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India’s Zee net expands in the US

Despite recession, programmer acts ambitously

Forget the recession.

Ten years after bowing in the U.S., Indian network Zee TV is expanding its American footprint with local and regional-language programming, moving its HQ from Dallas to New York and reaching out to global distributors. Zee Entertainment Enterprises, one of the first cablers to bow in India back in 1992, caters to expat Indians with Bollywood films, Indian soaps and gamers such as “SaReGaMa” and “Antakshari,” based on Hindi songs. The channel has pacted with UTV Motion Pictures for a slate that includes “Fashion,” “Taare zameen par” and “Jodha Akbar.”

Vibha Chopra, Zee’s head of marketing, research and communication, says most of the programming is from the net’s Indian parent, which has nearly 80,000 hours of original programming. In India, Zee runs 10 channels.

She has noticed that South Asians in the U.S. like movies and reality, whereas in India, reality is gaining, but audiences prefer soaps.

Zee’s auds are mostly first-generation South Asians. “The older generation is able to identify with my content,” Choprasays.

To target the younger demo, Zee plans to make special U.S. segs of popular Indian gamers, such as “Dance India Dance,” “SaReGaMa” and “Antakshari,” using contestants recruited Stateside.

The feevee is also looking “aggressively” at a broadband platform, Chopra says, although that may not happen this year.

For Zee, one of the dominant cablers in India, the U.S. is its most important market, even though its 350,000-subscriber count here is swamped by Blighty’s 9 million-10 million viewers, anchored by Zee Music, which goes out free-to-air. Overall, Zee Entertainment reaches more than 500 million viewers in 167 countries.

Adding regional programming in regional languages such as Punjabi — in addition to its Gujarati offerings, fills a niche Chopra says nobody has really addressed.

Publicly listed on Mumbai’s stock exchange, Sensex, Zee depends mostly on subscriber fees, but gets 20% of its revenue from advertising. Chopra says the economic downturn is not affecting the net right now, even in the U.S., where most of the advertisers are ethnic companies — along with a few mainstream giants like Wal-Mart, State Farm and Western Union.

“We’ve been here 10 years; people cut you last,” Choprasays of Zee’s ad relationships. “They need you, but if this (recession) continues, even we’ll be hurt.”

For now, Zee is charging ahead, planning a move to Gotham in a few months and a presence in Mipcom next month in Cannes.

Meanwhile the net’s fighting competition from not only ethnic rivals like Star Plus on the Dish Network, but also mainstream nets. As Chopra points out, Zee subscribersare the kind of viewers who like “Desperate Housewives,” too.

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