APTN Not Ready for Prime TIme
- April 1, 2000
�Aboriginal TV not ready for prime time
(C) Toronto Star of April 1, 2000
Its theme song could be a rewrite of the 1970s Helen Reddy hit: I am
aboriginal, hear me roar.
The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) may be roaring, but
few people are listening.
Native voices insisted they needed and wanted a TV network of their
own - and that non-aboriginals would learn much from it.
Needed, certainly. But wanted? There's little sign of that.
APTN - the only national TV network of its kind in North America -
been on the air since Sept. 1 and is available in about eight-million
households across Canada.
But more people attend rock concerts or sporting events on a given
night than watch an entire APTN program. Not even aboriginals are
giving it much time.
According to Nielsen ratings, 150,000 viewers watch some portion of
But what counts most for advertisers is the number of viewers who
from start to finish and Nielsen reports only 2,000 to 18,000 viewers
watch complete shows on APTN.
Surprisingly, ``daytime (viewing) is larger for us than prime time,''
says the network's chief executive officer, Abraham Tagalik, from
APTN's Ottawa head office. ``We do cultural shows and people want
entertainment in the evening.''
But APTN's few entertainment shows also rate low.
My favourite is Cookin' With The Wolfman (Saturday at 8:30 p.m. and
repeated in the daytime), with zesty Ontario-based chef/host, David
Wolfman, preparing moose, venison roast, salmon, paella and lobster.
The show, which would be at home on any other channel, was drawing
about 14,000 viewers, but has dropped to between 2,000 and 5,000.
APTN's highest score came three weeks ago when 250,000 viewers tuned
in to a Friday-night showing of the Indian-themed movie, Medicine
``If we were easily influenced by ratings as a sole measure of
success,'' Jim Compton, APTN's program director based in Winnipeg,
says, ``we would air wrestling programs and The Simpsons.
``Our consultants tell us not to worry.''
Watching APTN for several weeks, I expected to learn about aboriginal
life and to be drawn into the real-life stories it tells.
Instead, what I got was the equivalent of a small-community,
With $6 million earmarked for programming, the network broadcasts 60
per cent of its programs in English, 15 per cent in French and 25 per
cent in one of several aboriginal languages.
Programming can be divided into three categories: snatches of 1940s
and '50s documentaries with stereotypical images of dumb, dancing
Indians; instructions to respect the elders; and superficial
conversations with Indians who've made it (a British Columbia female
judge and an NHL assistant coach).
APTN has no programs documenting the raw side of life today from the
aboriginal point of view - for example, the terrible endemic
conditions of communities such as Davis Inlet.
Neither are there updates on compensation claims relating to
residential school abuse and the battle of the East-Coast fishery.
Compton agrees that most of the programs are old and soft. But he
still blames the federal broadcast regulator (the Canadian
Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission), for not making
APTN more widely available in the north.
The CRTC, to the fury of Rogers and Shaw, demanded that all cable TV
companies with more than 2,000 subscribers carry APTN and pay for it.
Eighty-five per cent of APTN's $18 million annual budget comes from
these cable-subscriber fees. (Another 6 per cent comes from
advertisers, most of whom offer products like slicers, dicers or
record compilations available from toll-free numbers).
Many northern communities are served by cable companies with fewer
than 2,000 subscribers. So, unless they have satellite service, they
do not get APTN.
Tagalik says two new shows will rectify the weak programming:
a weekly talk show about topical issues that began last Thursday at 3
p.m., and a weekly newscast to start April 16. A daily newscast is
planned for this fall. ``We're looking for flagship shows,'' he says.
Compton explains that the rush to get on air was overwhelming and the
programming reflects this.
``We should have started in January, not last September,'' says
Compton. ``We're only just getting going.''
``We knew we couldn't do everything at once,'' adds Tagalik. ``We had
to buy on-the-shelf shows from CBC, CTV and the National Film Board.
We need aboriginal producers and directors.
``But I don't think I'm in the least disappointed. The presentation