After the International Channel: AZN TV

October 1, 2006

AZN Television

Dan Gabriel, the host of the risqué show “Asia Street Comedy” on AZN TV. Formerly the International Channel, a network that tried to reach a number of immigrant groups, AZN now exclusively devotes its programming to Asian and Asian-American culture

July 30, 2006

Channeling

WHEN the International Channel, which aimed to appeal to all immigrants, switched its format and its name to become AZN TV and focused on Asian and Asian-American culture, the idea was simple: Narrow it down. The change, which Comcast undertook in March 2005, came initially with the promise of new and more diverse original programming for that audience.

But the channel’s actual evolution has been fraught.

Approximately half of the channel’s employees — primarily those on the creative side — were laid off last fall, and it appears to be in a holding pattern, rotating a limited program mix and often airing reruns that are two or more years old. Among the offerings that seem not quite ready for prime time are “Achar!,” a Singaporean sitcom about an interracial (Chinese-Indian) couple featuring the Bollywood star Jas Arora, and “Asia Street Comedy,” a ham-fisted and sometimes offensive sketch show (occasionally redeemed by Parry Shen, late of the movie “Better Luck Tomorrow” and the FX show “Thief”). The short films that are featured on the AZN original show “Popcorn Zen,” which spotlights Asian-American directors, prove no more compelling, only serving to remind how difficult it is to create fresh, taut narratives, even for filmmakers working outside of industry constraints.

On one level the whole narrowcasting approach feels like an admission of defeat, an acknowledgment that the particular interests of Asian-American viewers aren’t addressed by mainstream networks. But offering Asian-theme shows isn’t enough. And AZN’s slapdash mix of originals, syndicated shows, videos and movies doesn’t constitute a coherent aesthetic. Instead, it seems like a cobbled-together attempt to serve several sub-demographics at once.

Still, many of these offerings deserve airtime. There are Thai pop videos, B-list Bollywood films and several Asian news programs (without subtitles). AZN rebroadcasts “Winter Sonata,” a moody Korean soap opera with a rabid following that looks as if it were filmed through a sheet of tissue paper. And then there’s the consistently engaging “Cinema AZN,” a weekly newsmagazine devoted to Asian film that is one of the network’s few original productions. It has featured segments on the sublime Korean actress Bae Doona and the Hong Kong martial arts star turned 90’s American television cop Sammo Hung. Car-chase flicks and art-house fare are reviewed with equal scrutiny, a refreshingly catholic perspective.

Generally AZN excels at magazine-style news programming, on subjects ranging from the unacknowledged contribution of Chinese-Canadian soldiers in World War II to Japan’s Kamakura festival (where young children build several hundred small snow houses) to Jackie Chan, who in a surprisingly far-reaching interview said that as a young man he took up cooking to satisfy his disapproving father.

In September AZN will begin broadcasting a documentary series that follows four Asian-American high school students as they navigate the college application process. It is the only new, original program currently scheduled for the channel, which is disappointing. But it’s a welcome attempt to tackle a subject of broad interest, the sort of programming that could be at home on any network. Perversely, given AZN’s difficulties, that might be a step in the right direction.

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