September 8, 1997
By SREENATH SREENIVASAN
In the shadow of big names like MSNBC and CNN/SI that have moved on to television in recent years are a rising number of smaller channels and programs which are bringing Irish boxing, Indian music and Russian, Chinese and Filipino news to the living rooms of immigrants and other Americans around the country.
While these programs may not have big budgets, they are showing considerable growth, gathering loyal audiences and cautious support from advertisers.
In New York, Los Angeles and Houston, Indian viewers can watch the news and entertainment program "Eye on Asia." In San Francisco, station KTSF-TV broadcasts more than 80 hours of ethnic programming a week in at least 10 languages; the programs include an evening newscast in Cantonese. And in Boston, there is Celtic Vision, which is dedicated to Irish culture and entertainment. Celtic Vision, which telecasts about 5 percent of its programming in Gaelic, estimates it has a viewership of 42,000 households.
While those viewing numbers are far smaller that those of mainstream networks, they do show there is an audience for non-traditional television. Ethnic television programming has grown tremendously in recent years, accounting for 10 percent of all new cable networks that have been announced since 1993, according to Paul Kagan Associates, the media industry research firm.
Black and Hispanic networks have always attracted the bulk of the advertising and viewers for ethnic television. But programming for other ethnic groups, including Asians, Arabs and Eastern Europeans, is growing as well. Among the newer cable channels are the Filipino Channel, Native American Nations, TV Asia and World African Network.
Most ethnic television is produced by hundreds of programmers who operate piecemeal hours on various stations around the country. They use a combination of cable, over-the-air and satellite broadcasting. Because of the fragmented nature of the industry and the multitude of languages involved, as well as the relatively small audiences, ethnic programs are not covered by the Nielsen ratings system, so accurate viewership statistics are not usually available.
As a result, many big advertisers have not embraced ethnic television as they have mainstream television or even ethnic newspapers. Most ethnic programmers do not match the financial and technological sophistication of national television.
"A lack of proper financing and the fact that channel capacity is finite has kept many ethnic stations from attracting more attention," said Jeffrey Flathers, an entertainment analyst at Paul Kagan Associates. "But they have proved to be a valuable resource for local advertisers."
Still, big advertisers are beginning to be tempted by the large potential markets that ethnic programming reaches. Elcid Choi, director of marketing for Market Segment Research of New York, estimates that Asian-Americans alone represent an annual purchasing power of $107 billion, with Hispanic people accounting for $348 billion and blacks for $469 billion.
"Such strong numbers make the ethnic market difficult to ignore," said Christopher Law, general manager for the Chinese marketing effort of Oxford Health Plans, which is about to start a television campaign on Chinese-language programs.
For the last eight years, Western Union, the money-transfer company, has been advertising to the non-Hispanic ethnic market through print and radio, along with outdoor billboards. It has now cautiously begun to experiment with ads on Vietnamese television programs, with the intention of going into other foreign-language markets as well.
"We have seen from our experience in advertising in the Hispanic market that there is a definite bump in business when you use ethnic television," said Helena Wong, senior vice president for international marketing at Western Union. "We will now be targeting Russian, Chinese and Filipino markets, along with some of the other regions."
Choi of Market Segment Research argued that ethnic consumers can easily be reached by advertising on programs aimed at them. "Minorities aren't used to seeing marketing targeted at them, so if it's done in a culturally sensitive way, they respond very well," he said. "They tend to be more brand-loyal, have more disposable income and respond better to direct marketing than the general population."
Gita Bajaj, the chairwoman of the Coalition of Ethnic Broadcasters, is among those who see ethnic programming as a growing force in television. "Ethnic groups in the country are slowly waking up to the power of television," said Ms. Bajaj, whose Bajaj Productions USA Inc. produces the program "Eye on Asia," which is aimed at viewers from the Indian subcontinent.
"Eye on Asia" has been on the air since 1987, first on WNYC until the station was sold by New York City in 1996. It is now shown on various channels across the country, including the public access cable channel Crosswalks in New York City.
The program has benefited directly from the increased interest in ethnic programming. As certain industries like telecommunications, banking and insurance move more aggressively into ethnic markets, programs like "Eye on Asia" have been able to capitalize on the increased advertising.
"In the early 1990s, we thought we would not be able to make it through the bleak times," Ms. Bajaj said. "Then the phone companies came to our rescue," Long-distance companies like Sprint, MCI and AT&T have all advertised on "Eye on Asia" in the last few years.
The ethnic programmers depend heavily on advertising for revenues. But with advertising rates at $550 for 30 seconds on "Eye on Asia," they are always looking for new revenue streams. "We have no choice but to diversify our services in order to survive," Ms. Bajaj said. Among the services her company offers: infomercial and corporate video production and India-related archival footage. It has also worked with Sprint and American Express to remake mainstream commercials for Asian American audiences.
Other ethnic programmers try to reach out to the widest possible audience. "Even though we have a large ethnic audience, we don't think of ourselves an ethnic channel," said Lawrence Baker, chairman of Celtic Vision Productions Ltd., whose 24-hour channel appears on Cablevision in Massachusetts. "Only 25 percent of our audience has very close ties to Ireland, and some of the rest do claim Irish heritage, but most are just interested in Irish music and sports. When we show Irish boxing, we attract about as many people named Jose as we do people named Brian."
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company