Show me the Money: Desi TV in the US Marketplace

Curator's Note

The featured video clip is from 2007 when Simply Desi, a 3 and ½ hour block of South Asian programming was officially launched on ImaginAsian TV, an Asian American cable television network. Simply Desi’s programming line up for the most part relies on syndicated content such as Koffee with Karan, a celebrity talk show from India’s Star TV, news from South Asia, and a weekly show on cricket. Pulse- the Desi Beat is the only original programming that is produced by ImaginAsian TV and focuses on South Asian American popular culture. (desi: from “desh” or homeland) Simply Desi’s alliance with ImaginAsian TV is mirrored in the March 2008 launch of Pan Desi, an Indian-American network on CoLors TV, a basic cable and satellite channel featuring multicultural programming. Pan Desi aims to reach its audiences during prime-time with mostly original programming that emphasizes the South Asian-American experience. Pan Desi is the new avatar of American Desi, a satellite based Indian-American network that was launched in 2005 with great promise but nevertheless failed when it went bankrupt. When American Desi was launched it promised an alternative to the India-centric programming available through Dish and DirecTV’s South Asian satellite channel packages. Nevertheless, the network did not generate the kind of advertising revenue the CEO Vimal Verma had hoped. Now in its Pan Desi avatar, the network is operating as a basic (and in some instance as free-over the air channel) cable and satellite channel. Simply Desi and Pan Desi bring something new to the table—an attempt to make relevant programming for South Asian Americans (instead of South Asians in America) accessible thorough new forms of distribution such as cable and satellite networks. Yet in their reliance on syndicated content from India, in their alliances with multicultural programming platforms ImaginAsian TV and CoLors TV which are carried on basic cable and satellite channels, they seem very similar to traditional South Asian diasporic media which have long operated on public access broadcast channels on weekends. Since 2005, two attempts at targeting desis through subscription based satellite channels have failed—one being American Desi and the other being MTV Desi. Both networks acknowledge that the premium subscription model did not work. These developments pose interesting questions such as: Can only the likes of Zee TV from India be a key player in the US marketplace? Can South Asian American television networks only continue to carve a space for themselves within the public space of multicultural television? And what do these developments tells us about the place of minority television in the US?


I think the crucial issue here is the financial stability of diasporic media in the countries of the North. The demise of American Desi and its reincarnation as Pan Desi demonstrates the frangile state in which most diasporc media exist. However, the problem is not lack of audience because in terms of numbers, diasporic communities are a relevant political and economic force. Previous research has also shown that diasporic audiences use them to find out news about home and/or for civic engagement by participating in studio debates. The real problem is long term sustainability. My research on the African diasporic media in the UK has thrown up a number of challenges. For example, the editor of Africa Today, a popular monthly magazine published in the UK since 1993, told me in an interview that the magazine is not patronised by African governments in terms of advertising and that many African diasporans in the UK do not buy it regularly. Consequently, it relies on multinational companies for its advertising revenues which also throws up ethical issues becasue the magazine may be relunctant to criticise them for their poor environmental records in Africa. However, my main concern about the proliferation of diasporic media is that they hardly commission market and/or scholarly research to help in formulating development strategies. For example, a new Nollywood Movie Channel was launched on BSkyB in the UK in January. Nollywood is the name given to the bourgeoning Nigerian Film Industry and it is reputed to release 2000 movies a year. The problem with this channel is that it expects subscribers to pay £5.99 per month on top of their subscription to the BSkyB. My independent pilot study on this indicates that audiences would be happy to pay much less. Consequently, the channel may have set itself up to fail. Finally, there is a role for minority TV in the countries of the North but they need to appeal to audiences across all ethnic groups to be financially secure.

