHICAGO: Say you have a high-security workplace and worry about the wrong people getting in.

Forget badges that can be lost or stolen. Why not tag employees with a radio-transmitting chip.

From about a foot away a special device will read the implanted chip's 16-digit number _ and zap, doors open and close.

That Orweillian-sounding idea is exactly what an Ohio security firm's boss has done with two of his workers and himself.

"We wanted a way to say, `Hey, we are a little different in the way we take our security,'" explained Sean Darks, chief executive of CityWatcher.Com in Cincinnati, who also is wearing a chip. "I wouldn't have my employees do something, if I didn't do it myself," he added.

His glee is not shared by workplace and privacy experts, who shudder at the idea that Corporate America might decide to brand employees with the latest technology, known as Radio Frequency Identification Device.

"This may be appropriate for cattle, pets or packages, but for humans it is a very different issue," said Lee Tien, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a technology and civil liberties group in San Francisco, Calif.

The temporal juxtaposition of the two news stories raises certain connotations. In addition to the workers as cattle meme, it brings up issues of tracking. Imagine if there was a nationwide sensor network: no more calling in sick, you better have a really good excuse for your boss that maps precisely to your movements! Imagine the resulting efficiency gains! The US would maintain its lead as the country with the most productive workers. And unwanted employees? Why, just put them out on the streets to be rounded up later by the city cattle pound!

Anyway, if you read the second story further, it turns out the US is actually behind other countries in human chip implantation:

Workers at the organized crime division of Mexico's Attorney General in Mexico City, for example, wear the chips to try to maintain top security.

So do about 2,000 patrons of nightclubs in Barcelona, Spain, and Rotterdam, the Netherlands. The chips allow them to avoid long waits in lines and to even run tabs at the clubs, which are owned by the same firm. Waiters scan the chips and a computer automatically draws the amount due from their checking accounts.


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- February 17, 2006 7:27 PM // Technology

February 15, 2006

Review: Brick

Brick.jpg What do you get when you cross Heathers with Chinatown? Brick, that's what! The central conceit of Brick, winner of the Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, is that it transplants film noir conventions into a high school setting. The most obvious result of this collision is the lingo. The characters here speak in an argot so thick, the screening pass comes with a little guide. In addition to the more obvious "shamus," we have "reef worm" (referring to a stoner), "take a powder" (to slip away eg. "Why'd you take a powder the other night?"), "scape" (a patsy to take the blame, abbreviation of "scapegoat"), "bulls" (cops), and "gum" (to mess things up eg. "Bulls would only gum it."). Yet, don't worry if you have trouble following the lines. You'll be so busy appreciating the fine acting and cinematography, you'll forget the linguistic incongruities and after a while, the setting of the film, a coastal Southern California town, will seem like vintage Raymond Chandler territory.

Our Phillip Marlowe here is Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Third Rock From The Sun), a self imposed high school loner who is intent on locating his recently disappeared ex (Emilie de Ravin, Lost). Then she turns up dead and Brendan has to find out why. His quest leads him through teenage intrigues, schoolyard brawls and, ultimately, local drug kingpin Pin (Lukas Haas). Part of the delight of the journey we take with Brendan is our realizing how artfully writer/director Rian Johnson has drawn from hard boiled archtypes in creating his characters. These inclde femme fatale Kara, the diva in the high school drama, the gangster moll Laura and, of course, the authority figure (the assistant VP of the high school, played by Mr. Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree). Yet, all of them are totally in place within the high school ecosystem of cliques, low IQ sports jocks, outsiders, and it girls.

As with any film noir, dashes of humor prevent the proceedings from becoming too turgid and Brick is not above in poking fun at the absurdities of the world it has created. For example, in one scene, so called gangsters (in reality, kids in trenchcoats) who have gone to the mattresses, are served glasses of milk by the mother of one of the characters. Similarly, during heated negotiations in the basement of a house, one character announces to another, "it is time to go up to the real world." In the next shot, we see both of them sitting in the kitchen of the house. One is munching cereal, the other is trying to look threatening over an oatmeal cookie.

