The Media Column: 'Terrestrial TV either ignores Asians or casts them in stereotypical roles'

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Nai Zindagi Naya Jeevan doesn't exactly trip off the tongue at the best of times, much less when one is asked to name a BBC programme of historic cultural importance.

Nai Zindagi Naya Jeevan doesn't exactly trip off the tongue at the best of times, much less when one is asked to name a BBC programme of historic cultural importance. Roughly translated as "new life, new world", the show - a mix of discussion and features - ran on BBC1 for 15 years. It always finished with a sing-song.

Most readers, I'm pretty sure, will have absolutely no idea what I'm talking about. But for Asian Britons of a certain age, the show represented a breakthrough moment in British popular culture.

In Indian and Pakistani households, between 1969 and 1984, they would rise early on Sunday mornings to watch Ashok Rampal and company introducing such news as the opening of a branch of the Bank of India in Leicester, and to hear music from Lakshmi Shankar. Even once-avid viewers now admit that the show was "incredibly boring", but the point was that it represented what one Asian professional described as "brown person on television alert".

These days, of course, Asian viewers have such "diary dates" as Parminder Nagra ( below), of Bend It Like Beckham fame, appearing in ER, and hit comedies such as The Kumars at No 42. But two surveys out this week offer telling lessons for all media organisations seeking to be relevant to British Asians. One survey of Asian viewers, by the market research company Ethnic Focus, suggests that a polarisation is taking place, with Asian households turning away from British TV channels in favour of the 25 Asian services now available.

Be warned: this poll was carried out on behalf of Sky Digital, which of course has a vested interest in highlighting the attractiveness of satellite channels. But 58 per cent of Asian homes now have more than the terrestrial channels, compared to 53 per cent of the general population.

Anjna Raheja, the managing director of Media Moguls, which represents Sky, argues that Asian families are turning to satellite television partly because older generations want access to Indian channels such as Zee, Pakistani stations such as Prime and ARY and sports channels featuring cricket from the sub-continent.

She acknowledges the quality of dramas such as the BBC's adaptation of Chaucer's The Sea Captain's Tale (from The Canterbury Tales), starring Om Puri and Nitin Ganandra, and Channel 4's Second Generation, starring Nagra and Sam Khan. But she claims the terrestrial broadcasters either ignore Asians or cast them in stereotypical roles (witness the Ferreira family of stallholders in EastEnders, who replaced the Kapoors).

According to the Ethnic Focus survey, most respondents thought the only recognisable Asians on British television were the three newsreaders George Alagiah (BBC), Krishnan Guru-Murthy (Channel 4) and Lisa Aziz (Sky), and the comedy stars Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar.

But the idea that Asians are turning their backs on the British media doesn't seem to apply to the middle classes. A study by the lawyer Rehna Azim, based on interviews with 300 Asian professionals living in the UK and 700 respondents to her website, concluded that "Asian professionals rely almost entirely on the mainstream media for information, news and entertainment". Azim said: "Not one person in the 1,000 used the Asian media for anything more than the odd Bollywood film."

Asian professionals commented positively on the British quality press. The report noted: "The highest praise in the press section was for the Financial Times and The Independent. They were seen as fair and unbiased. If the relationship with The Times and The Guardian was like a long-standing comfortable marriage, that with the FT and Independent was definitely like a passionate affair." The tabloids were regarded with disdain, notably the papers with the hardest lines on immigration issues, such as The Sun and the Daily Express. But the report found that the Daily Mail was most disliked of all because, "unlike The Sun or Daily Express, it is seen as a paper that has an impact on a large number of people because it is taken seriously by its readers". Radio 4's Today programme was the "runaway" star turn in its medium, while The Economist was the most-lauded magazine.

When it came to a big, breaking new story, Asian professionals turned not to Zee or al-Jazeera but to the BBC for "honourable, fair, unbiased, quality journalism".

Yet hold on just a minute. Even among such committed followers of the British media as these, there was unhappiness that crude stereotyping was never far away.

"The common complaint," the study said, "was that the media divided Asians into two camps; either miserable folk being forced into loveless marriages or billionaires who had come to Britain with nothing and had now made a fortune."