Zuhair Kashmeri, the webmaster for the Canadian Ethnic Media Association and an editorial commentator for OMNI Television, says that advertisers have been slow to embrace ethnic media. “When you’re talking about media, you’re talking about advertising dollars, and the problem has always been convincing companies that spend advertising dollars to focus on ethnic programming,” he says.
Levin’s target markets make things even harder. “There’s a very strong Macedonian diaspora and identity, but the numbers are very small, and I can see the advertisers being resistant to devote dollars there,” says Kashmeri. “I don’t envy him and the venture he’s trying to establish.” He believes the CRTC should take its cues from the country’s policies about protecting and promoting multiculturalism, and start pushing broadcasters in that direction by mandating ethnic content. “It’s so frustrating to be in the ethnic media,” says Kashmeri. “Everybody’s talking about multiculturalism, they’re paying lip service to it, but when it comes to action, nobody’s putting their money where their mouth is.”
Luba Cherny, the president of NTV Canada and owner of the Toronto-based Canadian Courier, a newspaper for Russian-Canadians, praised Levin’s dedication to these markets. “It’s very important because many people come here, but their hearts don’t come,” she says. “They have parents in Russia, they have relatives, friends. They’re interested in what happens in Russia—and they’re interested in Canadian news in Russian.”
Levin is confident advertisers will embrace these smaller markets. Larger companies like Lexus, Toyota and Royal Bank of Canada are beginning to sign on to the digital channels. The cost of advertising is competitive with other small networks, but the company sells itself on being able to reach markets the traditional broadcasters can’t. He has already changed the model of ethnic television in Canada, he says, and is ready to do it again.
While most ethnic broadcasters here operate under Canadian names like the Asian Television Network or Fairchild, Levin distributes content under the name of the network that carried the program in its country of origin. “If I transplant you to Germany and tell you there’s German-Canadian Television, you don’t know what that is,” he explains. “But if someone there says, ‘We’ve got the CBC,’ you know exactly what it is. We bring the mainstream channels, the Dan Rathers of Russia.”
But the straight-from-home model that has brought Ethnic Channels success in the traditional TV market is now being usurped by the Internet. And whereas the CRTC was once Levin’s biggest obstacle, he now sees technology as his main competitor. Fifteen years ago, immigrants to Canada had limited access to newspapers or television from their home country, unless a visiting relative arrived with a newspaper or a VHS box set. They were hungry for any content, and would watch ethnic TV no matter what was on. But with the Web has come instant access to media from around the globe.
Kashmeri has one newspaper from India delivered to his Kindle every morning; he no longer hungers for Indian content, but wants to see Canadian issues covered with a local South Asian perspective. “That to me is the new model,” he says.
And ironically, Levin now sees CRTC regulation as necessary to protect his new venture. Internet TV is classified as a new media initiative by the commission and is largely unregulated, meaning that many people are simply downloading content online for free. “When it comes to the Internet, people have this anonymity, and they do whatever they want,” he says. “Why would people subscribe to NexTV or watch ethnic content on cable they pay for when they could download it for free online?”
For that part of the business to grow beyond older members of Canada’s immigrant communities, Levin believes the industry needs rules and stringent oversight from the CRTC to prevent piracy. “I don’t know what the CRTC needs to do or how they need to do it, but they need to regulate this,” he says. “If I have to have competition, I want it to be fair.”
For all the changes that his company has faced, Levin says there is one constant that gives him confidence in the model he has established and in the direction he has taken. In Canada, while advertising whims shift, demographics are a sure thing, he says, and Ethnic Channels will continue to find new customers along with the natural flow of immigration.
“To me, this is the land of opportunity, because there’s such diverse communities in Canada and you can cater to all of them,” he says. “People come here, but they still need to be connected. Television is a drug, no matter where you’re from.”
This story originally appeared in the November, 2010 issue of Your Business magazine.