The rising demand for overseas television: America's United Nations of cable TV

Satellite TV lets immigrants cocoon in their own culture. Does it also alienate?

By , / contributor

Afghan immigrants Fatima Majeed and Naseer Ahmadi watch an average of eight hours of television a day in their suburban three-bedroom apartment while their four sons and daughter go to school, work, and carry on with their busy American schedules.

The husband and wife sit next to each other on their couch glued to the tube, barely aware that their children are coming and going. Outside their home is America, but inside their TV set is Afghanistan, the country they long to live in but can't.

The programs on their television are broadcast via satellite and received through a box connected to the Internet. The channels they watch are based in Kabul but also in other areas where the Afghan diaspora have settled, like California. The shows range from Hindi soap operas dubbed in Farsi, one of the Afghan languages, to news programs and cooking contests. They provide a virtual reality for Afghan immigrants who want to escape the isolation of American life.

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"I got sick and depressed from boredom and seclusion before we got these programs," says Ms. Majeed, taking a break from watching the Afghan movie "Promise to Love." The movie, about a modern-day Afghan Romeo and Juliet, was filmed in the United States.

In Pictures: America's United Nations of cable TV

Afghans are not the only ones in the US turning to foreign language TV to feel at home.

At the 152-unit complex where the couple lives, most of the families are immigrants, the majority from Asia and Latin America. Most of the adults do not watch American television. They own more than one television, one hooked up to their native nations' broadcasts and at least one set to regular cable or local networks with English language programs for the kids to watch.

Fremont, a 45-minute drive southeast of San Francisco, is a microcosm of a changing suburban California, one that is increasingly Asian and Hispanic – communities that want to hold on tight to their native cultures. Of Fremont's 214,000 residents, 47 percent are Asian and 13 percent are Hispanic. The hundreds of new channels offered daily through the Internet and satellite allow them to bypass mainstream American culture and stay connected to their native identities.

The hours of television they watch every day is time in which they can go home thousands of miles away – while sitting on the couch.

These families have little interest or connection to American programming or news. And relatives and friends in their native countries who have satellite can also watch the programs produced by the diaspora in the same language aired from American cities. Afghans in Kabul and their compatriots in Los Angeles can see each other now as never before. It's another symptom of globalization.

The companies that offer international programming are making money. Dish Network, the largest provider of foreign-language channels in the US, has nearly doubled its business in two years from 8 million to 14 million customers. Dish offers 200 channels in 29 languages, not including Spanish, which is the most popular foreign language. As the largest ethnic population in the US, Hispanics have a variety of choices among the 255 Spanish channels available on satellite.

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Francie Bauer, a spokeswoman for Dish, says English remains the most popular language for its customers, but the company makes a special effort to meet the demands of its foreign-language market.

Comcast, a communication giant that offers digital cable, is also providing programming to address the ethnic demand. It offers up to 40 Spanish channels. The other popular channels in the San Francisco Bay Area are South Asian, Filipino, and Chinese. Bryan Byrd, a spokesman for Comcast, says trends in the business show that Portuguese-language channels are becoming more in demand, and one of the hottest networks in the Bay Area is now NEO Cricket, the world's first 24-hour cricket channel aired from India.

Whether through satellite, cable, or the Internet, immigrants will pay for their native-language TV. But does this connection to their homeland alienate them from American life? One of the paths to assimilation and learning English for immigrants in the US has been American television. Shows like "Sex and the City" and "American Idol" explain mainstream American culture (for good or ill) to first-generation immigrants in a way that daily reality doesn't.

In Pictures: America's United Nations of cable TV

GL Wiz, the Canadian company that sells the receiver box for Iranian and Afghan channels, has grown rapidly in the past four years and is gaining more business from people who live in apartment complexes. Taraneh Dousti, a company supervisor, says that GL Wiz has legal agreements with Iran and Afghanistan providers to broadcast their programs. Customers get 40 channels from the two countries, along with 80 to 90 channels produced by diaspora communities living in the US.

"Many, many times, the customers come to us and say they are addicted to [a particular foreign-language] TV series and the children will watch it with their parents. The whole family can understand it. They can all sit together and watch a show. That's the biggest benefit.... It brings the family together," Ms. Dousti says.

Immigrants say going to work and interacting outside their homes is how they integrate and learn about the US – not through television. Besides, many of the foreign programs on TV copy American shows like "American Idol." However, television available in their native tongue has slowed their English-speaking skills at the same time it has helped their children preserve the home language. Even if the kids watch English-language TV, they are still exposed to their native language when they join their parents on the couch.

