Foreign-lingo channels provide new revenue for Dish, cablers

Radha Zaidi was born in India, lives in Los Angeles and is gung ho about keeping up with the news of her native country.

A multilingual interpreter for the Superior Court of L. A., she buys five South Asian pay TV networks in a monthly package from the Dish Network and watches the news feeds almost every day, praying that the hostility between India and Pakistan doesn’t lead to all-out war.

The availability of dozens of these ethnic, foreign-language channels is a recent phenom, aggressively marketed over the past few years by Dish Network’s parent, EchoStar, to get more people to buy its satellite dishes.

These channels may have made Dish converts out of as many as half-a-million customers transplanted from foreign countries and eager to watch programming they grew up with, says Cathy Rasenberger, prexy of Rasenberger Media, which helps international cable networks get clearance in the U.S.

Larry Moskowitz, director of strategic planning for Kang & Lee, an agency that represents a number of foreign-lingo networks, most of them targeted to South Asians living in America, says EchoStar has racked up about 90,000 subscribers for B4U, an Indian channel stuffed with Bollywood movies, at a monthly price of $19.99. Half of that tariff goes to EchoStar and half to the network, a split that’s mirrored in cable TV.

An EchoStar spokesman says the company never comments on subscriber figures.

“People from India are extremely concerned about maintaining cultural ties with their native country,” says Moskowitz, explaining the willingness of Indians to pony up so much money for a pay network that, unlike HBO or Showtime, also includes a full complement of 30-second spots within each hour.

Bob Watson, VP of Time Warner Cable of New York City, which offers 10 pay TV channels in languages ranging from Mandarin Chinese and Italian to Greek and Russian, says the ad revenues “help to keep the cost of the network down to the consumer.”

Watson’s comment is eye-opening because TV Japan, which takes commercials, charges subscribers $24.95 a month, a higher retail price than any other network, foreign or domestic.

Kent Price, president of the Intl. Channel, the Liberty Media-owned service that distributes 12 foreign-language channels to satellite and cable TV, says TV Japan can charge so much because “many Japanese in the U.S. are expatriate execs whose companies may help them to pay for the subscription.”

No subscriber figures on Japan TV were available, but Moskowitz says the retail price “is way out of whack with the realities of the marketplace.”

Moscowitz is convinced that the vast majority of subscribers who buy foreign-language networks are people who came to the U.S. from abroad either as adults or as older teenagers.

These people watched television in their native country and have proven to be susceptible to the siren song of a network featuring a mix of the shows, in the original language, that they can identify with.

But for people who came to America as kids, or for the second generation of immigrants, English eventually becomes their dominant language. U.S. culture courses through the bloodstream of these English speakers. Once they leave their parents’ nest, Moskowitz says, they typically don’t have the slightest interest in buying a foreign-language network, even if they can afford it.

Particularly foreign-language channels like RAI, which loses a lot in translation to American shores.

“It would cost RAI an arm and a leg to get the American rights to programming like major soccer events, theatrical movies and popular series” that are staples of RAI seen by people living in Italy, says Valentin Polyakov, media supervisor of Kang & Lee.

The Intl. Channel distributes RAI nationally to EchoStar — and locally to cable systems with a complement of Italian-speaking people in their geographical area.

When it comes to offering lots of foreign networks, “cable operators missed the boat,” Rasenberger says, “and they’re now playing catch-up.”

Even though EchoStar’s satellite service has a leg up on cable TV, Moskowitz says “cable will end up as the biggest revenue source for foreign networks because most advertising is local.”

And not only advertising, says Watson, who encourages the networks Time Warner carries in New York to “produce more local programming, which will give cable systems an advantage over the national distributors,” such as EchoStar.

Polyakov says NTV, the Russian-lingo network, has “a local production team in New York that produces programming” that Time Warner can insert into its transmission of the channel to Gotham subscribers.

Cable’s motivation to go after EchoStar is clear, says Rasenberger.

“Cable operators are maxed out in terms of growth” among native-born Americans, she says, “but there’s still a huge underserved niche audience,” particularly of South Asians.

“And if you give them some programming from their native countries,” she concludes, “they’ll become so loyal you’ll have them as lifetime subscribers.”

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