SAMMA ’08: giving up on television


Held in the Time Warner conference center in New York City, the South Asians in Media and Marketing summit opened with a keynote address by Peter Ligouri, Chairman and CEO of Fox Broadcasting. Neal Shenoy, one of the founding members of SAMMA, set the stage for Ligouri with a quick opening note about South Asians making quite a splash in the media world over the past few years. Mohinder-Heroes, Sanajaya Malakar-American Idol, Kal Penn-Namesake, Spielberg-Ambani, Richard Gere-Shilpa Shetty kissing…you get the picture.

However, Ligouri himself did not address the question of media production focused on South Asian-American culture . He chose to speak generally about challenges facing media corporations, and why he thought it prudent to ignore hype surrounding new distribution platforms. “Content is king,” he reminded everyone present. But given the setting, the question of why South Asians continue to remain marginal on American television came up as soon as he ended his talk. And his answer, predictably enough, was that demographically speaking, South Asian-Americans were simply not a commercially viable niche market yet. Ligouri, and everyone in the room, ignored the underlying assumption that no one else in the U.S. would be interested in watching, say, a sitcom that revolved around a desi family.

Here, then, is the trouble with desi culture and television. On the one hand, desi youth in the U.S. are stuck with American television institutions and their advertising revenue-based logic. And on the other hand, they have to contend with Indian television corporations (ZEE, Star, SUN, etc.) that couldn’t care less about desi culture in the U.S. and continue to churn out saas-bahu dramas. Unless media professionals in the U.S. are willing to learn from what shows like Goodness Gracious Me were able to achieve, television, I’d argue, will always remain marginal to desi culture and identity in the U.S.


2 Responses to “SAMMA ’08: giving up on television”

  1. swati Says:


    I wouldn’t entirely agree with your argument. I may be making a simplistic connection here but I really think much of what is considered ‘desi culture’ is born out of dance, music and other film-based shows on Zee, Star, etc and is perpetuated through them. In all those ‘India Day’ functions I was dragged to at UB and in most of my discussions with desi undergrads, ‘desi culture’ was defined pretty much in the same ways in which television shows like Saregamapa, Indian Idol, Nach Baliye etc define them. Remember when Saregamapa about 8 yrs ago started the ‘international’ shows set in Dubai, New Jersey etc? And the audience was heavily populated by young people. Yesterday, I met this 20-yr old desi exchange student who religiously follows all the reality dance shows, especially Nach Baliye. She and her friends.
    Something there, right?

  2. aswinp Says:

    Oh I agree, and you’re right that the desi “cultural shows” are a great site from which to trace the influence of these song-and-dance shows. But as I see it, that only adds more weight to the argument that “Bollywood” is shaping these cultural exchanges to the extent that nothing else seems possible. If saas-bahu dramas don’t resonate with desi youth (and why the hell should they), and all they end up getting is Bollywood-based shows, that’s a major problem. Even the space of “diasporic cinema” – however problematic some of the U.S.-based films were – has been brought into the fold of “Bollywood” (Namesake, for e.g.). And on the other hand, we have these rather short-sighted and narrow demographic definitions of audiences, which means U.S.-TV corporations couldn’t care less about telling other kinds of stories about desi life. In that sense, television is marginal.

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