To hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese around the world, "Paris By Night" is more than just entertainment; it's a tie to the past, a lens for the present, and a taste of the future.
With melodramatic performances, catchy pop tunes, Vaudeville-esque comedy, and elaborate set designs, the long-running musical variety show unites and, in some ways, defines the Vietnamese experience.
Filmed in Paris the early 1980s, "Paris By Night" originally began with the intention of catering to the Vietnamese population in France that had sprung up in the '60s and '70s. But the production company responsible for the show, Thúy Nga, discovered an eager audience in America by the late '80s, and relocated filming to Orange County, California, which is home to the largest Vietnamese community outside Vietnam.
"Paris By Night" is a frenetic mix of singing, dancing, comedy, and interviews. More recent iterations—the show will release its 117th installment on Saturday—reflect the changing demographics and times of the global community it caters to. But the franchise, which flourished in the age of VHS and DVDs, now faces new challenges in the digital age: despite increasing notoriety around the world, sales have lagged.
"The Internet changed a lot [of] the ways we do business," Thúy Nga CEO Marie To told NBC News.
To said that the explosion of the Internet has made "Paris By Night" more accessible and widely known—but that also had its consequences. "And so in the entertainment business it's the same thing. American [programs] suffer also, [with a] decrease in sales," To said.
The show is also facing shifting tastes. The emergence and growing popularity of Korean and Japanese pop has created a new kind of creative pressure for "Paris By Night." Now, new musical numbers need to compete with the slick, sharp styling of K-pop acts.
To, however, is insistent that "Paris By Night" has a unique offering that sets it apart from the flashy entertainment of other countries.
"For me as the 'Paris By Night' executive producer, I have always lived with the thinking that wherever you grow up, wherever you're born, at a certain age you will come back to your roots," To said. "Of course, K-pop is very big now…but we kind of want to create our own image. The singer[s] we produce, we want to create their image—not imitating K-Pop or anything."
Thúy Nga plans to "fight fire with fire," moving from traditional tape and DVD sales, and shifting to video-on-demand and using a Netflix-like subscription service.
The company is also reaching back to the homeland for revenue. For the release of "Paris By Night 113," which coincided with the Vietnamese lunar new year Tet, the production company made viewing of episodes free for those with IP addresses in Vietnam. According to Thúy Nga, a look at the data of viewers showed that most viewers were under the age of 40.
Thúy Nga is also working with YouTube to generate ad sales off of "Paris By Night" content.
For To, it's proof that there's still a viable market for "Paris By Night," a demand fueled by a worldwide Vietnamese audience eager not just for entertainment, but a way to connect to a larger identity.
"There are more and more young Vietnamese, born [in the United States] or in Vietnam [who] like 'Paris By Night' very much because they see that we preserve our culture," To said. "It's not just an entertainment show, it's also a show about teaching Vietnamese history and also our energy."