Brick is an object lesson in creating a standout low-budget independent film. DP Steve Yedlin conjures up images worthy of a film ten times more expensive. The acting is solid throughout with many of the principals having put in long hours in the TV trenches. Ultimately though, it is the twisty plot and the language that elevates Brick into the rarefied heights of '80s teen classic The Breakfast Club and the film noir masterpiece, Chinatown. There aren't very many films that inspire comparisons to both! Unfortuantely, it is also the language that might also prove its biggest hindrance to general acceptance. Releasing in the US theaters later this spring, this paean to loners everywhere, like Donnie Darko, seems destined to find its real audience on DVD.

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- February 15, 2006 7:14 PM // Film , Review

February 9, 2006

Slight/Sleight of Hand

The January edition of Forbes has this article on a Japanese bookseller, Keiichi Kikuchi,(Iconoclast) that's managed to avoid an ongoing industry slump. What's his secret? Cross-merchandising: i.e. grouping like minded items together. For example:

Kikuchi sells CDs, pictures, figurines and other paraphernalia by linking them to the specialty books on the store shelves. On the same shelf as, say, the novel Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami you might find the Beatles' Rubber Soul album and books that inspired the Japanese author, including Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's; a photo collection of Audrey Hepburn, who starred in the movie of the same title, rounds off the display. The travel section might offer magazines, tour guides, model jumbo jets, compact suitcases, chunky hotel key holders and retro push-button phones once common in U.S. hotel rooms.

His managers are free to make their own assortments in the franchise stores. Sometimes though, such collections may make more of a statement than was intended:

On a stand selling pictures of Saibaba--an Afro-sporting Hindu mystic who claims to have the power to conjure up jewelry from thin air--are party wigs and do-it-yourself magic tricks.

Subtle commentary, sly dig or just Japanese camp? You decide. I have a feeling the Baba himself might just be amused by the whole thing.

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- February 9, 2006 7:30 PM // Books

February 5, 2006

Being Brown In America

The seizure (and subsequent release) of activist Cindy Sheehan and the ejection of a congressperson's wife during Bush's State of the Union address have made headlines recently. But the following item is just now starting to gather steam. Time reports:

But on the same evening that President Bush was lauding democracy and freedom, there was one other person in attendance whose rights were infringed upon. The man, who did not want his identity revealed after the disturbing incident, was a personal guest of Florida Democrat Alcee Hastings. He is a prominent businessman from Broward County, Florida who works with the Department of Defense-and has a security clearance. After sitting in the gallery for the entire speech, he was surrounded by about ten law enforcement officers as he exited the chamber and whisked away to a room in the Capitol.

For close to an hour the man, who was born in India but is an American citizen, was questioned by the Police, who thought he resembled someone on a Secret Service photo watch list, according to Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer. Eventually, the police realized it was a case of mistaken identity and let him go. Gainer has assured Hastings that the Capitol Police, Secret Service and FBI will investigate why the man was detained for so long, and try to "sharpen our procedures." But the man was "very, very scared" by the incident, says Fred Turner, a spokesperson for Hastings. On Tuesday night, he told the congressman that the experience was "maybe just the price of being brown in America," Turner says.

"He shouldn't have gone through the ringer as long as he did," Gainer says. "He did get caught up in the morass of Secret Service FBI, Capitol Police. Everybody was trying to figure out whether he was a threat. And he absolutely, unequivocally clearly was not." Gainer apologized to the man afterwards, only one of the many apologies he has had to make this week.

Great - the shoot first, apologize afterwards policy that worked so well in stopping that brown skinned UK bomber is starting to take hold here too. If you remember:

Electrician Jean Charles de Menezes was shot dead on 22 July, 2005, by police who mistook him for one of four would-be suicide bombers who attacked London's transport system the previous day.


But when it emerged that the 27-year-old Brazilian was not the man they thought he was - and that his death had been a mistake - Sir Ian described it as a tragedy for which the police accepted full responsibility.

If nothing else, this should come as a rude reminder to the desis here who think they have nothing in common with Latinos or African Americans or Arab Americans. However, as this eloquent comment on dailykos by user Sanjay illustrates, more and more folks are waking up.:

I have lived in the United States for 21 years and have been a citizen for the last 8 years. I recently returned from one of my regular trips to India, my country of origin. As I was chatting with an old high school friend about nothing in particular, he suggested that may be I should think about purchasing some property in India. Out of curiosity I asked him why. And he said (paraphrasing) - well, even though the U.S. welcomes everyone and is an immmigrant-friendly country, I find some recent news disturbing and who knows when you might get kicked out or life made so difficult for you that you may have to leave. If that happens, you can always come back here.

