The rising star of Asian language programming

As terrestrial broadcasters abandoned multicultural programmes, their satellite rivals filled the void and created a rich new schedule for British Asians.
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The Independent Online

Something rather radical has happened to the Mandalia family's sitting room in the past year. When Pharti Mandalia and her family first came to Britain from East Africa in the early 1970s and settled in a small Victorian townhouse in north London, the only entertainment at their disposal was a small television set broadcasting the three channels available to them at the time – BBC 1, BBC 2 and ITV.

As Kenyan Asians, growing up in a country once ruled by Britain's colonial administrators, they spoke English confidently. Watching terrestrial TV helped them learn more about their newly adopted homeland but they longed to occasionally sit down as a family and watch the kind of films that had once been so readily available to them in East Africa. They were the Bollywood epics of their ancestral homeland either in Hindi, India's most widely spoken language, or dubbed in their mother tongue, Gujarati.

Over time the local Asian community grew and specialist video stores opened up, allowing them to rent the occasional Bollywood blockbuster for the weekend, but the idea of accessing Hindi language television in Britain at the time seemed unthinkable.

Nowadays things could hardly be more different. The Mandalia household constantly reverberates with the sounds of Hindi bouncing out of their television sets. It is a phenomenon that is fundamentally changing the way British Asians watch television and is primarily down to Star TV – a company owned by Rupert Murdoch, the same man who brought mass satellite television to British viewers.

"To be honest, we hardly watch BBC or ITV anymore," says 25-year-old Neeta Mandalia, Pharti's daughter-in-law. "It's something about the sheer variety on offer that means there's always something on we want to watch."

Attached to the sitting room wall in front of her is the family's enormous flat-screen monitor, currently showing a soap opera on Star's main entertainment channel, Star Plus. The show is a riot of colour, shot with high production values and featuring the ubiquitous family arguments and tragedy that are essential to any popular Indian soap. Playing with her toys on the sitting room floor is Diya, Neeta's two-year-old daughter. "You'd be amazed how much she picks up," says Neeta. "It's a brilliant way to learn Hindi. We just learnt from our parents and the odd film but she'll grow up so much more fluent than we did."

The Star network's global reach is virtually unprecedented – it now reaches an estimated 300 million viewers across 53 Asian countries and broadcasts in nine languages. But few are aware of how pervasive Asian language satellite channels are becoming in Western nations, where Asian communities are forgoing terrestrial TV and flocking to sign up to satellite services offering the type of specific programming other networks are simply unable to compete with.

Murdoch's News Corporation acquired the newly formed Hong Kong-based Satellite Television for the Asian Region company in 1993 and has hardly looked back since. Consolidating its presence in India with Hindi language programming and winning over subscribers in Hong Kong and Taiwan through its Mandarin channels, the corporation's next major coup, spearheaded by James Murdoch, was to secure cable broadcasting rights to China in 2001. They were now able to reach a potential 1.3 billion audience and an ever growing middle class of Chinese with the money and desire to pay for satellite television.

That year, Star also began its first foray into the UK, exclusively targeting Britain's 2.3 million strong Asian population. The timing was perfect. Following a period of debate in the mid-1990s about whether, in the interest of social cohesion, terrestrial channels should make programming for individual communities, most networks largely gave up on multicultural programming in favour of a more inclusive approach that made shows for the largest common denominator.

As late night programming for British Asians disappeared on mainstream channels Star and its main rivals – Zee TV and Sony – stepped in to fill the gap. The effect was dramatic. By June 2003, Star had an estimated 90,000 customers on their Star package, which is accessed through Sky's Culture Mix and gives viewers four channels: Star Plus – the general entertainment channel, Star One – which caters to a younger demographic, Star Gold – Bollywood movies and Star News.

Five years on, Star UK are surprisingly cagey about giving out details of how many customers have now signed up to their package – a possible indication that their rivals may indeed be catching up. But they are nonetheless confident that they alone have the largest number of subscribers in Britain.

"We have a clear idea," says Star UK's vice-president Patrick Corr, speaking from their headquarters in an otherwise non-descript office block in Brentford, west London. "We're confident that we're reaching more eyeballs and homes than any of our competitors and that is backed up by our research." Pushed for a more precise number the nearest he will go to is "in the hundreds of thousands."

His marketing manager Ajay Ochani puts on a DVD showcasing some of Star's newer material and it's easy to see why young British Asians in particular are attracted to the Star ideal. There are music programmes, Bollywood gossip shows, lifestyle classes, dramas and a whole host of game shows including the highly popular Kya Aap Paanchvi Paas Se Tez Hain – a sort of Hindi equivalent of Are You Smarter than a 10 Year Old? hosted by India's Brad Pitt; Shah Rukh Khan.

India has also taken to reality television like no other and talent contests feature prominently in the scheduling. One show, The Great India Laughter Challenge, which is billed as a search for the next great comedian, even involved British contestants getting involved in their own local version and the winner then flying out to Mumbai in order to take part.

Mr Ochani believes the attraction of Asian satellite TV to British Asians is that it allows them to reconnect to their ancestral roots like never before.

"Clearly this particular phenomenon has been helped by India's economic miracle, but I think it's more than that," he says. "There's a reason why British Asians want to reconnect to India and that's because they're proud of its success. And it's not just pride in India, there's a real sense among our viewers that they're proud to be British Asian."

With smaller satellite stations introducing Tamil and Bengali programming to the UK and new channels starting up in India virtually every month, the likelihood is that the variety of channels available to British Asians will continue to grow. How many stations little Diya will be watching when she grows up is anyone's guess, but they probably won't be being broadcast by the BBC.