Slava Levin sits in the control room of Ethnic Channels Group, hands folded confidently on his knee, surveying a wall of television screens displaying the current offings of his broadcast empire.
On the more than 40 televisions currently flickering with life, there are no shows that the average North American-raised viewer would recognize: no Gossip Girl, none of the frenzied banter of CNN, and nobody dancing with the stars. Instead, there are sitcoms starring middle-aged Eastern European men and women, white-clad cricket players and the fierce on-ice battles of a Russian hockey league. On one screen, panellists on a low-budget talk show engage in a serious discussion about the Middle East.
Outside, in the reception area of the company’s North Toronto office and production studio, Levin greets his visitors in front of a wall lined with 31 framed CRTC licences that represent some of the international content his company has distributed in Canada over the past six years. “We’re not a mom-and-pop operation, but we’re not the CBC,” says the company’s 42-year-old chief executive officer.
Since 2004, Ethnic Channels has been bringing international programming to Canadian viewers, licensing content from Russia, Greece, Vietnam and various other countries, and distributing 26 digital channels through Rogers Cable, Bell TV, Telus, Shaw and MTS.
You would think that becoming an ethnic broadcaster in Canada would be a no-brainer. By 2031, one in three Canadians will belong to a visible minority group, and one in four will be foreign-born, according to Statistics Canada. There are 32 ethnic communities in Canada with populations of more than 100,000, and 10 with more than a million.
But Levin says Canadian regulators have not made things easy for the industry’s “third-language” providers—those who cater to viewers whose first language is neither English nor French. Ethnic Channels must comply with CRTC guidelines, producing its own Canadian content and recording every minute of programming as mandated by the regulator. Foreign competitors, meanwhile, can offer their content to viewers without following the same rules.
And so, in 2008, Levin’s company quietly introduced a new offering, a direct-to-consumer Internet television service called NexTV that already carries 150 channels for 12 different communities. Unlike the country’s licensed broadcast distributors (think Rogers and CTV), so-called over-the-top Internet services are considered to be new media by the CRTC and are largely unregulated. Through NexTV, Levin’s viewers can stream movies, children’s programming and even porn, from a set-top box connected to their TVs. There are channels that are not yet available on Canadian TV, including the Kontinental Hockey League (the Russian hockey league) and the Arabic version of Al Jazeera. And Levin can beam the content straight into his customers’ homes, without having to worry about the bandwidth constraints or regulatory requirements of the traditional model. “We’re essentially a virtual cable company,” he says.
In the mid-1990s, Levin owned a video store in Richmond Hill, north of Toronto. It was a standard operation called Moving Pictures Video Inc. that rented Hollywood fare like Fight Club and American Pie to young suburban couples for $2.99 a pop. Each movie cost him $100 to buy, meaning that he would break even after about a month as long as the movies weren’t lost or damaged.
An early adapter and natural tinkerer, Levin remembers asking a tech-whiz friend if it would be possible to buy one copy of a movie and make it available for download by his customers via the Internet, instead of having to buy multiple copies. They tried it between their houses, using a dial-up connection. “It took seven days,” laughs Levin. “I parked that idea in the back of my mind and waited for the technology to evolve.”
Evolution in TV has come fast and furious over the last few years, with companies like YouTube and Hulu throwing the traditional model out the window and allowing viewers with a computer to watch their favourite shows on their PC, Mac or smart phone.
For broadcasters, this has ushered in a time of intense handwringing and constant litigation, as they attempt to control, or at least profit from, the new normal. But little thought has been given to what this technology has meant to the expat communities of the world. In Canada, immigrant television viewers have historically been confined to modest offerings from their home country. They may have had a community newspaper and, if they were lucky, a single television station that showed some content from home.
Now, immigrants can instantly access their country’s media on the Web, and they are no longer content with the meagre programming of basic cable. But not everyone wants to watch TV on their computer, and the technological divide is especially pronounced for Canada’s older immigrant population. For them, NexTV offers all the choices of streaming content through the traditional comfort of a TV screen. For $150 plus a monthly subscription fee that ranges from $9.99 to $29.99, depending on the language package, customers—which now number close to 10,000—can order a set-top box that turns their television into a Web portal, allowing them to flick through dozens of channels with a remote control.