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Suiting Tastes in Unique Ways

Looking to tap its Asian-American audience’s growing interest in the National Basketball Association, AZN Television reached up to one of China’s favorite sons: Houston Rockets center Yao Ming.

AZN acquired the rights to Yao Ming in the NBA, a 16-part documentary co-produced by the league’s NBA Entertainment unit and Shangai Media Group, chronicling the second season of the 7-foot-6-inch Chinese icon in the pro hoops league.

The network, which was converted from the International Channel last March, debuted the program this fall and has complemented it with Hoop Guys. The 22-part original reality series tracks three fans who try to go to as many league games as possible, and was coproduced with the NBA. One highlight of the series is an expected meeting with Yao.

“The avidity for the NBA is very high among Asian-Americans,” says AZN senior vice president Bill Georges. “It’s the most popular sport among our audience.”

It may seem like a no-brainer for channels targeting specific ethnic groups to mix and match an assortment of original content with American or overseas partners — along with acquired programming from countries that are well-loved and closely tracked by the target audience. But Asian-American focused channels and those aiming for Hispanic audiences are seasoning their program stews in their own unique ways.

“Our lineups consists of original programs created in Spanish and of topics that are relevant to the Hispanic audience in the U.S.,” says Luis Silberwasser, senior vice president and general manager at Discovery U.S. Hispanic Networks.

When Discovery does incorporate programs that have run on the English-language channels, Silberwasser says they go through a process of “transcreation, where they are not only languaged in Spanish, but also the visual elements are translated into Spanish. Where appropriate, we will change or add a hosted segment to add a unique Hispanic perspective to the program,” he adds.

Programming takes a somewhat different route at History Channel en español. Marlene Braga, director of programming and production, says that 90% of the network’s programming emanates from the U.S.

“My job is to identify existing inventory that is appropriate for the audience and also work with our joint venture History Channel Latin America,” she explained.

To that end, Braga maintains ties to the Caracas, Venezuela, headquarters of History Channel Latin America, which was formed in 2000. And she also keeps a close eye on IBOPE, the Latin American ratings measurement service equivalent to Nielsen Media Research.

“We send programming down there and see what plays well,” she says, pointing to the likes of specials like The French Revolution, Conquest of America, Breaking the Da Vinci Code and Latino-leaning episodes of Biography on Oscar De La Hoya, Ernesto “Che” Guevera and Eva Perón.

Roots of America, where Latino history and heritage are explored alongside Mayan ruins in Mexico, also had broad appeal.

In Caracas, the shows are not only translated, but repackaged with customized openings, sometimes in the form of animation, before airing on History Channel en español, she says.

Meanwhile, Nusrat Durrani, general manager, senior vice president of MTV World, says the group’s Indian-oriented MTV Desi, which premiered last July, and Chinese-focused MTV Chi benefit greatly from an assortment of MTV channels overseas.

“MTV Chi is drawing from MTV China, MTV Asia and MTV Singapore,” he says.

“Desi’s vector is not only from Bollywood, but from music in India reflecting rock, classical and traditional Indian — and from the U.K.”

He notes that imported product comes in the appropriate language and then is subtitled in English

“We assemble things [in New York] with graphic additions, intros and the like,” he says, adding that the two services’ VJs are fluent in English, but “speak the home languages,” dropping in cultural references and conducting interviews with international talent.

In addition to special reports, like on the recent earthquake in Pakistan and its impact on Asians here in the U.S., MTV Desi and MTV Chi disseminate audience-specific news programming at the top of the hour. In turn, some of this content is then fed into news reports on MTV, according to Durrani.

Similarly, shows like the Top 10 Desi Countdown, reflect global multiculturism.

“Invariably, it’s an eclectic list of songs and videos from artists as diverse as Gwen Stefani, Juggy Denglish, Reggie Benjamin, Karmasi,” he says.

MTV Desi and MTV Chi, though, are also charged with showcasing the music and pop-culture scenes surrounding South Asian-Americans and Chinese-Americans.

“We’re geared toward finding and presenting artists and happenings in the U.S.,” he says. “Local shows, local music environments are very important to us.”

