Planet Bollywood

Exactly one week before this year’s Hollywood Oscars, the biggest film-producing nation in the world was busy worshipping its own screen idols.

Almost 9,000 miles away from Tinsel Town, the Indian film industry in Bombay staged its annual awards on Sunday night, watched by over 250 million viewers, including almost 1 million in the UK. Dubbed the “Bollywood Oscars”, the Zee Cine Awards were dreamt up by the Asian satellite network Zee TV, which recognised not only the overwhelming popularity of cinema in India itself, but also the power of movies to connect millions of Asians scattered around the world.

Here in the UK, the broadcast of the Zee Cine Awards was expected to pull in thousands of, extra viewers. “It is a family affair,” says Manish Vasisht, brand manager for Zee UK. “We expect friends and neighbours will sit down to watch together.”

A spectacular event held under the night sky, an invited audience of 4,000 watched India’s most popular actors receive their honours, with some of them adding to the entertainment with their own song and dance routines. Actor Shah Rukh Khan, Bollywood’s version of Tom Hanks, or perhaps rather Jimmy Stewart, stole the show, winning the best actor award for hit film Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something is Happening).

Zee TV uses the catchphrase “excellence in cinema – the democratic way” to describe the awards because Shah Rukh and the other winners were chosen not by an elite circle (as happens with the Hollywood Oscars) but by public polls.

The 75 nominees for the 15 awards are selected first on the basis of box office takings and then through a survey conducted by a research agency. For the first time this year UK viewers were given the chance to vote, with coupons placed in newspapers such as Eastern Eye. Geeta Srivastava, Zee UK marketing manager, says: “Giving our UK audience a vote this year was an experiment. It was more to reach out to show we are doing this for them.”

About 1 million people go to the trouble of registering their votes in India, such is the popularity of the movie business. This passion for cinema appears to be just as strong in the UK, where it seems Asians just cannot get enough of Indian films.

Last autumn, the Bollywood love story Dil Se proved a huge hit, becoming the first Indian film to break into the British top ten and grossing just over 250,000 at the box office in its first week. This was closely followed by Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, a romantic comedy musical that included scenes shot in Scotland. To capitalise on this appetite for Bollywood and its stars, the Zee TV network has just announced the launch of a premium movie channel, called Zee Cinema, and is about to produce a magazine, called Zee Mag, in the UK, which will feature news and gossip on Indian celebrities.

Zee TV is the most popular television channel in the Indian sub-continent and is now available in more than 100 countries around the world, though it is still very much a niche pay-TV channel in the UK, with about 180,000 subscribed homes on either cable or satellite. Nevertheless, Asian households generally have more members than the average British family – 4.6 people – and the channel has an estimated audience of nearer 700,000 people.

Zee UK argues that its main attraction to advertisers is its reach – a highly loyal audience which generally is well-educated and in control of a significant proportion of the nation’s independent shops.

As Paul Manning, head of buying at Kellogg’s media agency MindShare, says: “Zee TV plays a dual role. One, to pass the message to a discrete audience and the other, to influence trade.”

In this country, Zee UK hopes to benefit as advertisers become more interested in the opportunities offered by niche channels. Marketing directors are having to constantly review their media budgets and choices in the face of rising TV airtime prices and declining audiences for mainstream stations. Zee UK argues that it provides a cost-effective method to reach a unique and coveted audience which watches a relatively small amount of terrestrial TV.

The Asian community is also of increasing financial importance because of its strong presence in local retail distribution, such as newsagents and pharmacies. According to the ATG, the media research consultancy of MindShare which is advising Zee UK on its sales strategy, 70 per cent of over-the-counter drugs sales within the M25 are made through Indian or Pakistani controlled outlets. Managing director of the ATG Alan Wilson says: “This is an audience with a distinct cultural identity and big economic power. They are virtually unreachable through other media means.”

Zee TV is a family entertainment channel, broadcasting a mix of programmes such as soaps, sport, slap-stick sitcoms, talk shows and game shows in Indian languages, including Hindi and Gujarati, and some in English. The majority of its content is imported from India, but the channel has created a new niche of British Asian programming with some shows made at Zee UK’s studios in Northolt, Middlesex. Fifty people work there, producing programmes such as the magazine show Out and About; Zee Zone, a children’s programme; Entertainment Express, which carries features on Indian TV and film stars visiting the UK; Zee Health Show, which includes reports and information relevant for the British Asian community; and Blunt TV, a programme aimed particularly at younger second generation Asians with reports on fashion and concerts and issues affecting the young.

Zee UK broadcasts eight homemade shows a week but this will increase to 14 by May as the channel wants to add more local programming in both English and Asian languages. It also wants to increase awareness of its brand name, not just in the Asian press, but also in mainstream titles.

Added to this surge of activity, is the launch of three more channels in the UK – Music Asia, an Asian version of MTV, Zee News, a 24-hour news and current affairs channel and Zee Cinema. Zee executives will be hoping that the station’s unique appeal to independent retailers will prove a sufficient draw for more of the UK’s top advertisers.

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