Diversity or Fragmentation? Aboriginal Broadcasting as Public Service Broadcasting

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Diversity or Fragmentation? Aboriginal Broadcasting as

Public Service Broadcasting”
Marian Bredin

Assistant Professor

Department of Communications, Popular Culture and Film

Brock University
Paper presented at

Public Service Broadcasting Beyond 2000:

Serving the Public in a Digital Age.

June 10, 2000

Banff Centre, Banff, Alberta

Nine months ago the world’s first national television network to be owned, controlled and programmed entirely by indigenous people was launched in Winnipeg, Canada. In examining the brief history of this undertaking, its policy precedents and its cultural significance, I want above all to consider the implications of the new Aboriginal People’s Television Network for the future of public service broadcasting. How is a national television network, whose delivery to 8 million basic cable subscribers was made mandatory by the federal regulator under specific provisions in the Broadcasting Act, to be situated in the Canadian system? This non-profit corporation with clearly mandated public service objectives is seen by policy-makers, First Nations peoples and Canadians in general as fulfilling key requirements not only of broadcast legislation, but as meeting the need for cultural and political change laid out by the 1990-‘96 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. In this paper I will suggest that the advent of this small and as yet unformed new network requires a radical re-conception of public broadcasting in Canada. APTN is a unique entity in the political economy of Canadian media and, I will argue, might most productively be seen as a model for the diversification of the public sphere.

I will begin by quickly mapping out the international and national development of indigenous media. I will identify key elements of native broadcasting policy and practice in Canada, but will focus primarily on a critical examination of policy processes leading up to Television Northern Canada’s (TVNC) successful application for a national network in 1998. I will make some preliminary comments about how the network has made the transition from northern to national coverage and from primarily Aboriginal to mixed audiences and its function as a catalyst for the consolidation of a Native film and television industry.

Indigenous media are characterized by Donald R. Browne (1996:4) as those forms of electronic communication controlled by minority groups who are the original or prehistoric occupants of colonized lands. In Canada and in other nations with significant ‘fourth world’ populations like the US, Australia and New Zealand, Scandinavia and several Central and South American countries, indigenous media emerged in the mid-1970's in concert with broader movements toward political rights, land entitlement and cultural autonomy for minority and indigenous groups. The most predominant form of indigenous media is community-based broadcast undertakings in radio and occasionally TV, stations which are now linked by international organizations like AMARC, national advocacy groups like the Indigenous Communication Association in the US and networks like AIROS , Native American Public Broadcasting Consortium or the Mana Maori Media in New Zealand. In Australia a regional community radio group, CAAMA (Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association) made a successful bid for a commercial satellite television channel in 1989 – though ultimately the station (Imparja) carried a very small amount of Aboriginal-produced programming. What many of these very local, regional and national indigenous media have in common is an emphasis on giving voice to indigenous peoples silenced throughout periods of colonial domination. This process involved the critical revision of colonial histories but also a revitalization of indigenous languages and cultures. Indigenous media have not, by and large, participated in the commercial exploitation of broadcasting, rather they have fulfilled a social need for communication among and between marginalised minorities. The connection between indigenous media and cultural identities is complex and over-determined and is clearly beyond the scope of my paper today. Ultimately though, the cultural impetus of Aboriginal broadcasting is what makes its contribution to public service broadcasting in Canada and elsewhere so important.

Native broadcasting policy and practice in Canada has a venerable history as the subject of a whole generation of communication research. Studies by Heather Hudson, Gail Valaskakis, Valerie Alia and Lorna Roth form the background upon which many of my arguments today are founded, but to which I can unfortunately only give passing reference. Canada has an extremely well-developed native broadcasting sector, one that is largely unrecognized and almost entirely supported by non-profit organizations and unpaid labour. By native broadcasting I am referring only to those undertakings owned and controlled by Aboriginal people, though clearly other public broadcasters do carry native programming. The CBC especially has a Northern service which reaches 500, 000 people and employs 50 Aboriginal staff. At last count (1997) Canada had 143 native community radio stations licensed by the CRTC. Many of these stations are the only local radio service in remote First Nations communities and program predominantly in native languages on topics of community concern. Thirteen regional native communications societies operate in the northern provinces and territories and receive some public funds for radio and television programming ($7.9 million in 1999) under the Northern Native Broadcast Access Program. (NNBAP). Some of these groups operate radio networks (Wawatay Radio Network in NW Ontario links 50 community stations), eight of these regional societies produce television programming. Prior to 1992 native television production was distributed to local audiences on the basis of ad hoc, unstable and largely unsatisfactory agreements with existing networks such as the CBC or TV Ontario. In 1992 the CRTC licenced a consortium of native communications societies and northern educational institutions to operate a dedicated northern native satellite transponder -- Television Northern Canada (TVNC). Concurrently the federal government established the Northern Distribution Program to fund TVNC operations – funding which today comes to about $2.1 million

