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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Inside Man: Jeff Chang

October 1, 2006

Jeff Chang can't stop, won't stop thinking about the new generation of Asian Americans in the arts: Part Two
This is what the cipher looks like. Courtesy of http://www.sfist.com

Inside Man: Jeff Chang can’t stop, won’t stop thinking about the new generation of Asian Americans in the arts: Part Two

by APA A/V Team

The author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, a cultural history of the hip-hop generation, and a giant in the world of arts criticism, Jeff Chang gets candid about the future of Asian American programming, his so-called career, and what it means to step into the cipher.

APA: What are your thoughts on the intentions behind some of these networks though? Especially considering what’s come to light with AZN TV?

JC: AZN TV has been disappointing for a lot of folks in the community. On the one hand, it was sort of symbolic of the way that people are starting to rethink Asian American audiences. Because originally, it was the International channel, which had the goal of reaching first-generation, thirty, fifty, sixty-somethings with programming largely coming from overseas. And so, when AZN launched, after ImaginAsian, they went in a big way to the other direction. They went strictly toward trying to serve a dominantly English-speaking, Pan-Asian American community, the idea being there was going to be anime, soap operas, but if it’s from overseas, we’ll have it in subtitles.

So then it’s, we’re gonna have original programming that features Asian Americans from across the spectrum, and we’re gonna do that 24/7. So they hired a pretty amazing staff, a creative staff to develop programing and just before Christmas they fired them all. And the real truth about AZN is that it’s a Comcast-owned channel that’s run by white male executives. Now that they’ve eradicated, decimated — whatever word you want to use is appropriate here — the Asian American staff, the real question is whether they wanna be in business anymore. I have a good friend Jeff Yang, who did reporting on it for sfgate.com, and the word he has is that Comcast had devloped AZN because it fulfilled FCC regulations. And now that those regulations have ben relaxed quite a bit, and this larger environment of media deregulation, there’s no incentive anymore. So we’ll see what happens. It’s still on the air, there’s still new content, the AZN Excellence awards, for example, but we’ll see what their commitment is gonna be in the long run.

It raises a larger issue for Asian Americans — how media justice issues affect communities of color. This is something that Asian Americans are behind in, African Americans have been dealing with it for years; for us, it’s kind of been a new thing. I would hope that Asian Americans on the other side of the camera or microphone can make these kinds of issues plain for the rest of the community. Because we really don’t realize how all this kind of ground is shifting under our feet and how this is gonna affect the content we actually see when we finally get more Asian Americans on TV or radio.

APA: Does this raise issues about demographic programming: Asians versus Asian Americans?

JC: That’s a really interesting question that I haven’t got as much into, this question of balancing the content between what you’re importing and what you’re trying to Johnny Appleseed here in the U.S. It’s a very important question because in speaking with Nusrat, one of the things I noticed was from a content point of view. I think Nusrat has a much more global view than an Asian American kid growing up in Califronia. Here, globalization is very natural, your household might be trilingual, if you’re living in Los Angeles, you’ll be familiar with Nintendo music, as well as meringue, as well as reggaeton, K-pop, V-pop, J-pop, hip-hop. It’s very natural in a way, but at the same time, you’re very much rooted in L.A. streets, and the community that L.A. is. Your peers are speaking in English, and your friends are across the spectrum, those kids are equally fascinated with the way you live, the food that you eat, the toys that you play with, your sister or brother who they think is fine — it’s a different kind of interactivity. And that makes that group of folks uniquely American in that way. But the challenge is how to strike that balance.

So for instance, with MTV Chi, what they do is have these things where they vote for their favorite records; their lists are very eclectic, there’ll be mando-pop, canto-pop, mando punk, Taiwanese hip-hop, Jin — it’s a rich mix. Their whole thing is to get the feedback from young people and what it is that they want. I would presume that young people want to have a lot more content from the U.S., and over time, that balance will probably shift, but right now a lot of the reason they’re programming 24/7 is that they can repurpose content that’s created in MTV China, MTV in Singapore. And so it’ll be interesting to see how that balance gets struck over time, and whether or not that is going to be a format or a venue for Asian American artists to grow faster and to be able to develop themselves faster.

