The trouble with “ethnic” television

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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.

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One Response to “The trouble with “ethnic” television”

  1. Galina... Says:

    A good article full of knowledge..

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