Archive for May, 2008

A Corner of the Digital Bazaar: YouTube India

May 27, 2008

On May 7, 2008, YouTube announced the launch of another “localized” version – YouTube India. What’s the difference? According to press releases and reports, YouTube India is different in that it will: (a) feature a localized home page, and (b) discover and highlight videos popular and relevant in the Indian context. As Sakina Arsiwala, international manager of YouTube, put it, “this site contains all the videos found on YouTube’s global site, except we’ve applied an “Indian lens” to the content, meaning that the video charts you see reflect what Indians are watching now, the featured videos are programmed to cater to an Indian audience, and we’ve signed up dozens of local partners who are proud to distribute their content through YouTube.”

Further, given the popularity of YouTube’s global (read American) site – YouTube has 5 million unique users in India, and has added 200,000 news users every month from India last year – there is no doubt that other India-specific sites such as iShare, meravideo, videodubba, etc. will face stiff competition over the coming months. Given its cachet, YouTube has already managed to strike deals with a number of prominent film and television production companies in India and ensured that YouTube.co.in will be the site where sought-after content will be available.

At first glance, this seems rather familiar and in fact, brings to mind an earlier moment of “localization” – the mid-1990s when television channels like MTV and Channel [V] went about fashioning Indian avatars in order to make their content/programming more relevant to audiences and advertisers within India (Def Leppard and Guns ‘n Roses could not, at the end of the day, help MTV attract youth across the country). While this is a useful parallel to draw, there are some important differences to note. I would argue that the launch of YouTube India highlights two major struggles in the Indian digital bazaar and, more importantly, signals a shift in the way we think about localization and national communities.

1. YouTube.co.in: A “Trans-national community”

The idea of a “national community,” as we know, has always been central to the workings of film and television industries around the world. In the Indian context, the Bombay film industry has always positioned itself as speaking to and for a national community and so have several major television networks. Even today, emerging networks such as NDTV seek to position themselves as catering to a national community (albeit one that includes diasporic audiences – see this). We also know that this has always been a difficult task for film and television industries. Given that the Internet allows us to transgress local and national boundaries with even greater ease, how do we go about drawing national boundaries around YouTube or, more broadly, online communities that cohere around an astonishing range of videos? This is the problem that India-specific sites continue to struggle with. Sites like meravideo.com, aapkavideo.com, and videodubba.com defined themselves as national (and nationalist, in some cases) alternatives, in opposition to a global YouTube.

YouTube, however, has managed to position YouTube-India as a site where Indian audiences get to participate in the ongoing production of a global online video community and not just in a narrowly defined national space. In fact, when you visit youtube.co.in, there is nothing on the front page that suggests that the site is a “local” or “regional” version of a more global YouTube.

2. Making money in the bazaar

The second major problem that new media companies in India (and other comparable markets like Brazil) continue to struggle with is monetization. Internet use and broadband penetration remains low compared to other parts of the world and as a consequence, Internet advertising has not emerged as a key component of business models for new media initiatives (in 2007-08, Internet advertising in India was estimated at Rs. 225 crores/Rs. 2.25 billion). Here, the fact that YouTube’s India strategy is part of Google India’s larger ambitions represents a major advantage over competitors.

Instead of focusing on a short-term goal of generating advertising revenues, Google India executives have decided to perform the role of consultants who will, over the next 5-10 years, work closely with advertising and marketing agencies and advise media professionals on how online advertising can become a major element of their media planning. As Shailesh Rao, managing director of Google India, explained, the company has already set up five “verticals” (financial services, local and classifieds, travel, media & entertainment, and technology & health communication) with experts who will “educate, train and guide businesses to leverage the most out of online advertising.” It is this evangelizing mission that may, in the long run, prove to be the most important dimension of YouTube’s localization.

Beyond Filmy Music

May 16, 2008

The latest issue of Time Out Mumbai takes an in-depth look at how a range of musicians in India are taking advantage of a “democratised playing field:”

As the big music labels continue to complain that the internet is killing the music business, independent record companies and artists are reaping the benefits of a democratised playing field. Who needs a studio when you’ve got Fruity Loops on your computer? Who needs MTV when you’ve got YouTube? Who needs Planet M when you’ve got MusicYogi? This might be the most exciting time to be a musician. Tabla star Aneesh Pradhan, who set up Underscore Records with his wife, renowned vocalist Shubha Mudgal, tells us how they have successfully marketed non-mainstream sounds. Thermal and a Quarter tell us how they’ve managed to have three hit albums without being signed up to a label. We also profile the new releases of three recently formed independent record companies and speak to their founders about how music labels can thrive in today’s download-happy universe.

