India networks expanding in U.S.

Zee TV, others fit programming to expats and their children

India’s film biz has made well-chronicled inroads all across the globe, especially Bollywood’s song-and-dance-laden movies.

But another medium has been slowly expanding overseas — Indian TV.

Many of the nets have long been available in countries with a large Indian diaspora, including the U.S., where more and more Indian pay TV channels are available on satellite and cable.

Now these players are moving up to the next level: bowing original programming tailored to U.S./Indian auds and adding channels in regional languages, including Punjabi, Gujarati, Bengali, Tamil and Telegu, to their regular Hindi networks.

Zee TV ‘s popular singing competition “Sa re ga ma pa” (“Do re mi fa so”) and dance competition “Dance India Dance” are both examples of shows produced for Stateside auds, as is Sony Entertainment Television’s “Boogie Woogie,” another dance-based reality show.

Punjjabi TV airs shows unique to the community, says a rep.

Meanwhile, SET will add to its niche coverage by launching a Bengali-language movie channel this month.

It’s all a far cry from 1993, when Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan bowed TV Asia, the first India-skewed pay TV channel in the U.S., which was taken over by entrepreneur H.R. Shah in 1997.

In the beginning, getting carriage was a struggle for the new players, but as demand increased, networks from Aastha to Zee have been gaining traction on the smallscreen.

Having a U.S. corporate parent helps: Star TV is part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.; Sony Entertainment Television owns the SET channels; Imagine NDTV is a subsid of Turner; and Viacom bowed Apkaa Colors this year.

The content ranges from popular Indian sudsers to reality shows, gamers, religious programming and music.

Most of the networks offer dedicated channels for movies and sport (cricket is a must for Indian fans).

There are few news channels, although all the nets have bulletins or run a Chyron across the bottom of the screen for breaking news, as when Mumbai was attacked by terrorists in November 2008.

“There is CNN or BBC for news, so our subscribers go there,” says Subroto Bhattacharya, country head for the Americas of Zee TV. “But those nets don’t cover our elections, so people come to us for that.”

Founded by Subhash Chandra, Zee started airing in India in 1992, just six years before it expanded to the U.S. — bringing its popular soaps with it.

Bhattacharya says at that time most of the U.S. subscribers were young expat families looking for entertainment for their parents who were visiting from India.

“But then, slowly, Zee content penetrated so well that (the next generation) has also gotten hooked,” Bhattacharya says.

He recognizes the challenge of engaging the young second and third generation of immigrants, a demographic as elusive to Indian networks as it is to all American channels.

Now, when series are greenlit in India, Zee keeps its overseas viewers in mind, Bhattacharya says.

Star TV prefers not to change its hit Indian lineup for Stateside auds, says David Wisnia, senior VP for North America and Europe distribution sales and marketing for Star. “We’ve got a great thing going in India, we don’t want to mess with it,” he says.

But that doesn’t work for all the networks.

SET has rights to cricket in India but not for the U.S., says SET U.S. topper Jaideep Janakiram. SET’s flagship channel unspools Bollywood movies, which are a big draw; in July, the net will air blockbuster “3 Idiots.”

Janakiram, who started his career with TV Asia, says: “Seeing the market going from there to this is huge. We had no distribution or awareness, but there are so many (channels) today.”

Still, though, the Indian channels’ individual subscriber base is so small that Nielsen doesn’t measure it.

However, last week Zee TV signed a deal with research company Rentrak to use its TV Essentials television measurement service in the U.S.

Bhattacharya says the Rentrak info will help Zee “step up its game a notch further for its ever-growing audience.”

While some advertising comes from companies trying to reach the niche South Asian markets — think State Farm or AT&T — many mom-and-pop retailers also buy spots, say Wisnia and Bhattacharya.

Still the nets depend on charging subscribers a premium, since advertising alone wouldn’t pay for content, Janakiram says.

Like the other nets, Imagine offers a generous helping of pricey Bollywood fare, including blockbusters like “Ghajini” as well as arthouse pics including “Dev D.”

Most of the channels also use the Internet and social networking sites to promote their product as well as to give back to the community.

Zee has launched Veria, a natural health and wellness company that combines Veria TV, a lifestyle-focused website and all-natural product line, and tapped Showtime vet Hal Rosenberg to run it.

Wisnia sums up most of the nets’ plans for expansion: “First, we want to get the U.S. right and then move to Canada, the Caribbean and pockets of Latin America next.”

It’s not only Bollywood that’s going global.