If you were someone before, there’d be very little chance for you to work the Asian American angle. The long term thing is very interesting, you see it going back to the history of Giant Robot, which I think is kind of the turning point, when you have the Asian American media specifically directed toward Asian American communities, largely baby-boomers, to the hip-hop generation, where there’s a turn, where now it’s not necessarily about struggle and service, but how cool we are. With Giant Robot, you see this fascination with Japanese toys or Hong Kong cinema, in which Asian Americans position themselves as, we can translate this for all you folks out there. Then, coming out at the same time with the yellow power issue or more historical stuff, or lifting up Asian American visual artists, and that’s a very interesting kind of tension. So that poses a question about how Asian Americans positions ourselves, in relations to the multicultural audiences here in the U.S., and the Americanizing of artists in Asia.

APA: Were there some eyebrows raised when you first came into the game, writing about hip-hop and being an Asian American?

JC: It was a challenge, but it wasn’t a challenge for what people expect. People expect that because I’m an Asian American, I’m coming from an outsider’s point of view, and that there’d be a lot of hostility from Blacks and Latinos to my presence. So in that sense, it’s been a very interesting question, because I’ve actually received it from every interviewer I’ve ever had. I think it’s interesting that people would expect that that would occur, that I’d have all these tales of being kicked out of the club. I’m not an outsider to this, and that’s the whole thing; at one point, I had to back off because I would get really angry at people for asking about this. I’m a cliche, I’m just like every other kid at my high school in the early ’80s that heard “Rapper’s Delight,” “Planet Rock, and wanted to know what it was all about. For me, it’s been something that I’ve grown up with; I went to college, and I started in the whole anti-apartheid movement, and that’s when hip-hop shifted. Then I graduated, it was more about being fly, and dressing up, and I was into that as well. So I felt like hip-hop was the soundtrack of my life, it was intimately what I was about, and I don’t know if at some point, I realized this, but when I started writing about it in the early ’90s, that was natural too.

When I began writing about it, it was right about the time when Death Certificate came out, and there was a lot of tension between African Americans and Asian Americans, me and my homies were arguing all the time, and falling out with each other over the things that were happening in Los Angeles, Brooklyn, even the Bay Area — having these intense, huge arguments about these real issues that were happening on the streets, as opposed to what we were being taught as progressives of color. So when I entered into writing on hip-hop, that’s what I wrote about. But even there, it’s a situation where I went at it…some people disagreed with me, a lot of people agreed with me, but it was a discourse. The metaphor I like to use is, hip-hop is a cipher. If you’re gonna step into the cipher, you really have to add on, and if you’re not going to add on, you’re gonna get laughed out, you’re gonna get humiliated, then you’re gonna have step back, and come with something better next time. All through my involvement with hip-hop, it’s always been like that, whether or not you’re gonna add on, and if you don’t, just shut up and watch people and learn. So that’s been the relationship I’ve had with hip-hop. In a sense, the whole issue about being an Asian American in hip-hop, yeah, it’s been an issue, and no, it hasn’t been an issue.

APA: Any particular direction you see your career headed given all that you’ve accomplished?

JC: The career question [laughs]. It’s kind of like, my so-called career. I’ve been kind of a dilettante in a lot of different things, I’ve been a community campus organizer,  I’ve been in mainstream politics, I’ve been a teacher/lecturer, I’ve been an indie record label mogul, I’ve been a writer and a journalist and an editor all throughout this type of stuff. So I can’t really say where I’m gonna be in ten years, even at this point in life, I just know I gotta keep the lights on and the kids fed, and that I’ve been enjoying writing, and I expect that I’ll continue to be able to do that. My passion is in telling stories, and I feel like poeople need food, medicine, shelter, but they also need stories, and that’s one of the contributions I can make in this lifetime. I’m looking forward to finishing Total Chaos, and the next big project, which is getting at a lot of these issues that you’ve raised, about identity, and where the future is, and that kind of thing. So we’ll just have to see how it goes.

APA: What’s the best advice you can give to an Asian American — as a critic, as an activist, or as an artist?

