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