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The A to 'Zee': Will Zee TV, Britain's first Indian satellite channel, find its audience?

Can Britain’s first Indian satellite channel reach out to a young, wider and less exclusive audience? Joshua Neicho goes channel-hopping to find out the answer

The screen draws in on a chiselled, trim-bearded man sitting on the steps of a shrine – then switches to a distraught woman in a green sari wandering along a woodland path.

Then – zap – we’re watching a bedroom scene on a different channel, where a heavily made-up woman  clutching a large rag doll is in a sullen tête-à-tête with a guy in an orange polo shirt: a scene from a decade-old show.

Then we’re back to the first channel again, looking at a grand sitting room with a sinister bridegroom in a Nehru jacket plus a full complement of relatives, with the action underscored by a ludicrous soundtrack including rattles, harps and something that sounds like a Muse song.

Welcome to the world of Zee TV, the first Indian satellite channel and the first to arrive in the UK, 18 years ago.

I’m channel-hopping with three generations of a Gujarati family in Perivale, west London: Vinesh, Mukesh, Priti and Hansraj Pomal, Zee subscribers from the start, regular followers of soaps involving scenes like these.

Yet even they are aware of the heavy cliché in these programmes that form the bedrock of the channel’s output, and are disappointed by how Zee’s output has “narrowed down”. Their attitudes speak of the wider challenges: for years it was a linchpin for many in the British-Asian community, with many mothers such as Rashi Talwar watching it with their children. But can it keep up with diverging attitudes and youth culture?

Subhash Chandra, Zee’s billionaire founder, is looking ahead to a new strategy. This week saw him launch a new global corporate identity under the Sanskrit slogan Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam – “The World is my Family”. In terms of programming, he is aiming at third- and fourth-generation south Asians who have traditionally been little interested in Zee’s output.

Speaking during a recent visit to London, Chandra confessed that “we have not quite yet decoded what they want”. But he is preparing to roll out his US “health and wellness” channel, Veria, aimed at exposing audiences in the UK and elsewhere to “Asian civilisation” in the form of yoga and meditation. “There are so many people propagating yoga without knowing the true kind – it’s a simple thing, made out to be difficult,” he says. “If we give it to people in an entertaining manner, that will help.”

Chandra’s fans hail him as “a man of vision – the Henry Ford of the ethnic channel” who has smartly identified a niche in the market with an obvious appeal.

“How often do you see Asian news on Sky?” says Chandra’s former colleague, businessman Rami Ranger. “If you’re a first-generation immigrant, your culture is different, your relations are not here, you’re starting from -15 points and you’re struggling from morning to night to catch up. Then you can go home and watch Zee TV and you’re relaxed.”

British-Indian PR and MC Suki Dunsaj, who has spent the past 10 years between Mumbai and London, hails Zee as being in the “veins of our households and communities”.

As specialist and often free Bengali, Gujarati and Punjabi channels came along, some viewers strayed, but many I speak to describe the £12.99 monthly subscription “good value”. To Sanam Arora, president of the National Indian Students Union, Zee is “definitely one of the first three points of call” for new Indian migrants to Britain.

But for second- and third-generation diaspora south Asians, it remains “still deeply traditional in outlook”.

She feels attempts at outreach by repackaging free channel Zing as a youth station have gone “quite well” with less repetitive storylines but that there are larger opportunities to be grasped.

“There is a gap in the market” she says. “The diasporic audience my age faces unique challenges not addressed well enough by any mainstream TV show”. Those issues include the clash between the values of family and society, the pressure to dress in a certain way, to remain close to family and to marry at an early age.

When terrestrial channels do Asian shows such as Citizen Khan the results are “almost comic – definitely not real,” she says. “Young Asians are driven to watch it because there are no alternatives. There is a tremendous potential even for just one show that would definitely have people hooked”.

But to others Zee is an irrelevance. Ash, a PR in his 30s, judges that his contemporaries’ experience of Zee depends on where they grew up. Outside centres of the Asian population there would be “less reason to watch, your friends will be more diverse,” he says.

Asjad Nazir, Bollywood reporter for the Asian community’s Eastern Eye newspaper, doubts if any of the pay-for Asian channels will exist in 20 years “if they carry on like this. Zee should be out in front as it’s the oldest, but it’s the furthest behind”.

Why spend £12.99 a month on a Zee subscription, he asks, when “for £10 a month I can get Netflix and LoveFilm?” And that’s without considering that you can get now get Zee’s rivals Colors and Star Plus for free. Nazir attacks Cloud 9, this year’s British-Asian sitcom which raises pride in Zee executives, as “cringeworthy” and calls one of Zing’s music hosts “the worst presenter in the world”.

Zee’s programmers have their hearts in the right place but are “horribly naive” he adds. The only way they can survive is by attracting a non-Asian audience such as through the yoga shows – but that will require out-of-the-box thinking and inspiring a trend like the US Doonya-Bollywood fitness craze.

Anant Rangaswami, the founding editor of Campaign India is dismissive of any Zee’s hopes of rivalling established UK terrestrial channels with either its youth or its health and wellbeing strands. “It’s not in its DNA to create high-quality expensive programming. I’m fairly confident they won’t get the quality right”.

Back in Zee TV soapland, the marriage plotline in Doli Armaanon Ki has advanced to the front of a house, decked in flowers, and the pretty bride-to-be is warned by her sister that her fiancé is only interested in her money.

Whether Subhash Chandra’s drive for new viewers will prove a successful courtship, or be a victim of his company’s bottom line, is yet to be seen. But like the Pomals, it seems a great mass of Indians are happy to keep falling in love with Zee’s product even if the show and the glitter proves never quite satisfying.