Premium subscription is a difficult niche no matter what the content--be it NFL or diasporic content. It might not be a matter of being a key player in the marketplace, but rather of audience targeting in the narrowcast tradition. The free, over-the-air cable and satellite channel may not generate the big bucks, but it can develop a steady following that will, over time, attract non-diasporic watchers. Of course, language is always a barrier for Americans (unless it's English); and as a consequence, "multicultural" and "minority" television will never capture a large chunk of the US market unless it broadcasts in English. So the question then becomes: what are you willing give up?

The real problem with the diaspora media model being outlined is the reliance on the capitalist marketplace to determine what is viable. It seems to me that the notion of diaspora needs to be situated in broader political and economic struggles for access to national and local public broadcasting and progressive community and activist projects in the west. Otherwise globalization of the media will continue to see diaspora communities and channels as purely supplementary markets for cheap programming.

Robert, I agree that one of the key issues here is that of targeting audiences. Infact popular discourse in the late '90s and early 2000s was all about the market potential of "ethnic" audiences in the US. At that time it was Spanish language networks that were catching the attention of the press and scholars alike. I recall reading in the Indian-American press that Zee is the most profitable non-Hispanic "ethnic" satellite channel (for the moment, I am just going to gloss over the use of the term "ethnic" here!). anyways, what you say about over the air channels attracting non-diasporic viewers depends ofcourse on the politics of the programming. It is interesting that you mention that since it was exactly the argument that the folks at MTV Desi used when they launched the three MTV channels, MTV Desi, MTV Tres and MTV Chi-- that while the content might seem to be targeting a specific audience segment, the hope was that it would soon appeal to a larger viewership. However, it was partly the way in which MTV desi predominantly relied on MTV India and not enough on the South Asian American music scene that limited its appeal. Also the distinction between diasporic and non-diasporic audiences while somewhat necessary in this context is nonetheless something that needs to be teased out further. In many ways, by alligning themselves with multicultural and Asian American television platforms, Pan Desi and Simply Desi have an opportunity to articulate themselves to a larger context of Asian American and/or South Asian American-ness in the US rather than rely on the typical diaspora-homeland framework.

Ola, The problem you mention with Nollywood is similar to what was indicated for American Desi. It is a pity since I think these attempts by Indian-American entrepreneurs needs also to be located within a desire to shift from "diasporic" to Indian-American or South Asian American media. I agree, we need to address the economic structures here-- an American Desi does not have the luxury of say a Zee TV for whom the US is an ancillary market. I wonder though, what are the ways in which "minority tv" can be imagined? And can some of the ways in which we think of it involve shifting the politics of representation on "mainstream" television? Your work sounds very interesting. best,

I also share with the previous comments posted; not least on the point re political formations of diaspora both by diasporic subjects themselves and through the neo-liberalisation of the international audio and visual spheres - this I found quite pertinent in my research on Zee TV in western Europe. What was further interesting about the vidoe clip was the aesthetics of the sound and images used for iatv - a kind of trad jazz or jazz something genre of music with images and colours which claim, I guess, to be of South Asian in origin. Would this be an apt way to capture the nuances of American Desiness? Or is this an early, albeit premature, attempt signalling the embryonic version of how diasporic American SAsian represnattions are still creating sounds and images through which to project themselves?

What I find interesting here is the way in which diaspora and South Asian American are being articulated. Since most of the programming (e.g., Coffee with Karan, ICC Cricket World, News) does come from other sites, particularly what is diasporic here -- the clips are of (neoliberal?) consumption Bollywood, lingerie, and sports. I am also intrigued about how South Asian American will be played out in Pulse. The show seems to be set in New York -- how will this global city be framed as both a specific place and as America. How does articulating South Asianness in a post-9/11 New York city appear or get elided in the production of "ethnic" programming?

Pulse travels sometimes to the West coast ---but yes, it is interesting to think about what consititutes 'original" programming in Pulse. The white host in Pulse is also reminiscent of a category that MTV Desi deployed "the Wesi"-- the white desi. It is also interesting to think about how "desiness" is being articulated in these various atempts-- Simply Desi, Pulse, MTV Desi and American Desi.

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