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Aboriginal network tests idea of niche TV

Is it just assuaging guilt, or filling a need?

Watching the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) is like watching a combination of PBS educational shows, well-made Masterpiece Theatre dramas, and the local community cable channel.

It's a unique TV experiment, and it's being watched by the rest of the broadcasting world.

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APTN, which began service in Canada Sept. 1, is the first network of its kind in the world. But it faces an uphill battle, and more than a little controversy, as it attempts to create a niche for aboriginal programming in a country where viewers prefer to watch imports like "Ally McBeal" and pro wrestling.

The network features programming that is 90 percent produced in Canada. The rest of the schedule is filled with programs from the United States and Australia. It relies on documentaries from organizations like the National Film Board, but also airs dramas, children's series, cooking shows, and education programs with an aboriginal flavor.

For instance, "Cooking with the Wolfman" features native recipes from award-winning native chef David Wolfman. There are also long broadcasts of community events from native communities across Canada that give APTN a rough-edged, but family-friendly feel.

Meanwhile, APTN president, Abraham Tagalik, keeps very busy these days. Now that Canada's native peoples can share their stories with the rest of the country on a national TV network, Mr. Tagalik needs to find talented producers, actors, and directors, while lobbying the cable systems to give his network good placement among the cable channels.

APTN's roots go back 20 years to the federal government's experiments with the Anik B satellite, which tested services such as TV broadcasting, community communications, and tele-education in regions of northern Canada.

The 1980s saw various attempts to create broadcasting opportunities, but it was the 1991 creation of Television Northern Canada (TVNC) that saw the first unified approach to providing programming to northern communities.

While all cable stations in Canada could have carried TVNC, few did. Then, in 1997, TVNC's board of directors decided it was time to try for a national network. But it was how they decided to do it that has created controversy.

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"We did it more out of necessity...," Tagalik says. "After seven years, our funding base was deteriorating. So we said, 'Let's do it up bigger and go for mandatory coverage.' "

'Positive addition'

There are 799,000 people of aboriginal descent in Canada, and 630 groups that identify themselves as a distinct First Nations people (the term in Canada used to identify North American Indians, Mtis, and Inuit).

While several thousand aboriginal people live in eastern Canada, most live west of the Quebec-New Brunswick border, with the largest concentrations in western Canada.

Tagalik points to several 1998 polls that back his position about changing attitudes in Canada. While support for the network was high among aboriginal people (84 percent), it was also high among other Canadians, with 68 percent indicating that they were willing to pay for such a service, and 80 percent saying they thought APTN would be a "positive addition" to Canadian broadcasting.

But the Canadian Cable Television Association would have no part of it. In an intervention filed with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, the cable-TV association said that while it supported the idea of an aboriginal network, it opposed making the carrying of the channel mandatory.

In February of last year, however, the commission awarded a license for APTN and ordered cable systems to carry the signal.

Not all observers of the Canadian TV scene think APTN will have an easy time.

"In some ways, it's a guilt tax," says John Allemang, the media and television critic for The (Toronto) Globe and Mail. "It's the guilt trip that affects any nation that has an aboriginal heritage. There are lots of ways that you try to deal with that. Spending money, for instance. And spending money on APTN is one way to do it."

And while the network will reach 8 million homes via cable, as well as direct-to-home and wireless-service customers, Mr. Allemang doesn't believe many people will be watching, including native peoples.

"People don't watch TV this way. They would just as soon watch 'Baywatch.' But governments think this way, so we get feel-good bureaucracy."

Room for growth

But Allemang does see an international market for APTN programming, as other countries develop their own aboriginal networks, and because viewers in other countries may find shows on native issues in Canada interesting. (Canada is the second-largest exporter of TV programming in the world, behind the US.) He worries, however, about APTN's quality.

"Right now, its community cable on a national level. There will be a lot of tedious documentaries, perhaps the odd insightful drama or show. It's going to be tough for them, but I do hope it grows."

Currently APTN is accepting proposals from producers in a variety of areas, including news programming, music shows, talk shows, and dramas. While it's not required for producers to be aboriginal people, programs that are either produced by aboriginal companies or feature aboriginal casts or crews will be "looked upon favorably" by the network, according to the network's Web site, www.aptn.ca

APTN's Tagalik is aware of the potential pitfalls. And he knows the battle for acceptance of APTN is far from over: Many cable systems place APTN at the high end of the cable 'dial,' making it difficult to find. Yet he continues to believe in APTN.

"Native people have been pushed down for a long time," he says. "But we are going to come out, be leaders, and make things happen. Especially the young people. Just wait until they get ahold of this."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society