JC: A lot of stuff. First thing is persevere, don’t give up. There are a lot of pressures on young Asian American artists to go get a straight 9-5, and just to sort of give up your passion, and so that’s the first thing. Stick with it, if it’s something you really feel defines you, it’s the thing that makes you happy, to get out of bed in the morning, the world will be a much better place if you’re gonna be yourself. That’s the thing with Asian Americans, you feel a lot of cross-cutting pressures on a daily basis, a lot of it can be boiled down to defiantly being yourself. And to never forget that people need what you have. People need stories, and art, and part of who we are as Asian Americans goes back to the way that Asian American artists can help us understand who we are, and a larger vision or imagination, and of who we can be. That’s very improtant. You can’t go back to your folks and say, “oh yeah, I’m selling stories now for a living.” My point is it’s important  to understand that there is a lot of value — maybe it’s a different kind of value — but there’s a lot of value to do what you do best, and what you’re most passionate about.

Date Posted: 6/8/2006

By Luis Clemens, STAFF (Multichannel News) _ When MTV: Music Television launched its MTV K network, aimed at Korean-Americans, last month, correspondent SuChin Pak greeted viewers in Korean before switching to English. Her comments indicated both pride and some surprise at how much the ethnic-programming landscape has changed.

“When I was growing up, the only Koreans I saw were extras on [the series] M*A*S*H,” said Pak. “Now we have an entire channel dedicated to us. We’ve come a long way, baby.”

While ethnic programming has come a long way in terms of variety and quantity, one thing has remained pretty much the same satellite’s lead over cable in offering the most-diverse ethnic fare. Though bandwidth issues are a contributing factor for the big head start, there is no denying satellite’s early and continued success at identifying and selling programming to a wide range of small and not-so-small immigrant audiences

<a href=”http://ads.digitalmedianet.com/ads/servlet/click/zone?zid=123&pid=0&lookup=true&position=1&#8243; target=”_blank”><img src=”http://ads.digitalmedianet.com/ads/servlet/view/banner/image/zone?zid=123&pid=0&keywords=Broadcast%2CInternet/Web%2CBusiness%2CProgramming%2CInternet%2CBroadband%2CMarketing%2CLaw%2CAuthoring/Programming%2CBroadcast+Technology%2CBroadcast%2CDTV%2C&position=1&#8243; alt=”Click” here=”” border=”0″ hspace=”0″ vspace=”0″></a>Over the last five years, a number of major cable operators have bolstered their multicultural offerings and international marketing efforts, but they still trail behind satellite operators.

Operator Total Subs
EchoStar 1,075,000
DirecTV 900,000
Comcast 300,000
Time Warner Cable 95,000
Cox 75,000

SPANISH-LANGUAGE PUSH In the late 1990s, EchoStar Communications Corp. began a push to build and promote an attractive Spanish-language tier for Hispanic immigrants. Now, its Dish Network offers additional channels and packages in languages from Arabic to Ukrainian.

Direct-broadcast satellite enjoys some inherent technological advantages over cable in distributing ethnic programming namely, channel capacity and a national footprint that enables the medium to easily reach very small and widely dispersed groups.

Satellite providers have also worked aggressively with local retailers to get the word out: Open a Spanish-language newspaper almost anywhere in the U.S., and you can see ads from local retailers touting EchoStar’s Dish Network and rival DBS platform DirecTV Inc.

“Dish’s ongoing relationship with local retailers has been its greatest success,” said Ariela Nerubay, vice president of marketing and sales at TuTv. “It generates word of mouth, reduces your point-of-sale costs [and] the shop owners invest in advertising.”

Nerubay also cited Dish and DirecTV’s success in putting together extensive packages of relevant and affordable programming.

The combination of a widespread retail presence plus a reasonable price creates a net effect for networks.

“It gets easier, certainly with respect to Latinos as you have a larger subscriber base,” said EchoStar senior vice president of programming Eric Sahl. “There is this sort of dual dynamic where the programmer wants to hitch to your horse. More and more competitors are getting into the business, [but] it is hard to give [EchoStar] up if you are a programmer.”

Satellite has become the preferred option for many ethnic programmers because it combines a guaranteed nationwide audience with lower transaction costs.

LOWEST-HANGING FRUIT For instance, Dish will carry American Desi, a network targeting South Asians, exclusively through 2007. Network CEO Vimal Verma described EchoStar as “the lowest-hanging fruit” for many ethnic broadcasters.

“My perspective, from a programmer’s point of view, is the more the merrier,” Verma said. “But convincing each and every cable system to carry us is not in their interest or mine.”

Depending on the size of a network’s target audience, convincing even a single cable system can be difficult. DirecTV estimates there are less than 100,000 Ukrainian households in the U.S., but that didn’t stop the satellite provider from offering a Ukrainian-language premium channel for $14.99 a month.