TVNC was the immediate ancestor of APTN, but at this point I will undertake a more focussed analysis of the policy history and objectives, public and private stakeholders, and the regulatory mechanisms relevant to this organizational evolution. As I’ve already suggested, Canada has made an ongoing if at times inconsistent public commitment to native broadcasting. The funding programs and policies in place fall under a number of jurisdictions. The federal Department of Communications -- now Canadian Heritage, administered early northern native satellite experiments, and sponsored, along with Department of Indian and Northern Affairs and the Secretary of State, the first Northern Broadcasting Policy statement in 1983. The Secretary of State initiated the now defunct Native Communications Program and administers the NNBAP program. The federal DOC supervised the revision of Canada’s Broadcasting Act between 1986 and 1991 by establishing a major Task Force on Broadcasting Policy which tabled a 500 page report to Parliament for discussion by a Standing Committee on Communications and Culture. This Committee subsequently produced its own voluminous reports, and throughout this period of public debate, the significance of community and native broadcasting became a persistent theme. Canadian Heritage funded TVNC through the Northern Distribution Program and at one point in the last few years was attempting to consolidate various funding programs under one aboriginal controlled entity. The CRTC first engaged in policy direction in this area in 1980 by establishing the Therrien Committee on communications in northern and remote communities. The regulator consolidated its Native Broadcasting Policy in 1990, licenced TVNC in 1992, offered licence exemptions for some native community radio stations in 1998, licenced APTN in 1999 and is currently reviewing its policy in this entire area.

From this thumbnail sketch of policy initiatives in native broadcasting, one begins to sense the potentially contradictory interests at work in the policy formulations alone. Identifying the actors and stakeholders in the development of Aboriginal media further demonstrates the even greater potential for conflicts. Of course Aboriginal people themselves have an enormous stake in the creation and control of media outlets. But this is by no means a homogeneous or unified interest. There are 600 First Nations in Canada, characterized by linguistic and cultural commonalities in specific regions, divided by constitutional distinctions between Indian Inuit and Metis and legislative definitions of treaty status or non-status under the Indian Act. Within this already diverse group exist differences of geographical situation, remote, rural and urban communities, gender and age, degree of social and political activity and cultural engagement. Within the sphere of native media alone are distinctions between the NNBAP funded societies entirely in the north, and relatively underfunded native radio and TV undertakings in southern parts of Canada. Some aboriginal media producers work within existing public agencies like the CBC, the National Film Board and the provincial televison authorities, others are commercially viable independent producers, and others still work within media arts and educational venues in universities and colleges, urban artist-run centres, the Aboriginal Film and Video Alliance, the Banff Centre’s Aboriginal Arts program, etc. We can also locate stakeholders in this process among other members of the broadcasting industry: public sector and commercial TV networks, the cable industry and specialty TV licensees and satellite. During the public hearings and interventions in APTN’s licencing process, a variety of conflicts and contradictions came to the fore -- all of which had to be skilfully negotiated before a national Aboriginal television network could become a public fact.

I would focus on three key sources for the public policy objectives realized by the creation of APTN. The first and most apparent is the 1991 Broadcasting Act itself which explicitly recognizes that the Canadian television system, through its programming and employment opportunities, should reflect the circumstances and aspirations of all Canadians, as well as the multicultural and multiracial nature of Canadian society and the special place of Aboriginal peoples in that society. Further the Act specifically recognizes that "programming that reflects the Aboriginal cultures of Canada should be provided within the Canadian broadcasting system as resources become available for the purpose". The second objective underpinning this process was articulated in a more obscure source, a 1997 directive from Cabinet to the CRTC that it consider additional national television networks. After brief consultations, the CRTC’s report back to the Government recognized that:

TVNC is a unique and significant undertaking serving the public interest and the objectives of the Broadcasting Act, especially those objectives that relate to the special place of Aboriginal peoples within Canadian society. Such a service should be widely available throughout Canada in order to serve the diverse needs of the various Aboriginal communities, as well as other Canadians. The Commission will consider any application by TVNC designed to achieve these objectives.
The third policy goal to which APTN responded was expressed in the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People’s recommendation in its final report that Aboriginal people should achieve greater media access and independence, and explicitly that a third national broadcasting network be created which would supply both radio and television programming to sustain Aboriginal languages and cultures.

Acting on all of these publically articulated objectives, TVNC submitted a final draft of its licence application to the CRTC in June 1998. In the process, the existing board of directors established an advisory group of southern Aboriginal media producers, conducted extensive polls and focus groups to test the public willingness to support such a project, and created a business plan that would require the least amount of revenue from cable fees while ensuring the viability and quality of a national network As a precedent, TVNC made reference to the application of TVA, the Quebec French-language commercial network which was licenced for mandatory national cable carriage in October 1998, but on the whole charted its own path to making national and international broadcasting history.

Distribute APTN fact sheet.


