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Targeting Desis

Aswin Punathambekar
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“Desi,” which means “from the homeland,” is a term that refers to people within the South Asian diaspora. It also signals the emergence of a dynamic and transcultural South Asian youth culture, speaking to a shift in the place of South Asians in U.S. public culture. No longer imagined simply as atomized immigrants nostalgic for a home elsewhere, South Asians in the U.S. are increasingly viewed as “public consumers and producers of distinctive, widely circulating cultural and linguistic forms” (Shankar 2008, 4).

This sociocultural and political shift has shaped, and been shaped by, the constructions of Desis as a sought-after marketing demographic, with the result that a growing number of media corporations have targeted Desi audiences over the past four or five years. These corporate media initiatives are all the more striking, given that the production and circulation of Desi media has been primarily shaped, since the early 1970s, by the efforts of enterprising individuals and families. Furthermore, we can draw an arc from the late 1970s to the current moment—from VHS tapes that circulated via Indian grocery stores to remix music events (DJ Rekha’s Basement Bhangra in New York City, for example), one-hour shows featuring Bollywood song sequences broadcast on public-access stations, performances on college campuses, and, now, vast pirate networks that make Desi media content available to audiences across the globe—to show that the notion of spreadability has always been a defining feature of Desi media culture.

How do media corporations understand and become a part of such a mediascape? Focusing on two recent media initiatives—MTV Desi, a television channel that sought to target South Asian American youth but only lasted about twenty-two months; and Saavn, a New York–based digital media company that has emerged as one of the most prominent distributors of Bollywood programming outside India—this brief study shows that responding to and participating in the cultures of media circulation that were already in place is crucial for media companies interested in diasporic audiences.

In July 2005, MTV Networks announced the start of MTV Desi, a niche satellite TV premium pay channel for South Asian American youth. Launched with great fanfare, MTV Desi sought to respond to ongoing changes in South Asian American culture and to create a space within mainstream media that would speak to the particular experiences of Desi youth. In addition to Bollywood song sequences and Indi-pop music videos, the channel would feature U.S. and U.K.-based South Asian music artists such as DJ Rekha, M.I.A., and Jay Sean alongside popular non–South Asian American stars in order to create a “multi-ethnic, multi-genre playlist” that would resonate with Desi youth (Dev 2006). While music would remain the primary focus of its programming, MTV Desi would also develop new segments covering a range of topics related to life in South Asia and the South Asian diaspora worldwide, including original shows such as Live From, which would track Desi youth culture in cities across North America and the U.K., and hit shows such as Roadies from MTV India.

Recognizing the transnational nature of Desi youth culture, writers, producers, and VJs worked hard to define MTV Desi as a unique site of cultural production that neither mainstream American television nor the older generation of India-centric programming that could already be found on U.S. satellite TV platforms such as DISH Network and DirecTV could match. Twenty-two months later, MTV Networks pulled the plug on MTV Desi (and its sister channels for Korean Americans and Chinese Americans, MTV K and MTV Chi—the three channels operated as parts of the MTV World division), stating that its premium distribution model failed to attract audiences.

The growing influence of Indian film and television companies in shaping media circulation in the diaspora and defining Desis in relation to a “home” they left behind played a crucial role in shaping the channel’s programming, distribution, and reception. At one level, then, MTV Desi is symptomatic of a larger problem confronting Desi television production—of being caught between the nationalist logics of two powerful media industries.

To be sure, the narrowcasting logics of U.S. television and industry lore concerning minority audiences do provide one explanation as to why MTV Desi did not succeed. Nusrat Durrani, senior vice president of MTV World, and others at MTV understood very well that the relationship between “diaspora” and “home” was much more ambivalent for Desi youth compared to their parents’ generation, and that MTV Desi could not succeed by mimicking MTV India or other Indian television channels. As one blogger observed,

MTV Desi was not MTV India. Not something piped in for the Aunties and Babujis, not something that caters to particular regional, ethnic or religious tastes, not something that waxes nostalgic for the mother country. But, instead, reflects the fact that we are creating something new, forging a unique identity from the mélange available to us as Ameri-Brit-Canadian-Kenyan-Punjabi-Hindu-Tamil-Bengali-Parsi-whatever. (cicatrix 2007)

