An aboriginal broadcaster’s fight to prove its worth
For Jean Larose, Idle No More was more than an aboriginal protest movement – it was a chance to convince Canadians that his television network is an essential public service that is worth paying for whether they watch it regularly or not.
While other television networks were still trying to figure out if the Idle movement was worth covering, the 58-year-old chief executive officer of APTN watched with a mix of excitement and apprehension as web traffic to his television network’s cluster of websites spiked by almost 4,000 per cent to 12 million to start the year.
“It demonstrated that young people may be turning off their televisions, but they are still using us to fill a need for information about what’s happening in their communities,” he says.
Mr. Larose knows he can’t win the argument based on viewership numbers alone. He’ll need to convince the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission commission that he is providing a public service by covering the news that mainstream outlets aren’t interested in, and giving aboriginal youth a voice in a crowded media landscape that doesn’t necessarily reflect their worlds.
The channel’s future is up in the air as Canada’s broadcast regulator reconsiders which channels are included in basic cable. Without the funding that comes with guaranteed placement, the country’s most significant aboriginal voice could be silenced because there’s no way it could ever sell enough advertising to become self-sufficient.
“It would basically be the end of aboriginal programming in Canada,” Mr. Larose says. “We’d have to ask if there’s any reason to exist any more. It’s too bad for people who don’t want to watch Honey Boo Boo ad nauseum, for those people who want to watch something else that isn’t on one of the big networks.”
The network’s precarious position is brutally straightforward – most of its $38-million budget comes from the fees collected by the cable and satellite companies that are forced to carry its signal into every home (last year it ran a $3.6-million deficit, which is more than the $2.7-million it earned in advertising). But the CRTC is reviewing whether APTN should keep that coveted designation, and whether it should have its subscription fee increased to 40 cents from 25 cents per household.
The companies that carry its signal want nothing to do with a price increase: Rogers Communications Inc. goes so far as to say the network is only asking for more so it can spend more, not maintain the status quo. “APTN needs to figure out a way to live within its current financial means or improve the service it provides to subscribers so that it can enhance its advertising revenues,” Rogers wrote in its intervention opposing the increase.
APTN (which is registered as a charity) is one of several channels whose placement will be reconsidered by the CRTC during an April hearing. Some channels – such as APTN and CPAC – already have a guaranteed placement and hope to keep it, along with increased subscription fees. Others, such as Sun News and the yet-to-be-broadcast Starlight: The Canadian Movie Network hope to land a coveted spot on basic cable to finance their operations and build their brands.
It’s difficult, however, to quantify just how many Canadians are watching and that means the network is constantly getting shortchanged as it tries to sell advertising to support its operations. Canadian advertising rates are based on measurements taken by BBM Canada, an organization that tracks viewership using television-top boxes in sample groups across the country. But you’re not going to find any BBM boxes connected to televisions in the country’s remote reserves, which Mr. Larose says distorts the value of advertising on his channel.
“We show advertisers focus group data to show we have a quarter million viewers sometimes, and they say ‘too bad, so sad’ and undercut us,” he said.
The future is far from assured – there’s no way to gauge the commission’s appetite for increased fees for consumers. More than 12,000 Canadians sent letters to the CRTC about mandatory carriage during the public comment period, and most of the 764 that were submitted about APTN were supportive.
But there is an undercurrent running through the discussion – Canadians are wary of higher fees. And the television providers aren’t keen on making bills more expensive to pay for services that don’t pull big numbers.
“This is a tax, particularly when one considers the ubiquity and central importance of basic television and what it provides to Canadians, especially those least able to afford alternative sources of information and entertainment,” IPTV provider vMedia wrote in its intervention. “Worse, it is a regressive tax and of the most odious kind, since all Canadians, regardless of their means or even whether they earn income or not, must pay it.”
Canada’s largest television providers don’t want to see any new channels added to basic cable and won’t support more funding for channels that are already there, arguing that consumers have enough choice as it is and anything that raises prices will drive its customers into the arms of services such as Netflix.
Rogers Communications Inc. and Bell Media filed interventions with the CRTC strongly voicing opposition to adding any new channels to basic cable, ahead of an April hearing that will consider whether a handful of new stations should be granted so-called “mandatory carriage.”
The period for public interventions ended Wednesday with some 12,000 Canadian individuals and business speaking out on a series of proposals from existing and hopeful TV channels for mandatory carriage. The commission must decide after an April hearing whether to add channels to basic cable, and consider requests for increased funding from channels that already have one of the coveted slots.
For TV channels, placement on the basic tier means increased revenues because they receive a fee for every household that gets their signals. The cable, satellite and IPTV firms that broadcast their signals pass the cost – as well as a markup that is usually 100 per cent – to consumers.But with traditional television providers concerned over cord cutting as Canadians turn to less expensive services, they are leery of adding new costs that they can’t control to customer bills. Any channel forced onto basic cable must provide a unique service for Canadians that doesn’t exist anywhere else, and both Rogers and Bell argue none applications meet that criteria.
“If subscribers are required to pay for services that do not have broad appeal or that do not serve an exceptional public interest function, the Canadian broadcasting system will become increasingly ghettoized,” its intervention reads. “It will be the platform for unwanted and unwatched programming services that a dwindling number of Canadians will continue to pay to receive in their homes.”
Bell echoed the comments, writing that if any changes are approved, the “cost of the basic service will increase, potentially significantly.”