Aboriginal Peoples Television Network is asking Canada's broadcast regulator to keep its signal on basic cable and bump its subscriber fee so it can keep up with higher costs and commission more television shows for the channel.
Chief executive officer Jean Larose explained why he would like to see his funding increased to 40 cents per subscriber (from 25 cents), how his network handles controversial news in its own community and why its charitable status ensures accountability in this interview.
What happens if you don't get your guaranteed slot on basic?
We may get someone to carry us wholesale, but it would be put in a package people may or may not want. We expect we'd go from 11 million subscribers and drop to 3 million. At that level of revenue, we become nothing more than an aggregator of previously made content. It would basically be the end of aboriginal programming in Canada. We'd have to ask if there's any reason to exist anymore. 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."
Why do you think APTN is important?
When we started this there were very few aboriginal producers because they had very few opportunities. Notwithstanding members who had government funding in the north, in the south you had five or six aboriginal producers and very few outlets. So when we launched we started developing production communities, started developing the opportunity to do a range of programming but the cost of programming has shot up dramatically. A series like Blackstone has a $5-million licence. CBC Arctic Air's licence is $25-million. We think we're doing a really good production for less than what others are doing.
You can't do that with the $35-million you're already getting?
All of these demands are pushing us to a level where we can't keep doing what we're doing with the revenues we have, much less expand on what we're doing. Young people are all on smartphones, on the Web. Idle No More showed them they could start exchanging ideas about controlling their destinies and moving forward. A lot of them turned to us and started sending us information about events. The community turned to us a lot.
Does that translate into viewers?
In December and January, our usual number of hits on the Web is 300-400K. We shot up to 12 million. That's total digital presence. For us that's huge – what it demonstrated is young people are turning off the TV part but still using us to a fill a need for information and to share what's happening in their community and what's happening to it.
Interestingly enough, events have proven what we anticipated – the next wave of growth for APTN is exactly what happened. But again, in order to do the VOD for schools, to build digital drum.ca website to allow young people to exchange, upload videos and stories, create blogs, we want to give them those opportunities. Right now we can do on it on Facebook, but a lot of them expressed interest something connected to their communities and for them APTN is the logical site to do it.
OK, so why more money?
All of these things require a higher subscriber fee. We've been trying for years to build advertising revenue to hopefully over time become less dependent on subscriber fees and more on advertising. But the problem we face is the BBM system doesn't measure our audience at all. Only Canada. For years they've told us they don't have any aboriginal people in their sample site. The ratings we get are of Canadians watching – we're not top of mind for the average Canadian viewer. They don't tune into APTN. So, our ratings numbers aren't reflective of our actual viewership. So we share all of our air time data to advertisers, who think we are a very good way to reach that community. But because our numbers are so low because of viewership measurement they can undercut and they can make demands.
But you always have ads?
All of our airtime is sold – you'll see the same ads as elsewhere. But when we turn to them and show them focus groups and surveys to show we have a quarter million viewers, but BBM says we have 50,000, they say good luck. 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. .Until that changes or something else happens that dramatically increases our viewership we're in this mode. We're thinking about maybe trying to find some sponsors for some programs to pick up part of licence costs. But that takes a while to develop, so we have to rely on subscriber fees.
But how do you convince Canadians that their money is well spent?
We can't meet our licence conditions with current revenues. We just can't. We have 11 bureaus across the country, three of them in Northern Canada where price of operating is expectedly high. In Toronto you can jump in a car go down to a story for 80 bucks of gas and you're done. There it's an $8000 expedition per person – shooter, editor, reporter. But we're mandated, that's what we have to do.
It all adds to cost, we've been very frugal in how spend money. One of the stories I'm fond of telling is years ago I pushed my staff to buy Westjet all the time – every Thursday there is a seat sale. Last year the CFO did an analysis how much saved over three years something like $600,000 versus had we flown regular fare When you look at it that way, we're always very careful that basically the money that Canadians are providing through subscriber fees is good value.
It's only a few bucks a year, but some people would rather keep it than spend it on something they don't watch.
Canadians may not watch us, but I don't think they should be fearful that we're taking their money and using it to spread around and toss it in the wind. We've built an industry that didn't exist, with 115 producers that employs 500-600 people in full-time jobs that didn't exist before. We're covering news stories that nobody would have picked up. Bruce Carson, residential schools. I don't think Canadians object to having news brought to light.
But again, how do you justify the whole thing if you can't get viewership higher?
We think we can do backflips to try and justify it – some people will always be opposed. Look at the interventions – lots of people think there shouldn't be any mandatory carriage. None of them object to us, they don't like mandatory carriage. I haven't seen a letter that says "these guys suck, pull it off the air because it's propaganda.
The owners of Vision TV say that the vertical integration rules have made it so independents can't compete with the likes of Bell Media and Rogers Media without this sort of help. Agree?
I do, if only because if you look at how these specialities channels are all owned by larger players. If I'm a big player and I own a channel –and also have a cable arm to distribute it – what kind of a business would I be running if I didn't put my own stuff on first? They are there to run a profit.
You aren't, right?
We are a charity. The Sun has mocked us for that, but it's a benefit. The rules we have to operate with are very stringent, there's a lot of disclosure. I think for all of those out there who point at aboriginals and say if you give us 20 cents we'll blow 19 on ourselves, I can point to the fact that as a charity even if tried couldn't get away with it.
And you don't get government funding?
A lot of people approach me and say how lucky I am to receive funding. We used to get some from Heritage, but I wanted out from under that. I told them "I don't think you want to invest $120-milion north so what I'd like to do is allow us to use some of that money for transition program – provide satellite dishes to those who want APTN." They agreed and that's it for that.
How do you ensure you're not a cheerleader for your community when something like Idle No More happens?
In my mind, the issue of objectivity is to make sure we were not becoming the reposter or news carrier of a strict point of view or becoming voice of movement. For reporters and others, I insisted whatever they retweeted was a news items. Every other outlet would do that. I didn't want them to be saying this event at that place to blast out for everyone to come – that wasn't our role.
We did everything we could to stay as objective and detached as we could but fact remains it's our community. There's no way we could ignore it, we picked it up way before mainstream. But we did very well maintaining a professional detachment from it – maybe there were a couple of tweets where reporters got carried away but look at people reporting from Egypt who got caught up in effervescence of the moment. Our guys are no different.
Our community doesn't like when we turn light on them any more than anyone else, but we do it in the in name of fair journalism. You can't give everyone a get out of jail card.