“AZN Television: The Network for Asian America”

by: L. S. Kim / University of California, Santa Cruz

AZN TV Logo

AZN TV Logo

In March 2005, a new American television network launched. It was a quiet affair, announced mostly word-of-mouth and through the Asian American independent film festival circuit. AZN — “The Network for Asian America” — currently broadcasts in a handful of major markets including Los Angeles, The Bay Area, Seattle, New York, and Houston. It’s too early to know how the network is doing and who is watching it, but it’s a good time to consider the emergence, significance, and implications of television targeted towards Asian Americans.

What is Asian American television? As in defining ‘what is television’ more generally, we begin with the level of the text, include a consideration of the production context, and of course, emphasize the level of the reader or audience. At the same time, the concept of Asian American television floats as an open signifier, filled in by various parties and perspectives. For example, some non-Asian Americans might assume it means Asian product, and indeed, AZN regularly airs films (subtitled) from Asia; likewise, advertisers might not be clear about how to market to Asian Americans as distinct from Asian immigrants; and Asian American viewers themselves are newly discovering what Asian American television is, simply for the fact that it has never existed before.

So does it come down to the producers and programmers at ethnic networks to define “ethnic programming?” Is carving out a niche for the vastly diverse Asian and Asian American populations viable? How might looking at other ethnic networks (BET, Univision) inform the development of Asian American television, in terms of content as well as business structure? There are philosophical questions too. Following the observation/criticism that the television landscape might be gaining in diversity but in a way that amounts to segregated programming, is racial programming like racial profiling?

It Speaks Your Language

I do believe that Asian American programs — and at the least, programs with rich Asian American characters — are important and needed. How such programs are programmed (i.e., on a niche channel, basic cable channel, or major network channel) is a separate though related question. The promo for the niche network, AZN, is a quickly-paced montage of images and personalities from shows on the network which announces in a hip, young, male voiceover:

“It’s television that speaks to you, by you, for you. It’s AZN prime, redefined. Prime-time programming in English, you know, your language. Every night starting at 7 p.m. … Only on AZN Television, the Network for Asian America.”

The “you” is clearly an Asian American person. The address and appeal are direct, forging an affirmation of Asian American viewers — as consumers and citizens. Moreover, it announces the concept of ‘Asian America’ (we haven’t heard the term African America, or Native America). This emphasizes a declaration of belonging, that Asians are located here, in America. The following are statements from the promo for the New York-based ImagineAsianTV, which also declares a sense of place (both promos can be viewed at the respective network’s website):

“What does it mean to have an all-Asian network?
It’s a place where I can relate, where I can call home. …
On general TV, there’s nothing I can relate to. We never get to see people like us on TV — unless it’s the computer geek, grocery owner, Chinese delivery boy. imagineasiantv has the potential to make us feel worthy and proud.”{emphasis mine}

The promo ends with actors repeating the name “imagineasiantv!” in a victorious tone. First, both names of networks are clever: “AZN” are like call letters, or a sorority/fraternity organization — a club — for those who identify as azn; “imagineasian” of course, sounds like “imagination,” connoting creative, innovative programming for those in the know. Second, both networks carry the theme of being able to ‘see myself’ — one’s reflection, or people like us — thus asserting a subjectivity for Asian Americans, one that hardly exists in mainstream film and television stories; these are stories about (and “for”) Asian Americans. Third, the programs are created “by you,” meaning by Asian Americans, in a way that does not humiliate or dismiss and instead makes you/us feel worthy and proud; there is a sense that trust is fostered based on authorship because the writers/producers know where the viewers are coming from — and visa-versa. And fourth, both networks indirectly express that the need for Asian American television networks stems from a deficiency in “general TV” which does not seem to be a hospitable realm where Asian Americans matter or register in any significant way. AZN and ImagineAsianTV give Asian Americans priority.

Roots

The AZN Network has its roots in the International Channel. The former, ichannel, has been re-branded as AZN Television. The channel now targets the fast-growing, young, affluent and English-speaking Asian American community with original programming produced in the U.S. I also read the following line in a recent article about ANZ being picked up by a large Houston cable operator:

“Programs are in various Asian languages, with many of them subtitled in English to accommodate more acculturated Asian American and non-Asian viewers.”

On one hand, part of the discourse surrounding AZN flatters Asian Americans as a desirable demographic. But another part of the discourse reminds Asian Americans of their (or their parents’ or grandparents’) foreign status as some are more “acculturated” than others, and moreover, as they stand apart from the “non-Asian” viewer, i.e., American and white. Is this a schizophrenia linked to the larger social and discursive struggle to define Asian American — as ‘American’ or ‘Asian’? There are both Asian American (U.S. produced in English) and Asian programs (Asian-produced in other languages) on AZN and imagineasiantv. Why and how does this constitute Asian American programming?

