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March 16, 2000
Desi, a huge hit in pardes
An hour long documentary, focusing on the South Asian immigrant experience in New York, proved to be such a huge success for the city's public broadcasting station's fund raising drive that the television network made an unprecedented decision. It repeated the documentary right after the first show, canceling its previously scheduled show.
Produced by Alan Glazen and Shebana Coelho, Desi: South Asians In New York was first broadcast on March 14 at 8 pm on New York's PBS Channel 13 or WNET.
Desi is part of Channel 13's Ethnic American Series, which has also explored the lives of the Dominican and the Korean communities in New York City.
The show was broadcast during the channel's two week-long fund raising season, which involves live pledge break sessions, where television officials and invited guests talk directly to viewers and ask them contribute money to the station.
Guests at Channel 13's studio during the March 14 screening of Desi included prominent South Asians -- Preeta Bansal, New York state's solicitor general, Sreenath Sreenivasan, associate professor of journalism at Columbia University, Gita Bajaj, producer of a local Indian television program called Eye On Asia and Aladdin Ullah, a Bangladeshi stand-up comedian.
According to Deirdre Branley, a spokesperson for Channel 13, the station was "flooded with calls" during the airing of Desi. Looking at the volume of the calls, Bill Baker, the network president who was present during the fundraising session, decided to repeat the documentary at 9.30 pm, thereby giving viewers ample time to call in with their pledges.
In the process, Baker also performed another unprecedented act; he bumped the previously announced show that was scheduled to air at 9.30 pm, Branley said. According to the station's website, the bumped show Santana: Sacred Fire Live in Mexico, based on a live performance by this year's Grammy winner, rock star Carlos Santana, will now air on Friday, March 17, at 10 pm.
"No one can commonly remember if this has happened before," Branley told rediff.com During one of the pledge breaks, Betsy Ashton, a Channel 13 official, said that in her 17 years with the public broadcasting station, she had never seen a program being repeated immediately after its first broadcast.
The success of Desi can also be measured by the fact that, during the two broadcasts, 1,888 callers reportedly pledged over $ 126,000 to the station's programming efforts. Branley said that 1,476 supporters called to pledge during the first broadcast. Later another 412 callers made pledges during the 9.30 pm airing of Desi.
As general practice, the station offered premia to those viewers who pledged $ 40 to $ 150. The premia included paperback copies of Arundhati Roy's Booker prize-winning novel, God Of Small Things and a VHS version of the documentary.
Branley said the station does not usually release information on the money it raises through its fund raising drives. However, she added, the number of callers -- 1,888 -- made Desi the most successful program broadcast during the current pledge season.
Earlier on Saturday, March 4, Channel 13 received 1,300 pledge calls during broadcast of New York: A Documentary Film, a five-part, 10 hour-long marathon by director Ric Burns. This, however, was a repeat broadcast of the documentary. New York originally premiered over a period of five days in November, 1999.
Branley said a third screening of Desi was broadcast by Channel 13 on March 15 at 1.30 pm. The show will once again be repeated today at 10 pm. At present, there are no plans to broadcast the show on other national public broadcasting stations, she added.
Desi has been widely praised for focusing on the colorful patchwork of New York's Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan immigrants -- including cab drivers, newsstand operators, professors, entrepreneurs, jazz musicians, stand-up comedians, chefs, community activists and cricket players.
Writing on the South Asian Journalists Association discussion list, Sreenivasan said: "For an hour, the producers let South Asians talk. And talk. And talk. The variety of faces and voices and colors that filled the screen made for television at its best. No narration, no prima donna anchor in Prada/Armani strolling through Jackson Heights saying, 'Look at these quaint brown people.' "
Other viewers, while praising the documentary for its bold attempt to introduce the South Asian immigrant community to the mainstream audience, commented that it was equally notable for what it lacked.
Desi tried to capture a lot of information in a short time frame of one hour. In the process, it missed focusing on some of the more prominent South Asian faces of New York, including book publisher Sonny Mehta, his wife, writer Gita Mehta, producer Ismail Merchant and actress Madhur Jaffrey. Both Merchant and Jaffrey have been residents of New York City for over 40 years.
Also missing were some of the leading community groups, including Sakhi, a South Asian feminist organization that assists women affected by domestic violence and SALGA or the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association. SALGA, whose members have been barred from marching in the India Day parade, has had to struggle to be recognized as a legitimate community organization.
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