Aspirational programming about Asian-Americans ranks high on AZN’s list as well, according to Georges. He cites original profile series Making Waves, “It’s very important for our audience to see themselves on AZN. We want to make sure they know AZN is programmed for Asian-Americans.”

That community can get a look at many of its best and brightest via AZN’s Jan. 29 production and presentation of The 2006 Asian Excellence Awards, honoring outstanding work in the realms of film, TV, fashion, music and sports.

Georges notes that AZN’s primetime lineup is mostly domestic-driven and presented in the English-language. That could change, though, with the addition of some movies, in the months ahead. “We’re trying to find the right mix to reach the widest audience,” he says. AZN recently inked an output deal with Sony Pictures Television for the next 10 Asian features released in the U.S. by the studio, as well as for its library movie product.

But AZN has run other original fare as well — such as the magazine series Stir and the gadget show Egg. But how much more original content it will be adding in the near future is unclear.

“To develop more originals, we need more support from the marketplace in terms of affiliates and advertisers,” says Georges. Currently, the network counts some 15 million subscribers, but he points to 30 million as the level it needs to reach in order to meet the demands of many advertisers.

Network size is also a consideration Silberwasser weighs in determining the slate of originals on his group of three channels: Discovery en Español, Discovery Kids en Español and an Hispanic version of Discovery Travel & Living. Originals like Aeropuerto Mexico, Ciudades y Copas, Bacilos en Africa, Archivo Llorente, Factores Desconocidos, Zona Di Palma will debut next year across the three networks.

“We have earmarked over $25 million dollars in original production programs over the first few years of these networks, and we look forward to increasing this commitment as the cable and satellite Hispanic programming packages grow along with our networks,” he says.

For its part, ImaginAsian, which has received acclaim for its original movie spoof series Uncle Morty’s Dub Shack, is ramping up its commitment to originals. ImaginAsian Entertainment CEO Michael Hong says the network, now in some 5 million homes, has four shows in various stages of development, including Comedy Zen, a stand-up showcase for Asian-American comics expected to bow late in the first quarter.

Another is what Hong calls “a quasi-investigative show looking at Asian phenomena,” like arranged marriages and paramilitary groups

As an overall steering philosophy, Hong isn’t necessarily interested in versioning typical American genres like sitcoms for an Asian audience. “We’re looking for shows that are 'organically’ Asian,” he says, pointing to Iron Chef. “That show is distinctly Japanese; no American producer could have created that show.”

Over the next three or four years, Hong anticipates originals to comprise 30 to 40% of ImaginAsian’s schedule.

ImaginAsian also plans to be an exporter of programming. “One of our goals is to get more involved in the development process of co-productions of TV shows and movies here in the U.S. and in Asian markets,” he says. “We have a feel not only for what might appeal to Asians here, but what might appeal back home from the American market.”

Meanwhile, History Channel en español is moving toward its first original production. Braga has commissioned a two-hour project exploring the Mexican Revolution, which will feature historian Enrique Krauze serving as a co-producer and supplying some of the voice-overs.

“It’s a critical piece aimed at interests of the largest Latin audience in the U.S. and how it shaped their lives today. It won’t be like anything that has been seen here before,” she says.

Braga, who says the network has “a lot of other balls in the air,” was expecting to see scripts for the Mexican Revolution piece late last week, and anticipates the project airing in mid-2006.

While originals are important means to burnish a brand and attract attention to the network, acquired and existing fare will always remain an integral part of most lineups.

The onus at AZN is on getting product before it turns up elsewhere on American television, according to Georges. He notes that anime series Dragon Ball Z was on the International Channel (a service since revamped as AZN) long before it appeared on Cartoon Network’s “Toonami” block. “We want Bollywood product that is not available on DVD, in video stores, or on pay channels — Korean, Thai and Japanese music videos — Korean dramas,” he adds. “These shows have real crossover appeal. If it does well internationally — going say from China to Viet Nam to the Philippines and SouthAisa — it’s more likely that it will have mainstream appeal for our audience.”

Hong also wants to keep top international entries on the ImaginAsian dial. “I could never see the network being 90% original, because viewers — whether Asian, White, Black or Latino — are interested in the best programming around,” he says. “Nobody does anime better than the Japanese. The Korean dramas, the martial and action films from Hong Kong, the Bollywood films. That’s what people expect.”