By Cathy Rose A. Garcia
ImaginAsian Entertainment, founded by four Korean-Americans in 2003, is betting Asian pop culture will attract American audiences of all ethnic backgrounds and find its way into mainstream culture.
Korean dramas such as "Full House
", "Winter Sonata
" and "Princess Hours
" are already hits with American audiences who watch ImaginAsian Television (IATV), the first 24-hour, national, Asian American network.
"We know from the feedback we receive from the network that Korean dramas are very popular with our audience and not only among native-speaking Koreans, but for Koreans and Asians that don't speak the language at all and even non-Asians as well", ImaginAsian CEO Michael Hong said in an e-mail interview with The Korea Times.
Japanese animation, Chinese soap operas and Bollywood films are also being discovered by non-Asians thanks to IATV.
"ImaginAsian's mission was to create a series of platforms that could consistently accommodate and bring Asian content to not only Asians but to everyone with an interest in 'all things Asian'. We want ImaginAsian to be ubiquitous as it relates to anything worthwhile in terms of Asian content", he said.
Aside from IATV, the company's businesses include home entertainment, radio and Web sites, and it has a movie theater devoted to Asian American films in New York City.
ImaginAsian was founded by Hong, his brother Augustine Hong and their friends Neal Chung and Bobby Choue. They wanted to make Asian entertainment available to all audiences, not just Asians.
With its "big-tent" approach, ImaginAsian wanted to prove that non-Asians would be interested in Asian-inspired content. The big-tent approach is based on the idea that people with diverse beliefs and backgrounds can unite in a group.
The company worked to get IATV on the basic distribution service of cable operators, unlike other Asian channels, which are offered as pay services. IATV is currently available on cable systems in New York, California, New Jersey, Texas and Hawaii. It reaches 5 million households.
ImaginAsian focuses on Asian content that American audiences can relate to and provides an alternative to U.S. network television shows. IATV's audience is 60 percent to 70 percent non-Asian.
Hong said Asian programs are subtitled in English "to retain the integrity of the program which should make the programming resonate with the language-dependent Asians as well as the general market audience which prefers more `authentic Asian' programming".
Hong said it is unrealistic to expect the same level of success in the U.S. that hallyu, the Korean wave, has had in Asia.
"I think to a certain extent the Korean wave is already being felt in moderation in the U.S… I also think the appreciation for Korean content will continue to grow outside and beyond merely films. But in the end, to think that it will be as successful here as it has been in Asia is still quite unrealistic", he said.
Before Korean dramas can hit the mainstream, they have to overcome negative perceptions about soap operas in the U.S. Soap operas are perceived as one of the lowest forms of television entertainment, unlike in Korea where dramas are on primetime TV. To help introduce the Asian drama format to Americans, IATV produced a show called "The Lounge".
"I think in order to turn around the perception of Korean dramas in the U.S., we have to position them more as a mini-series like Roots or Shogun. I do think there is an audience for this format but we need to educate the U.S. audience and make it more relevant for most Americans", Hong said.
ImaginAsian is seeking strategic partners for distribution and content. Hong envisions the company as a distribution platform for Asian singers, entertainers, films and TV programs in the U.S. market.
"I think any Asia media player would acknowledge the lack of accessible or meaningful distribution platforms for Asian content in the U.S./North American market. We have an infrastructure to market and sell these products in this marketplace. No other Asian media group or player is in a position to monetize Asian content as effectively as we can", he said.