“It is a nice business for us,” said Aaron McNally, vice president of DirecTV International. “You start aggregating these niches, and it makes sense.”

And the Hispanic market is the biggest niche of all. Luis Torres-Bohl owns Atlanta-based Castalia Communications and sells a number of Latin American networks to U.S. cable and satellite operators. He is also president of the Mexicanal network, which is carried exclusively on the “DirecTV Para Todos” package.

“For now, the cable companies do not have the same number of subscribers as DirecTV,” he said. “It is a question of volume. It is only in the last two, three years that cable companies have entered the game.”

CABLE FIGHTS BACK Cable is doing what it can to compete, primarily by beefing up its Hispanic programming and trumpeting technological benefits such as video on demand and bundled-services packages.

“Cable is doing catch-up,” said Kagan Research senior analyst Deana Meyers.

Cable systems effectively ceded Spanish-speaking customers to EchoStar for several years. But in the last five years, those numbers became too large to ignore and cable actively began to try and attract Latino subscribers by bolstering their Spanish-language program packages.

“We’ve made great strides in nailing down the appropriate programming. That was the most critical [step],” said Charter Communications Inc. vice president of programming R.B. Lerch.

In the last two to three years, cable has begun making inroads and competitors are taking notice.

“The cable systems have been more aggressive recently,” said McNally, not only in building programming, but in trying to improve their Hispanic marketing efforts.

Bundling is one way that cable operators hope to attract subscribers. Hispanics are increasingly moving from dial-up Internet access to broadband connections. And both Cablevision Systems Corp. and Comcast Corp. offer calling plans designed specifically with Latino customers in mind, with discounted rates to such locales as Puerto Rico.

But much of the hope for luring Hispanics to cable lies in video on demand. “VOD is a great differentiator,” said John Figueroa, director of sales and multicultural marketing for Charter’s Western division.

Charter, Comcast and many other major MSOs are encouraging Hispanic networks to expand their on-demand offerings.

And many are happy to do so. TuTv is working on clearing VOD rights for more than 3,000 Mexican films, most of which are governed by multiple rights contracts.

“For us, it is very important to take advantage of all the resources at our disposal to try and help the cable systems,” said TuTv CFO Carlos Madrazo. “The cable executives always ask us, ‘Can we beat Dish, given their head start?’ ”

“As soon as they get cracking and come up with a reasonably priced package, they have the same growth capacity as satellite. They have hope.”

BEYOND LATINO MARKETS That hope is beginning to extend beyond attracting Latinos. “What’s happening now is the operators, whether cable or alternate providers, are starting to realize that other markets are equally ripe,” said Adriana Waterston vice president of marketing and business development at Horowitz Associates Inc. “People are starting to really get a sense that there is more than just Hispanic.”

Specifically, there is an increasing sense of the importance of the Asian-American audience.

One network that targets that burgeoning demographic is AZN Television. Originally the International Channel, it relaunched as AZN on May 5, 2005, because “those numbers are very lucky within Asian cultures,” said Bill Georges, senior vice president of marketing and sales at AZN Television/International Networks.

According to Georges, AZN is designed “as a one-stop shop to reach Asian Americans not just some fraction of Asians, but a national audience.”

AZN runs English-language shows in primetime but the rest of the day it airs mostly original-language dramas and newscasts from a number of Asian countries.

International Networks, the Comcast-owned subsidiary that operates AZN, began offering a batch of Asian, European and Middle Eastern premium networks to cable systems in 1997. Subscriber numbers range from tens of thousands for the Saigon Broadcast Television Network to 15 million households for AZN.

“Those advertisers that hopped on early with the Hispanic market reaped the benefits” said Georges. “Those who get in early [into the Asian market] will get in at a much more cost-effective rate than later on.”

Getting an early foothold seems to be motivating some programmers, even if all advertisers are not yet buying. Mike Hong, president of ImaginAsian TV, estimates that less than $300 million per year in total advertising is spent to reach the Asian-American audience. That’s not a lot of money to support the several dozen Asian-language channels and at least half a dozen networks that feature English-language programming for Asian Americans raised or born in the U.S.

Three of those networks are from MTV Networks’ stable: MTV K, for Korean Americans (launched June 2006); MTV Chi, targeted to Chinese Americans (launched December 2005); and MTV Desi, aimed at Americans of South Asian descent (launched July 2005).