The program line-ups on the AZN schedule are organized according to broad, somewhat loosely defined genres, and the days of the week: AZN MOVIES, ANIME, ORIGINALS (“Fresh, new original programs from leading Asian American talent”), which to me, is the most significant form of programming in that it unequivocally fits the category of Asian American television. Noticeably, many of the original shows are about Asian Americans in the media and popular culture. Programs such as POPCORN ZEN, CINEMA AZN, THE BRIDGE, and STIR TV feature Asian Americans working in the film, music, and fashion industries. Continuing during the week: DRAMAS, VARIETY, specifically music-related programs (“Asian recording artists are now among the creative forces in the worldwide music scene”), NEWS (the news programming that I saw was in Korean, and was not subtitled), and MASALA, a diverse mix of programming produced in India and/or geared towards a South Asian audience.

Speaking of masala and a mixing of elements, not only is there a dual address in terms of the U.S. produced-English and imported-Asian language programming, but also in terms of the shows’ making an appeal to young, hip viewers while the advertisements jump suddenly to topics of home equity loans and life insurance. Examples of the numerous 1800-ads that fill the commercial spots are for Ditech lenders, CreditGuard of America, SMC start-your-own-business, and dental insurance. Also consistent are the advertisements for the U.S. Army; along with the commercials for Devry, these could be seen as being aimed at twenty-something people of color and/or immigrants or children of immigrants. This, however, is a different path to upward-mobility than that which is connoted in AZN’s own advertisements.

From the Ford Fusion Website

From the Ford Fusion Website

The one sponsor that stands out as not discordant is Ford Fusion, whose style of advertisement is similar to the way-cool Mitsubishi ad campaign (you’d recognize the tune upon hearing it, and might even begin to bob your head in rhythm). Moreover, you can visit a special Ford Fusion website which features a kind of television show, with pseudo characters all of whom are Asian/Asian American. What is fascinating about this ad campaign and its employment of what I identify as ‘Asianess,’ is that the origin and location of these characters in their cool cars is transparent and moveable: when you enter the website, you choose a language — English, Chinese, Korean, or Vietnamese — and only the printed words change, all the images of faces, fashion, cityscapes, and streets remain the same. This signifies, literally and figuratively, the Pan-Asian disposition that I think AZN is taking. Moreover, it expands the notion of Pan-Asian beyond Asia, indicating a fluidity between Asia and the United States.

Brautwurst and Wasabi

So the “open signifier” I mentioned at the beginning of this essay is filled with Pan-Asianess, which comes to signify Asian American television on AZN. One of AZN’s most frequently run promos reveals this message. In it, Eugene Lee the host of POPCORN ZEN says “when two things collide — like brautwurst and wasabi,” Holly who hosts XBYTES and is of mixed Asian heritage from Hawai’i, says, “if you have two different ideas,” an Asian American man adds, “two different things,” and an Indian American woman says, “bam! they come together”…”You’ve got to check this out.” The historical goal of cable television was to promote and enable diversity. Many agree that this hasn’t necessarily happened. AZN is filling at least one empty frequency on the (proverbial!) dial.

Some may criticize the existence of ethnic-specific cable channels that provide content “for and by” specific ethnic groups as essentialist, but at this racial-historical juncture, the need for ethnic-specific networks and programming is acute. A new African American cable channel has recently come on to the scene. TV One is a joint venture between Radio One, the nation’s largest black-oriented radio broadcaster, and Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company. Kristal Brent Zook has written that TV One acknowledges an eclectic group of urban and upscale viewers, and “represents a welcome change for an industry plagued by UPN sitcoms like HOMEBOYS FROM OUTERSPACE.” While she argues that some in the industry “just don’t get it” that Black people are not monolithic, AZN seems to pitch its programming fare to a single Asian America. According to Nielsen estimates, Asian Americans represent 3.8% of all American TV households, though this number increases dramatically in metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, where the figure is 11.4%, and San Francisco, where Asian Americans make up 19.6% of the television audience. Whether ethnic niche cable networks like AZN have decided to acknowledge, affirm, and attract Asian Americans as a matter of politics or a matter of profit is inconsequential to the fact that it answers a similar call MTV viewers shouted out 20 years ago: I want my A(ZN)TV!

Links
YAO IN THE NBA
MTV Desi
MTV Chi

Image Credits:

1. AZN TV Logo

2. From the Ford Fusion Website

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