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Scene Change for Asian TV

3/16/2007 8:00 PM Eastern

It would be easy to read too little — or too much — into last month's announcement that the MTV World channels MTV Chi, MTV Desi and MTV K were going dark. Read too little, and the news can be dismissed as problems specific to MTV Networks. Read too much, and it could signify that the bottom is falling out of the Asian-American TV market.

“I was disappointed,” said Bill Georges, senior vice president of marketing and sales for Asian network AZN. “It is sad, and it doesn't send a message we would like to have out there.”

For ImaginAsian TV president Mike Hong, what happened to MTV World had to do with making a go of it in a premium space. “When you are trying to target the Gen Y Asian-American market with a premium service, it just doesn't work,” Hong said. “And I think [MTV's] was a premium service that had very little appeal to advertisers.”

During an interview last July on the launch of MTV K, MTV World senior vice president and general manager Nusrat Durrani claimed several advertisers were interested, but he refused to name them. Later that month, MTV president Christina Norman said, “We really feel these young audiences deserve their own MTVs.”

Maybe so, but not for long. MTV Desi, aimed at South Asian-Americans, launched in 2005. MTV Chi, for Chinese-Americans, and Korean-American-targeted MTV K launched in 2006.

ImaginAsian and Comcast-owned AZN report increasing advertising sales on a quarterly basis. That said, “the Asian market is grossly underspent,” according to Georges, with the amount of advertising targeting Asian-Americans in no way reflecting their buying power.

“There has been a lot of buzz and e-mail circulating within the Asian space because it is Viacom and MTV,” said Hong. “And some of the agencies have been active in trying to support [MTV World's] continued existence.”

By contrast, the demise of the satellite network American Desi drew little attention when it filed for bankruptcy last August.

Founder and former CEO Vimal Verma now regrets having granted exclusivity to EchoStar Communications when American Desi launched in December 2004. That approach, he said, is fine for a network from Asia looking to secure incremental revenue in the United States, but “today, for a local U.S. channel to establish itself on EchoStar would be difficult.”

Hong goes one step further. “I think the idea of creating a linear channel that is ad-supported today if you were just getting out of the gates is probably insane.”

That did not stop Filipino television giant ABS-CBN from launching a “music/lifestyle” outlet called MYX, inspired by a music network of the same name in the Philippines. MYX debuted Feb. 28 on DirecTV.

“There really is a big market out there, specifically the Asian-American youth market who we know are really, really hungry for music videos,” ABS-CBN Global product manager Pia Palpal-latoc said. “They are not getting enough of that right now.”

ABS-CBN has run a premium network, The Filipino Channel, in the U.S. for more than a decade. In that time, according to Palpal-latoc, it has realized the children of Filipino immigrants felt there was nothing on the network that spoke directly to them as Asian-Americans.

In light of this generational shift, “The next question is, 'What is the future of our company?' Obviously we need to start talking to the younger people, the kids of the immigrants and they are looking for something else beyond our original programming on TFC. We feel the way to go after them is music and lifestyle,” Palpal-latoc said.

Despite its Filipino origins, MYX's focus is on the whole Asian-American youth market. The network does not intend to provide separate Chinese, Korean and South Asian feeds.

ABS-CBN International product manager Jun Del Rosario said, “We are taking a risk but a risk that needs to be taken now.”

Other companies are taking that risk to the Internet and pursuing the Asian-American audience online.

KyLin TV, for instance, is an Internet Protocol-TV service that provides 31 broadcast Chinese channels and some 20,000 hours of “on-demand” broadband programming. The service has 15,000 subscribers, and is bringing in $25 per customer per month, according to Chris Wagner executive vice president of NeuLion, which distributes KyLin TV via broadband.

“Very attractive” is how Wagner described the multicultural broadband market. “You have an expatriate group that wants programming from home. There is a very strong desire for that.”

Broadband, according to Wagner, enables KyLinTV to reach a potential market of 20 million Chinese-Americans without going to the trouble of having to negotiate dozens of cable and satellite carriage agreements.

AZN's Georges said his network's online streaming video player offers programming in several languages at the same time, “which you could never do on a linear platform and, with the number of Asian languages, you can't do it on VOD either.”

Even when news of MTV World's demise broke, the company said, “We remain steadfast in super-serving multicultural youth, and we are continuing to investigate ways to integrate the MTV Desi, Chi and K brands online and on our other screens.”

As ABS-CBN's Del Rosario put it, “With the Asian market, everything is a work in progress.”

March