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Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Cable TV goes Bollywood



The cable guys have finally figured out what the top satellite services discovered years ago: Their increasingly diverse subscribers in the Bay Area want a better selection of entertainment from India and Pakistan, among other South Asian countries.

In response to Dish Network's and DirecTV's success with multicultural programming, Comcast of Northern California this year launched ``Bollywood & Beyond,'' its latest ethnic video-on-demand (VOD) service that's becoming a hit with the Bay Area's growing Indo-American community.

Beginning Monday, the cable giant will host its first ``Bollywood & Beyond'' film festival, a two-month event timed to coincide with India's independence day Aug. 15. And next year, the service's New York programmers hope to make Indian music videos available on Comcast, as well as Indian TV programming that will include news, soap operas and cooking shows.

It's all part of the cable company's ongoing push to offer its 1.6 million Bay Area subscribers a greater array of shows that recognize that one in three residents in the region is foreign-born.

``It's no longer only about general market programming, such as ESPN and CNN,'' said Vinodh V. Bhat, who, with Neal Shenoy and Joseph Schramm, runs B&B out of a New York office. ``Now to make it, you have to also focus on special interests and ethnic niches.''

Veena Kamath, an elementary school teacher who lives in Los Altos, is a fan of the new service. She stumbled upon the Bollywood movies three months ago and saved herself a trip to her favorite video store.

``It's great to be able to watch a Hindi film when you want, and share it with your children, who may be losing touch with their culture,'' said the mother of two who emigrated from Bombay 24 years ago. ``It was a nice surprise: I had no idea these movies were available.''

Seven films a month

B&B, which was launched by Time Warner Cable in New York last August, offers Comcast's 800,000 digital subscribers a chance to purchase seven Indian films each month for $3.99 each.

Among the 17 festival titles that will be available ``on demand,'' which allows subscribers to pause, rewind and view movies as many times as they want over a 24-hour period: ``Chokher Bali,'' starring superstar Aishwarya Rai as a widow who moves in with another family, and ``Khwahish,'' with the popular Malika Sherwat as a low-born daughter who marries into a prominent business family.

``Many of these films are `masala' type Bollywood films, with lots of singing and dancing,'' said the 29-year-old Bhat. ``It's boy meets girl; boy-girl face conflict; boy-girl somehow resolve conflict.''

Bending taboos

Some of the offerings also bend without breaking cultural taboos. Bhat describes Sherwat as a ``tamer Paris Hilton'' who wears revealing costumes and kisses on screen. ``Some of these movies push limits,'' he said, ``but nothing like you'd see in a Quentin Tarantino film.''

B&B, which has sold almost 3,000 on-demand movies locally since its launch in January, joins Comcast's Gratis en EspaƱol video on-demand service and almost 40 cable channels dedicated to foreign-language content from China, Vietnam and Mexico. Monday, Comcast will add GMA 7, a Manila channel.

``As the Bay Area continues to grow,'' said Erica Eusebio, director of communications at Comcast Bay Area, ``it becomes increasingly important for Comcast to connect our customers to their cultures, language and to their homelands.''

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