Read it all here (free registration).

The trouble with “ethnic” television

May 15, 2008

I’ve written about MTV-Desi in previous posts, but here’s a story that points very clearly to a shift in the way American media execs are now thinking about “ethnic” programming (link). According to this story, we will soon see a bouquet of STAR-owned channels (Star Plus, Star One, Vijay, and so on) on Comcast’s International line-up. Comcast owned International Networks has just signed a deal with the Star Group (owned by Newscorp). Good news, for the most part. But I also think that such relationships between U.S.-media companies and transnational entities like Star point to an important shift in how “ethnic” programming and the very notion of an “ethnic” audience community is being imagined.

Take a look at this statement from David Wisnia, senior VP of distribution and sales of Star North America and Europe:

International Networks is the leading aggregator of ethnic language programming in the U.S. and we are thrilled to have them represent five of our Indian channels to MSOs across the country. We look forward to increasing our distribution to cable homes across the U.S. so that more South Asian viewers can enjoy top-rated entertainment from back home.

It is abundantly clear that this exec, and arguably those at Comcast, conceive of South Asian viewers as remaining connected to their “home,” as viewers who can speak Hindi, Tamil or some other Indian language. Why are South Asian-Americans being defined primarily in South Asian terms? I would argue that there are three elements at work here.

First, we need to acknowledge the limits that marketing discourse imposes on distribution and programming decisions. The failures of MTV-Desi and AZN, one would imagine, have added to industry lore that such niche channels simply do not work. Besides, there is a very well-etablished tradition of marketing and advertising executives (including many who are of South Asian descent) who work hard to define ethnic difference.

Second, and perhaps the biggest challenge for the industry, is the problem of content. Why would a company seek to invest in original program production when it is clear that audiences are already watching programs from various television channels via YouTube and even by borrowing tapes of saas-bahu serials from a local desi grocery store. It is, without a doubt, financially more prudent to enter into a deal that brings in top quality content.

Third, and more broadly, this new definition of “ethnic” television that ties migrant populations to their “home” (the where are you really from question) completely ignores second and third-generation desis. South Asian Americans are now caught between two powerful nationalist imaginaries: an American television/marketing industry that is struggling to think beyond old notions of “community,” and an “Indian” television industry that includes desis but doesn’t need to worry about those desis who do not understand Hindi or Tamil or, for that matter, might not be “desi” in these very limiting ways.

Of Chai and Samosas: Indian cinema and exhibition in the U.S.

May 8, 2008

Distribution and exhibition of Indian films (mostly Hindi language Bollywood films) in North America have been un-organized sectors for nearly five decades now. In cities/regions with a large concentration of South Asians – New York/NJ, California, Toronto, and so on – a desi family would often run a weekend business that involved screening films at university halls or by renting a screen (for one weekend) at a local cinema theatre. While things have changed in larger cities – from dedicated screens to entire multiplexes (Naz8 in California, for e.g.) for Indian films – there has been no concerted effort to organize distribution and exhibition across the continent.

However, given the ways in which the “NRI market” has been targeted in increasingly sophisticated ways by the film industry in Mumbai, perhaps it is not a surprise that a Bollywood company has decided to launch a major exhibition venture. According to a story in India West, Adlabs is in the process of acquiring close to 200 cinemas in cities across the U.S. (link):

The new theater chain will likely be branded as Big Cinemas and will program a mix of Hindi, South Indian, and first-run and second-run Hollywood movies.

It has already begun a quiet rollout: the company’s first West Coast property to open is the Norwalk 8 Theaters in Southern California, which will screen the subtitled Hindi thriller “Tashan” and the unsubtitled Tamil romance “Santhosh Subramaniam” starting April 25, along with a mix of second-run features such as “Fool’s Gold” and “The Spiderwick Chronicles.”

If Adlabs does succeed in establishing a chain of theatres across the U.S., I have no doubt it will change the way Bollywood imagines and mobilizes an “overseas market.” In addition to bringing about a shift in distribution and marketing practices, this will also allow filmmakers to track revenues in a more organized and reliable fashion.


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