However, despite Durrani’s and others’ efforts to position MTV Desi as a uniquely diasporic space, they were forced to strike a distribution deal with DirecTV and to locate MTV Desi within an India-centric programming package simply because Asian Americans still did not constitute a viable and sustainable consumer demographic that would attract advertisers. As Durrani explained, “If you look at Asian Americans, then get to South Asian Americans, then cut it further to our specific target group of South Asian American youth and consider all the diversity within that group, you’re not left with much. Of course, we all knew that linear TV was not the best option, but, when the project was green lit in that media landscape, it was what we could do” (2008).

Distribution aside, MTV Desi’s programs also failed to make any significant intersections with Desi youth culture. As Amardeep Singh, taking stock of contemporary Desi youth culture and pointing out the absence of diaspora-centric programming on MTV Desi, noted, “At the current moment there isn’t truly a need for a channel like MTV Desi, especially if you have to pay for something a dedicated blogger/video podcaster could do in her basement for free” (2007).

However, given the difficulties of creating programming that cuts across and speaks to the diversity of Desi youth culture, to what extent can we expect television, in its current form and structure, to serve the needs of a decidedly transnational, hybrid, and networked youth culture? Surely those who were involved in the MTV Desi project struggled with this question as they reworked elements of it to be part of the newer MTV global music brand, MTV Iggy (launched in 2009), which pursues, in addition to its own TV program, more of a focus on the online and social media presence of global music and pop culture, including Desi culture. Does the dot-com space better foster connections between media ventures and dispersed audiences?

What might the success of a company such as Saavn tell us about the work of creating a circuit of media circulation that is able to effectively leverage online participatory cultures and, crucially, to move across “national” media markets in ways that MTV Desi could not? Saavn emerged in the context of cable companies across North America exploring the possibilities of video-on-demand (VOD) services as a way to expand their share of the sought-after “Asian American audience.”

To be sure, cable and satellite television in the U.S. has been a vital space for a range of transnational, ethnic, and exilic media. This has, however, been historically limited to public- and leased-access television. As scholars such as Hamid Naficy have shown, exilic and diasporic media producers have had to work “at the intersection and in the interstices of culture industries” and “transnational, national, federal, state, local, private, ethnic, commercial and non-commercial funding agencies” (1999, 144).

Beginning in 2003, the diasporic entrepreneurs behind Saavn initiated conversations with companies that aimed to expand the space for South Asian American audiences within the mainstream U.S. cable industry. And, by 2005, having forged relations with the media industries in India and the U.S., they moved beyond the cable business to enter the Internet and mobile phone sectors as well. By 2007, Saavn had a well-established media distribution network that included films and film music across multiple platforms and, more importantly, an audience network that spanned the globe.

Saavn succeeded by positioning itself as the broker between Indian and U.S. media companies in forging a lucrative, if diverse, South Asian American audience. Furthermore, its strategies and approaches revealed that it was, in contrast to MTV Desi, willing to grapple with the challenges of building a business model around audiences’ social practices.

 

References

cicatrix. 2007. “Rage, Rage against the Dying Satellite.” Sepia Mutiny (blog), Feb. 16. http://www.sepiamutiny.com/sepia/archives/004190.html.

Dev, Satchi. 2006. “She Has Her MTV (Desi).” Nirali, Sept. 1. http://niralimagazine.com/2006/09/she-has-her-mtv-desi/.

Durrani, Nasrat. 2008. Personal interview with Aswin Punathambekar, March 5.

Naficy, Hamid. 1999. “Between Rocks and Hard Places: The Interstitial Mode of Production in Exilic Cinema.” In Home, Exile, Homeland: Film, Media, and the Politics of Place, 125–147. New York: Routledge.

Shankar, Shalini. 2008. Desi Land: Teen Culture, Class, and Success in Silicon Valley. Durham: Duke University Press.

Singh, Amardeep. 2007. “MTV Desi, RIP.” Sepia Mutiny (blog), Feb. 15. http://www.sepiamutiny.com/sepia/archives/004187.html.

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