TV Networks Try To Attract Asians And All Their Niches

"Xbytes"One of AZN Television's original productions. Showcases the hottest electronic gadgets from Asia.
By S. Mitra Kalita
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 15, 2005

The producers had a warm, fuzzy vision for their Chinese reality show: Expatriates return to the mainland to run, jump and perspire through mazes and obstacle courses. Along the way, they discover home, themselves and the value of teamwork.

The cable TV channel planning to show the program wanted a slight modification: Martial arts enthusiasts gather in China to fight each other, and the winner gets two weeks of study at the Shaolin Temple under a kung fu master.

Last week, House Films and AZN Television parted ways, citing "serious creative differences."

Such is the real-life drama behind creating television shows for Asian Americans. Over the past year, at least a half-dozen English-language, 24-hour cable and satellite networks targeting Asians have started or announced plans, such as Comcast-owned AZN and MTV's three channels for Indian, Chinese and Korean immigrants. They are all clamoring to reach markets with large Asian populations; the Washington region has about 414,000 of the nation's 12 million Asians, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

As competition intensifies, the networks have discovered that the programming of yesteryear (think amateurs croaking songs on Saturday mornings) no longer cuts it. Unlike the mammoth Latino market, Asians cannot be unified by language, so programmers are trying to lure an audience that straddles several niches. And they compete mightily to create content that will resonate across Asian subgroups and eventually into the mainstream, bringing in the viewers and advertising revenue they need to survive.

"Are you appealing to the homesick person who spent a good portion of their life in Japan or China? Are you appealing to the second generation who has been partially assimilated? Or are you trying to appeal to a wider audience?" said Robert J. Thompson, director of Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "What these Asian channels are trying to do is go for the base core audience, but at the same time, they want programming that is going to expand from the base."

It was against that backdrop that AZN, which is seen in Fairfax County and will launch in the District by the end of June, decided one recent day that kung fu was hot and the search for identity in the Chinese countryside was not.

The show's original premise was to convene teams from the United States, Britain, Australia and China to compete in 13 challenges ranging from the physical to the intellectual, executive producer Sarah Zhang said.

That wasn't compelling enough, AZN managing director Steve Smith said.

"It was going to be our first big reality show. It needed to be good," he said. "They're focusing on the fact that everyone's Chinese. Come on. That's not enough. I need Koreans and Filipinos to care."

And, AZN hopes, white Americans, too.

In an industry with entire channels devoted to foodies and fashionistas alike, niche programming still needs to reach out and touch everyone. So shows are developed for Asians, as broad as such an audience already is, and sometimes taken even broader. With enough luck and buzz, they could be the next "Iron Chef" (Food Network) or "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" (Bravo).

"This is the MTV generation," said Anil Srivatsa, senior vice president for affiliate sales and operations at ImaginAsian Entertainment Inc. "They want to be sharing it with their Hispanic friends, their Caucasian friends. I want to share part of me with you. . . . We don't want it to become so ethnically entrenched."

ImaginAsian has the distinction of being the first of the recent Asian television start-ups. In August, it launched a 24-hour channel with programs that include Japanese anime, Bollywood flicks, Korean dramas and cricket matches. Content is either subtitled or in English.

December brought MTV's announcement that it would roll out three niche networks, MTV China, MTV Korea and MTV Desi ( desi is a slang term for South Asians). In January, satellite channel American Desi began broadcasting from studios in New Jersey. It is available in the Washington area only to subscribers of the Dish network.

In March, the International Channel, known for an eclectic menu of shows from around the world, changed its format to all-Asian programming under the name AZN TV. The Colorado-based channel added subtitles to foreign productions and added English programming, such as a dating show. Despite a declared intent to reach the second generation, programming still must be clean and modest enough for grandmothers to watch.

"The mainstream will come," said Smith, who lived in Asia for eight years working to open up foreign markets to U.S. media. "If we're successful to get the Chinese to watch Korean drama, that means that story or that movie is good quality."

AZN's other offerings include anime, cricket matches and movies from Bollywood, India's prolific film industry.

"We call them imitation TV," said Srivatsa, the ImaginAsian vice president. "But it's flattering. It was validation for all we stood for."

Until Comcast bought AZN -- Liberty Media Corp. sold the International Channel last July -- the cable giant had been talking with privately held ImaginAsian to carry the channel in more of its markets, including the Washington area, Srivatsa said.

"It is going to be increasingly difficult for us to get coverage in other systems," he conceded. The company builds brand recognition through a Midtown Manhattan theater and a few radio programs nationwide. "When you put all this together, this is what we are creating a movement with."

Despite their lofty intentions, channel executives say they must be selective. "There's a lot of doctors who want to do yoga shows. I think it's great," Srivatsa said, but "television cannot be a philanthropic venture."

The production crew of House Films learned that lesson the hard way. In their New York office, they now sift through the 1,000 applications received for their reality show and ponder whether to go forward with their concept.

"Our show was going to be very entertaining," Zhang said. "We feel American competitions are very negative. It's too negative, meaningless. People eating worms and stuff. They wanted us to be the same. . . . We're not willing to give up our vision."

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