“Younger, more educated, more tech-savvy a small but influential audience,” is how MTV World senior vice president and general manager Nusrat Durrani described the audience for all three MTV channels.

Added MTV president Christina Norman, “We really feel these young audiences deserve their own MTVs.”

Still, there is no advertising on any of MTV’s three Asian-aimed networks. Though Durrani and Norman said advertisers have expressed strong interest, they declined to identify any prospective clients.

One difficulty in targeting the Asian-American market is its inherent fragmentation due to sharp cultural, linguistic and regional differences.

“Young people from these communities don’t really see themselves first and foremost as Asian Americans,” Durrani said. “They see themselves either as Chinese Americans or Korean Americans.”

“You can offer a real vehicle to reach all Asian Americans,” though, contended ImaginAsian’s Hong. A model that doesn’t depend on advertising can also work, he said.

The problem, he said, is that there “isn’t enough critical mass to get Madison Avenue interested.” Hong plans to launch a subscription VOD service aimed at Korean Americans later this year.

OVERLOOKED SEGMENT One market that both cable and satellite seem to be overlooking is African Americans. While there are more than 70 Hispanic channels, only a half-dozen specifically target African American viewers. And major cable and satellite providers offer no African-American programming packages.

That’s despite the fact that African-American customers spend more on cable than any other group, according to Horowitz Associates Inc. research.

“I have a head full of gray hair and no time to dye it,” said Samara Cummins, vice president of affiliate sales and marketing for the Black Family Channel, referring to her channel’s seven-year fight for carriage. “I thought it would be much easier.”

Added Horowitz’s Waterston: “It has been very easy to take the African-American audience for granted. Are we at risk at losing some of those customers? I think we are.”

Many African-American programmers feel that foreign-language channels have cut the line, so to speak.

“We have the feeling that we’ve been leapfrogged over by the foreign-language community,” said Cummins. “I’ve had operators say to me, ‘I am working on Hispanic, come back to me in a year.’ That’s unfortunate when your best customer is skipped over.”

Thus far, the Black Family Channel is carried only on cable, not on satellite. “The satellite community has not embraced us for whatever reason. I am not sure why,” said Cummins. “Every day, I think this is the day we are going to get carriage, but then it is not.”

Another African-American-targeted startup, TV One, has benefited from its ownership: Comcast is a part owner, and DirecTV took an equity stake in the channel as part of a carriage deal.

The network, co-owned by African American-owned radio broadcaster Radio One Inc., launched in January 2004 and is now in 31 million Nielsen Media Research homes.

“This is a big underserved audience and people do lose sight of it,” said Brad Samuels, executive vice president of affiliate sales and marketing for TV One.

“Where we are now is not where we’ll end up,” said Alexis Johnson, director of programming for Verizon’s FiOS TV, which currently offers six African American-themed channels. There’s room for more ethnic programming, stressed Johnson, who added that “we want to serve our audience regardless of the numbers.”

While cable plays catch-up with satellite, both may face increased competition as telcos such as Verizon and other broadband providers beef up their multicultural offerings.

The telcos can offer “virtually limitless international programming,” noted Kagan Research senior analyst Deana Myers.

SATELLITE’S LIMITS Meanwhile, satellite may be starting to bump up against a ceiling in terms of what it can offer. “There certainly is a ceiling,” said EchoStar’s Sahl. “We are having to make tougher and tougher choices. Your opportunity costs get higher.”

While cable and satellite executives may dismiss broadband subscriber numbers as too small to pose a competitive threat, the platform offers programmers a viable way of delivering more ethnic content.

One such programmer is Michael Feldenkrais, who heads up the immigration practice at Miami-based multinational law firm Adorno & Yoss and who was a regular guest commentator for Telemundo and later TeleFutura.

Feldenkrais plans to launch a subscription-based, Spanish-language immigration-news channel via broadband called Sueño Americano (American Dream) On Demand.

“The technology was there for me to do it on my own. I didn’t need a big player,” said Feldenkrais. “The cost of distribution is minimal and the risk is minimal.”

DirecTV’s McNally said his firm’s ethnic-programming franchise faces competitive risks everywhere. “I look at all threats. I take them all seriously,” he said. “I truly believe it pays to be paranoid.”

Copyright The Associated Press 2006. All Rights Reserved