The public response to APTN’s application and the mandatory carriage order which resulted was generally positive, the industry response was less so. Market research showed that 86% of cable subscribers would be willing to pay for the service even if they didn’t think they would watch it. The CRTC received several hundred letters of support for the network and the public hearings in Ottawa in November 1998 were highly uncharacteristic of the CRTC’s usually dry procedural mode and instead marked a celebration of Aboriginal cultural achievements and aspirations. Cable industry representatives resisted the mandatory carriage order, largely because analogue channels are now scarce and in some cases carriage of APTN meant that a more profitable channel would have to be removed. The CBC rejected mandatory carriage as well on the argument that it was already making a substantial contribution to Aboriginal programming, and like the cable providers was more inclined to see APTN as a minority interest specialty service rather than a full-fledged public service broadcaster.
Conclusion: Unique features of APTN and implications for public broadcasting policy

  • APTN fulfills the public service and cultural objectives of the Act (public broadcasting)

  • APTN is constituted as a not-for-profit, native controlled entity (native broadcasting)

  • Mandatory carriage and collection of subscription fees ensure the economic viability of the network (speciality commercial broadcasting)

  • APTN will generate independent and regional program production (growth of Canadian industry)

APTN is a unique hybrid that embodies all the elements of Canada’s mixed broadcast economy and under the so-called ‘single system’. It has clear public service objectives, which are enshrined in legislation. It provides national distribution for locally and regionally produced programming which makes a singular contribution to Canadian cultural and national identity. It is a not-for-profit undertaking which relies on minimal (less that $6 million) direct public funding - (the NDP funds which will end in 2001 and the $3.5 million from NNBAP which goes to TV production.) APTN relies on small subscriber fee revenues – $ .15 per month per residential subscriber -- compared say to the fees initially charged by CBC Newsworld (~1.00) and CTV’s SportsNet, part owned by Rogers cable (.80). Finally, APTN will create very little of its own in-house programming, thus triggering substantial potential growth in the independent Aboriginal film and video sector. If as was pointed out by Steve Martin in APTN’s acquisitions department, APTN pays out licence fees equalling 20% of production costs, the network’s initial investment of $6 million in independent programming in Year 1 alone could generate about $30 million worth of production in this sector. Of course the other 80% of production costs will have to come from other sources - some public, like Telefilm and the Canadian Television Fund for which Aboriginal producers will need to compete, local economic development projects in native communities and band council support, and private sources such as co-production, syndication or international sales.

APTN has primarily been viewed as a unique case and an exception, but we might more productively see it as a new model for culturally and economically diversified public service broadcasting. In some respects the regulator has stepped in to fill a policy vacuum. The CRTC has put in place a limited means of financial support for a channel which is, in effect, mandated by the Broadcasting Act’s objectives relating to the special place of Aboriginal peoples within Canadian society. Despite the enshrinement of First People’s access to broadcast channels in legislation, the implementation of this goal has never clearly been mapped out by policy-makers and regulators. The creation of APTN calls for a more cogent argument for a fully diversified public service broadcasting sector in the digital era. Aboriginal broadcasters provide an important public forum from which all Canadians can benefit. The need to direct a fair and secure share of public resources toward this national undertaking must be recognized if Aboriginal voices, like Canadian voices in general, are not to be further marginalised in this period of technological and economic convergence and audience fragmentation.



  • APTN is a mandatory service and is available to nearly 8 million households with cable in Canada. APTN can also be seen on Canadian direct to home and wireless service providers, including ExpressVu, Star Choice and Look TV.

  • APTN is aimed at both aboriginal and non aboriginal audiences with programming to interest all viewers: children’s animation, youth shows, cultural and traditional programming, music, drama, dance, news and current affairs, as well as live coverage of special events and interactive programming.

  • The majority of APTN programming is uplinked from our Winnipeg studio and presentation centre. A smaller portion of programming is also generated from our Yellowknife presentation centre. All programming, except news and live events, originates with independent aboriginal producers from across the country and around the world. This gives APTN an eclectic and exciting flavour.

  • APTN is led by a 21 member aboriginal Board of Directors from all regions of Canada.

  • APTN boasts 90% Canadian content. The remaining 10% of the schedule can be filled with indigenous programming from around the world, including the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and Central and South America.

  • APTN broadcasts approximately 60% of its programs in English, 15% in French and 25% in a variety of aboriginal languages.

  • APTN news and live programming is scheduled to begin January 2000.APTN revenues for the first year of programming are estimated at $15 million. This amount will increase with additional advertising revenue.

  • APTN is a television network that has evolved from Television Northern Canada, an aboriginal television network that broadcast northern and aboriginal programming from the Yukon to northern Labrador since 1991.

  • APTN received a license from the CRTC in February, 1999 and the launch date for the network is September 1, 1999.

For more information, please contact Jennifer David, Director of Communications 1 888 278 8862, ext. 222

Unique Features of APTN

Implications for Public Service Broadcasting

  • APTN fulfils the public service and cultural objectives of the 1991 Broadcasting Act (public broadcasting)

  • APTN is constituted as a not-for-profit, Aboriginal controlled entity (native broadcasting)

  • Mandatory carriage and collection of subscription fees ensure the economic viability of the network (commercial speciality channel)

  • APTN will generate independent and regional program production (growth of Canadian industry)

  • APTN is a unique hybrid that embodies all the elements of Canada’s mixed broadcast economy in its ‘single system’.

  • APTN presents a new model for culturally and economically diversified public service broadcasting.

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