I was aghast. Never before had I thought of this, never before had I imagined that political or social circumstances would force me out of the country. I just looked at him in shock for a few seconds and mumbled - ok, I'll think about it.

Are my friend's worst fears going to come true in the next decade? or two? Forget about me, what might happen to my young children, who happen to be like me, brown?

Gotta go - the black car with tinted windows that's parked outside is blocking my driveway.

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- February 5, 2006 11:35 AM // Politics

February 4, 2006

Bay Area Bhangra

The San Francisco Bay Guardian has a nice writeup of the Bay Area Bhangra scene. First the intro:

Bhangra's heated dhol drumming and bomb-tastic hip-hop beats are emerging as a new force in the San Francisco club scene, fueled by a young crop of DJ-producers, in addition to wise promoters who've been around the dance music block. Bhangra didn't just drop out of the sky one night and land in San Francisco; rather, it grew from ancient field harvest songs in the Punjab region of northern India, danced through the UK via immigration, mingled with rap stars in New York in the '90s, and finally ended up at eclectic Bay Area parties.

Given the strong Punjabi presence in the West Coast, the strength of bhangra in the region is not a surprise. The article continues:

In 1990 I copped a copy of Indian producer Bally Sagoo's remix of Pakistani Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's "Jewel" (Oriental Star). The mix of reggae-dub bass, Soul II Soul-style hip-hop beats, and ecstatic singing was mind-blowing. But there's no way it prepared me for the nuclear bomb that is contemporary bhangra music and the incredible South Asian scene in the Bay Area.

I knew little about bhangra's early roots as the music embraced by Indian and Pakistani immigrants to Britain in the 1970s and '80s. Then remixes like Jay-Z '03 remake of Panjabi MC's "Mundian To Bach Ke Rahi" sparked my interest.

It's interesting the author didn't come across Bally Sagoo's earlier bhangra mixes (like Mera Laung Gawacha)and Apache Indian'sfirst album No Reservations, which cannily blended bhangra and dancehall reggae to create bhangramuffin and led to its first UK crossover success in the early '90s. The latest legion of Bay Area producers, though, seem to be determined to blend in hip hop with greater vigor than before:

Born in Oakland and based in Tracy, 20-year-old JT Bhachu, a.k.a. DJ JT, got started in music at age 10, playing dhol drums in school competitions. His family moved from the Punjab region in India and settled in the Bay two decades ago. JT mixes hip-hop with bhangra and spins everywhere from high school dances and weddings to the main rooms at clubs – even San Francisco's Avalon Ballroom, where JT and his BPR Promotions friends put on a show with Birmingham, UK, bhangra megastar Sukshinder Shinda last year.

JT still relies on his kin for his creative projects, founding a record label (Sick 'Em Entertainment) with his uncle and recruiting his teenage cousins to play in his Explizit Dholies drum ensemble. "My mission is to bring bhangra into a lot of hip-hop clubs. In the future it'll be the next thing people are talking about when they go out every weekend," he says. His self-confidence and vision are shared by other young desi DJs in the Bay, including producer Kush Arora.

The old style bhangra parties (and we've been to some) could become, not to sugarcoat it, really juvenile affairs. Scuffles over women, not getting enough "respect" and rival gang posturings were not unheard of. Then there's the promos:

"Most bhangra concerts with big singers are in the South Bay," he explains. "These can be fun but usually very cheesy, with fliers that say 'Guys - dress GQ; girls - dress sexy/elegant,' with related bullshit like that, so I really wouldn't consider it a hot party."

There are many other regional music forms in India, but nothing has succeeded so well on such a global scale. Even in India, bhangra was fairly local even until say twenty years ago. The popularity of stars like Daler Mehndiin India in the '90s brought bhangra to the point where no feel-good big budget Bollywood flick could afford not to have such a song in its soundtrack. Outside India, the Punjabi diaspora sustained the scene whereever they settled and the second generation UK and Canadian producers sucked in a whole host of other influences - dub and dancehall, hip hop, garage, and even ambient chillout (listen to Talvin Singh'sHafor examples). It's paying off big time! Not bad for a style of music whose core sound relies on a set of drums and mandolins and conjures traditional images of a bunch of blokes in mixed pattern lungis lunging around in circles. Pretty damn impressive actually.

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- February 4, 2006 3:21 PM // Bay Area , Music