What Brown Can(not) Do For You

by

A week from now, I will be on my way to Boston to participate in a workshop at M.I.T where a group of academics will talk about Unboxing TV. Following the model established by Flow, this workshop is organized as a series of roundtable discussions with each participant outlining a provocation instead of reading a paper for 20-25 minutes. Take a look at the program and the provocations here.

I decided to take this opportunity to think through the MTV-Desi experiment, and use discussions surrounding MTV-Desi to think about the relationship between the South Asian diaspora and TV. Over the next week, I will be working through answers to the questions I raise and will have more to say. For now, here’s what I wrote:

In July 2005, MTV Networks announced the launch of MTV-Desi, a niche channel for South Asian American youth. Launched with great fanfare and made available on Direct TV, MTV-Desi featured Bollywood sequences and Indi-pop (sourced from MTV India), diasporic artists in North America and the U.K., and shows about desi life in the U.S. Recognizing the transcultural nature of South Asian American youth culture, executives and producers at MTV-Desi worked hard to define MTV-Desi as a unique site of cultural production that neither mainstream American television nor Indian satellite TV channels could match.

Eighteen months later, MTV Networks pulled the plug on MTV-Desi, stating that the distribution model failed to draw in South Asian Americans. As one prominent South Asian journalist commented, “we published next to nothing on the channel, because I couldn’t find anyone who watched the satellite channel: no college students, no twenty-somethings with spare change. And it wasn’t just me. All the tastemakers I interviewed – DJs, other music types – said they didn’t know any MTV Desi subscribers either.”

While pricing and poor marketing were cited as the major reasons for failure, it is worth noting that MTV-Desi’s business and content-production strategies were shaped not only by the institutional politics of the U.S. television industry but also by the operations of satellite television channels such as ZEE, STAR, and Sony Entertainment that cater to South Asian audiences worldwide. MTV-Desi executives were also attuned to reports emphasizing that South Asians are now among the fastest growing minorities in the U.S. and, more importantly, as a niche demographic with tremendous purchasing power. Thus, at one level, it appears as if executives at MTV-Desi did nothing wrong in terms of identifying an audience community. So what, besides the premium distribution model, went wrong?

I wish to argue that the MTV-Desi experiment constitutes an important moment in the history of diasporic media production, and that a critical post-mortem will allow us to grapple with challenges faced by media producers and cultural critics in imagining and mobilizing a diasporic audience community. Outlining the changing dynamics of migration between South Asia and the U.S., and competing definitions of desi identity and being brown in the U.S., I will tackle these questions during our roundtable discussion:

- In what ways does the institutional framework of the television industry in the U.S. limit the possibility of imagining a “post-national” audience community?

- If Bombay, as a film and television capital, is dominating and defining the production and flow of South Asian content, what possibilities remain for diasporic television production?

- Does “diaspora,” as a socio-cultural and political critique of the nation-as-community, need TV?

About these ads

8 Responses to “What Brown Can(not) Do For You”

  1. Music » What Brown Can(not) Do For You Says:

    [...] Shea wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptAll the tastemakers I interviewed – DJs, other music types – said they didn’t know any MTV Desi subscribers either.” While pricing and poor marketing were cited as the major reasons for failure, it is worth noting that MTV-Desi’s … [...]

  2. TV » What Brown Can(not) Do For You Says:

    [...] unknown wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerpt… Asian American youth culture, executives and producers at MTV-Desi worked hard to define MTV-Desi as a unique site of cultural production that neither mainstream American television nor Indian satellite TV channels could match. … [...]

  3. Jonathan Gray Says:

    Aswin, I’ve been wrestling with that first question of yours at the end, since I’ve recently been writing on Lost and its international Others. Lost has some horrific depictions of Others at times, but it’s also (a) not filmed in the contiguous 48 states or in Canada with American-style landscape and houses, (b) not set in America, (c) starring numerous non-Americans, and (d) including numerous non-Americans characters. I was struck by how remarkably unique this makes the show. And that speaks to some of those limits for a post-national television: if stories need to be set in America (or else be Amazing Race/Survivor/Ntl Geographic exotic journeys elsewhere), with American casts, we can’t ever displace the national roots of tv.

  4. swati Says:

    I am not sure about how exactly this might help you but I was thinking about the extremely rigid rules that the FCC imposes in regard to public access television. Perhaps it might help in thinking toward an answer for one of your questions:

    “In what ways does the institutional framework of the television industry in the U.S. limit the possibility of imagining a “post-national” audience community?”

    The FCC’s 1996 Telecommunications Act is also something you may want to look into, if you haven’t already. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telecommunications_Act_of_1996, especially the bit about ‘broadcast’ and ‘cable’ services.

    ok happy birday my boy and have a good conference, to start with.

  5. swati Says:

    oops, this link was supposed to go at the beginning

    http://saveaccess.org/node/688

  6. aswinp Says:

    Swati – thanks for those links. On the one hand, it is easy to see how the 30-45 minute weekly desi variety show on Public Access channels set the stage for channels like B4U. Without Public Access, a company like Asian Variety Show could never have survived this long (they began nearly 18 years ago). On the other hand, it is also clear that this kind of programming is very much defined by migration patterns and home-diaspora relations of the 1990s – the focus was on a kind of temporal continuity with the “home.” AVS now claims they are responding to II-gen south asian concerns, but it is still very much a Bollywoodized affair. I have not come across instances of desi youth organizations like DRUM-nation or SALGA using TV. I’d even go so far as to say that where the desi diaspora in the U.S. is concerned, TV has been a rather conservative space.

    Jonathan – in response to your question, I’ve been thinking about TV in the U.K. To me, Goodness Gracious Me is a good example of a “post-national” show. And I don’t see how a show like that could make it on to TV here. But I’m also wondering if we ought to temper our critique of TV’s national roots keeping in mind Hartley and others who rightly point to all the things that TV does do well…

  7. swati Says:

    Did you see the show Notes from the Underbelly last night? I think it was on NBC or ABC. The main character, named whatelse but Raaj (soft ‘j’) meets a nice Indian girl called Lalita Gupta, set up by the overbearing parents in India. It borrows a lot from Goodness Gracious Me, in terms of plots but none of the cheekiness. One particular scene was the dinner date scene – the check please bit! Even though Notes did not copy that phrase, they definitely had the same sort of vibe going but with horrible, horrible imitations of THE Indian accent. Despite all of this, I kinda liked seeing some brown-ness on primetime.

  8. Bollywood Girl Says:

    It’s been ‘Mumbai’ not ‘Bombay’ since a really long time. Which world do you live in ?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: