Nusrat Durrani, the embattled visionary behind MTV World
Quick on the news of MTV World's demise, a number of activists have begun circulating a petition to save it.
Last month, in a start-of-the-year downsizing, Viacom eliminated MTV World, the 18-month experiment headed by Nusrat Durrani in niche channels targeting Asian American audiences. In July 2005, it launched MTV Desi for South Asian American audiences, following with MTV Chi for Chinese American audiences, and finally MTV K for Korean American audiences last year. A fourth channel, possibly for Pilipino Americans, was rumored to be on the drawing board.
None of the channels gained traction, but it could be fairly argued that they were never given the chance. The channels were accessible mostly through obscure "international" premium packages from DirecTV, and a mix of smaller cable networks.
Offering the channels through such "international" packages was a strategy that made the least sense. Such packages are usually purchased by older, wealthier immigrants who want to stay in touch with news and pop culture from "back home". But the entire MTV World experiment was predicated on the idea that the children of these immigrants--and their curious friends--would demand a completely different, much more eclectic, polycultural aesthetic. Yet very few options were available to allow this next generation to get their MTV World.
Expansion efforts were afoot when the axe came down. MTV World was about to offer a more robust set of websites, including some recognized bloggers (I was asked to be one, though I couldn't), and rumors circulated were that MTV World was about to offer cell-phone content. But there were no, say, ala carte options, which would have allowed young viewers to perhaps add MTV World into a mix of stations they might have wanted, like say, ESPN or MTVu.
To be sure, things change slowly in the cable world, and while there have been debates in Congress on the issue ala carte, no big change has yet been forthcoming. When I interviewed Durrani in late 2005, he was assembling a whipsmart staff, who would go on to do some very creative and relevant programming on a shoestring. Durrani was certain that MTV's leadership was well behind the project and that they understood it would not produce immediate returns, but take hold slowly.
Durrani is a visionary, and at the time, his thinking seemed to make a lot of sense. If MTV was to wedge itself into the Asian American market early, it could be in a great position to develop it and reap the whirlwind when it took off. This was the same thinking that had guided the creation of AZN-TV, a Comcast vehicle that now functions almost mechanically, and Imaginasian, the lovable independent NYC-based bootstrapping upstart.
But there were warning signs: AZN imploded almost as soon as it began, laying off almost all of its talented staff in one fell swoop early last year. Imaginasian--with a much different model than MTV World--has been growing organically and intelligently, but not at a rate that impresses Wall Street types.
In the end, MTV World heard from the mothership. Viacom's recent moves--especially its $1b lawsuit against Google/YouTube--seem to demonstrate that the company is reorienting itself to what it considers to be immediate threats in the internet space. (The fairly quiet relaunching of MTV and VH1's websites last year were the first part of this reorientation.) It's hard to get anyone to hear about the importance of a long-term investment--however small in the grand scheme--in as-yet unproven niche markets when Viacom's leaders are running around scared over Google/YouTube.
And so Asian American activists are taking a page from the multicultural wars of the 80s and 90s, and trying to demonstrate grassroots support for MTV World to the folks who run Viacom.
I think it's important to show support for any kind of community-oriented programming in these days of media consolidation and stock-market oriented decision-making. I just want to add that we need to champion our visionaries as well. There aren't too many like Nusrat Durrani out there anymore. Let's recognize what we've got.
Labels: asian american, cable, mtv, nusrat durrani, tv, viacom