NexTV has not advertised the service, instead letting it catch on through word of mouth inside the communities it serves through Ethnic Channels’ traditional offerings. Television is still the company’s bread and butter, earning undisclosed advertising dollars supplemented by revenue-sharing agreements with broadcasters, but Levin sees the company’s future in NexTV, which promises something most ethnic consumers will buy at a premium: variety. “So if you’re a German or Russian or Greek, you now have more than one channel to choose from,” he says. “That was my ultimate goal with cable and satellite, but bandwidth restraints didn’t allow that to happen.”
Levin is an unlikely media magnate. Born in Kiev, Ukraine, and raised in Richmond Hill after his parents immigrated in 1976, Levin studied architecture at Humber College. But at an interview after graduation, he was offered a starting salary of $18,000 and walked away not only from the job, but from the profession. “I thought, ay-yi-yi, I can’t support myself on that.”
At 24, he opened his video store, and it was his father, Izzy, who got him into the TV business around that time. The elder Levin missed Russian TV, bought a satellite dish and went to the library to figure out where to point it. “Next thing you know, we’re putting flyers out in the community and the phone’s ringing off the hook,” says his son. Russian émigrés, eager for a signal from home, hired the pair to install their satellite dishes, but rather than stick with the covert operation, the younger Levin decided to make the business legitimate.
After a few years of distributing Russian television, he contacted Russian state-owned channel NTV and was soon appointed chief operating officer of its NTV Americas division. Along with his partner, Gregory Antimony, they launched the channel in the United States, and helped get it going in Israel, Germany and Australia, as well.
In 2004, after years of constant travel, Levin decided to leave NTV and launch a new company in Canada, which seemed like a natural place to expand a business based on ethnic content.Launching the Russian channel had been relatively easy in the United States, where broadcast regulations are lax and open competition is prized above protectionist instincts. But he soon learned that things weren’t so straightforward at home in Canada. “I had a really small amount of knowledge of the Canadian market,” Levin admits now.
In Canada, Levin was required to apply for a slew of CRTC licences, and while he waited for the approvals, he built his facility—a state-of-the-art broadcast centre complete with studios, editing suites, a graphics department, marketing and advertising offices. “It was a whole big investment, a gamble, but I’m a risk taker,” says Levin.
But having invested millions of dollars of their families’ money in broadcast equipment, Levin, Antimony and a third partner, Oleg Masliy, were now at the mercy of the CRTC, and began to learn about the country’s stringent broadcast requirements.
Fifteen per cent of their content had to be Canadian-made, and so Ethnic Channels began producing talk shows about immigration, women’s issues and culture, hosted by individuals from Toronto’s diverse communities. “There’s a lot of talented people that live in this city who are just dying to get out there and do something unique and different,” he says. “Every day someone comes and says, ‘I want to do a show with you guys.’” But the regulator soon threw him another hurdle.
When the company launched, Levin operated with Category 2 third-language licences. These protected his domain in the Canadian market, thanks to a sort of “one channel per genre” rule that prevented other third-language services from offering content in the same tongue. But in 2004, the CRTC changed the rules, allowing foreign-owned third-language stations to broadcast in Canada, with no tax requirements and no constraints on Canadian content.
“They don’t pay taxes, they don’t have to adhere to any CRTC regulations. I was really livid,” says Levin. “I might as well have taken the money and opened a McDonald’s.”
Levin became a vocal critic of the CRTC, and appeared before the commission on several occasions, demanding a one-to-one rule that would limit the number of foreign broadcasters permitted to compete with Canadian third-language broadcasters. The CRTC decided on a three-to-one rule—meaning that three foreign companies are allowed for every one Canadian—which takes effect next year. (When asked about Levin’s complaints, a CRTC spokesperson said the organization does not comment on specific companies or individuals.)
Within Canada’s largest ethnic communities—the South Asian, Chinese and Italian markets—there is room for competition. But Levin’s company has focused on smaller, underserved groups like Eastern Europeans, Pakistanis and Filipinos, whose advertising dollars are already scarce.