Parent-child TV-language divide

Mexican immigrant César Her­nan­dez and his family of five rent a unit in the same complex as Majeed and Mr. Ahmadi. He has lived in the US for 15 years, but his English skills are still limited. His job is to pitch tents for festivals, and that's where he mingles with English-speaking Americans.

When he comes home, the father of three puts on his shorts and T-shirt, grabs the remote, and all he hears is Spanish. The Hernandez family has four television sets, one in each bedroom and one in the living room. The kids, ages 7, 9, and 13, watch American sports and programs in English on their own sets. Mr. Hernandez and his wife, Lily Betancourt, flip among the eight Spanish-language channels available to them through Comcast's $35-a-month program package.

Slumped comfortably on his blue velvet couch, Hernandez talks about the variety of channels. "This one's from Miami. This one from Cuba. I like this one from Mexico," he says, channel surfing. One channel shows a fit young man with big muscles advertising an American brand of deodorant. Hernandez says his favorite show is "El Chavo del Ocho," a classic Mexican comedy from the 1970s about an 8-year-old orphan, played by an adult. While many Asian families avoid American TV shows because they can be vulgar and sexual, Spanish-language TV is racier, Hernandez says. "The soap operas have a lot of sex scenes."

Hernandez and Ms. Betancourt tune in to these programs because they miss life in Mexico. "It reminds me of home. I remember the horses on our ranch, the farms, the big spaces of land," Hernandez says in a sentimental tone.

Living in an 'ethnoscape'

Majeed and Ahmadi, who have lived in the US for seven years and are both disabled, cannot return to Afghanistan because it's a war zone. Hernandez and his wife stay in the US for the economic opportunities here. But both families spend more time than they should in front of the TV for the same reason: to soothe their homesickness.

Fred Turner, an associate professor of communication at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., who has researched media and the American culture, says these TV programs offer ethnic communities "ethnoscape," a phenomenon that explains how ethnic groups can psychologically live in a place without physically being there. He says cable TV was the beginning of this in the 1980s, but satellite and the Internet have amplified the process.

"We've entered a time when it is plausible for large ethnic groups to migrate without leaving their homes. I think it's ultimately a bridge-builder. The process of assimilation is a lot slower," Mr. Turner says. "Integration will continue to occur generationally."

Turner says ethnic TV is a positive force because it offers a variety of information to stimulate public debate. Ethnic news channels, for example, give an alternative perspective to CNN and the American news networks. He argues that American television has been influenced by international programs, especially those produced in Bollywood. Sitcoms like "Outsourced" and the inclusion of South Asian actors, such as Aziz Ansari on "Parks and Recreation," show the cultural exchange.

But the negative impact of ethnic TV programs is ethnic isolation. The hours in front of the TV turn ethnic communities so inward that a divide is created between generations. Some families may watch ethnic programming together, but the Majeed and Hernandez families do not. Immigrant adults and their children who are growing up in the US already face cultural challenges, but watching separate TV programs can create an even wider gap.

Majeed's son Mostafa, 15, sees his parents' preoccupation with Afghan TV as a good thing. He was getting too much attention from them before these programs. "They used to walk around, get bored, bother me, try to talk to me while I play games. Now they are entertained."

They are so entertained, in fact, that they didn't notice when he locked the bathroom door and pierced his ear with a needle. The Americanized teenager sports a pair of diamond studs. (He had a friend pierce the other ear outside the house.) His mom is not pleased. "I tell him to take those off and curse at him, but he doesn't understand what I'm saying in Farsi," Majeed says, gently scolding her son. (Mostafa's parents do not speak much English.)

Mostafa says he has no interest in the Afghan shows his parents watch. He uses the living room TV to play games once his parents are in bed.

Ethnic DVD market drying up

Several miles from Mostafa's home is Monument Plaza, a haven of ethnic shopping. The plaza has an Afghan supermarket, a Safeway-size Indian grocery store, Indian restaurants, Mexican and Vietnamese hair salons, and Music Hut, Ram Lal's fading business. Mr. Lal sells and rents Bollywood DVDs and CDs and his is the only store on the block that doesn't have a satellite dish propped up on its roof. Raunchy songs from Hindi films play on a flat-screen TV in his small shop, but it's a DVD. "I hate satellite," he says. "The dishes and Internet are killing my business."

Lal plans to close his three-year-old business in a month. Ironically, he can't avoid the dish at home. "I had to buy it for my wife. All the Indian ladies watch the soap operas, and they have stopped paying attention to their household duties," Lal says. "Now they don't care if their husbands come home hungry. They don't serve water and they cook less. The women are too busy watching these shows."

In Pictures: America's United Nations of cable TV

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