Thank you for this opportunity to be here. I am Jean LaRose, the Chief Executive Officer of APTN.
This year marks APTN's 10th anniversary. Ten years ago, it was difficult to believe that a national aboriginal network could offer 10 hours per day of live Olympic programming across Canada, in high definition, in English, French and up to 8 aboriginal languages. Now, for Vancouver 2010, it is a reality.
Getting ready for the Olympics is a welcome challenge. We are training sports announcers in aboriginal languages—finding new ways to express sporting events in our own languages.
We are training technicians, building sets, and performing behind-the-camera work. We are working in partnership with other host broadcasters to bring Canadians complete coverage of the games. In these games we will reflect all of Canada in a way that has never been done before.
You are hearing a great deal in your committee meetings about how parts of the broadcasting system are broken, but I can tell you that APTN is a success story.
APTN is a national network. We strive to reflect all aboriginal communities—first nations, Inuit, and Métis—and we act as a bridge between aboriginal peoples and the broader Canadian population. We deliver three separate regional feeds directed to the west, the east, and the north of the country, as well as a high-definition feed.
I have distributed to the committee an information package about APTN and our programming.
In 10 years, we have achieved a lot. APTN shows that, thanks to the Broadcasting Act and to the CRTC, the Canadian broadcasting system is strong and contributing to Canada's well-being.
Let me move on to some of the specific themes this committee is examining.
APTN doesn't provide local programming, at least not in the sense discussed at these hearings. But in many cases, our programming has regional and local roots and reflects a particular region or aboriginal group from that region.
Our northern service is the most differentiated of our regional feeds. We currently schedule 40.5 hours each week of distinctive northern programming on this feed. Usually this programming is in Inuktitut or other aboriginal languages spoken in northern communities. This is a different way of looking at local programming. Programming that reflects Nunavut and Nunavik is local, from our point of view, even though the communities it serves are spread out over a region that represents a large percentage of Canada's land mass.
APTN licenses this programming from our general revenues. These revenues come from the subscription fees earned from broadcast distribution undertakings in southern Canada and from advertising. The northern broadcasting societies receive additional funding for this programming from the Government of Canada through the northern aboriginal broadcasting program. Funding for the societies through that program has not changed for many years. As a result, the societies have not been able to stay current with technology and increased production costs.
We are working with the societies to develop their technical and production capacities, which will result in new programming, aimed at the youth population of the region as well as the rest of the young aboriginal peoples in Canada.
We are using other mechanisms to generate production revenues for those programs. In addition to northern local programming, APTN regularly broadcasts programming that reflects other particular aboriginal communities throughout Canada on a regular basis. All of our programming now comes from aboriginal producers or aboriginal-owned or controlled production companies.
In the past, APTN has expressed concern about the disruptive impact the fee-for-carriage proposal could have on the broadcasting system. Our concern has been based on two main factors.
First, a fee for carriage could increase materially the cost of the basic level of service. The basic level of service already costs many subscribers more than $300 per year. Affordability is therefore an issue. You should be under no illusion: the BDUs will aggressively market this fee as a tax on consumers.
Second, we are concerned about the impact on the Canadian broadcasting system as a whole if access to the system is made more expensive for Canadians, especially at this time, when the entire system is facing competition from the unregulated new media sector. Increasing the cost of access could turn Canadians off Canadian broadcasting just when their enthusiastic participation is most needed.
If policy makers elect to follow the fee-for-carriage route direct attention should be paid to the question of the affordability of the basic level of service—and how to make the new fee a "win-win" for consumers. APTN has proposed, in the past, a "Made in Canada" basic service package, smaller and mandated by the CRTC to ensure that Canadian programming remains affordable and available to all Canadians.
This approach, coupled with more consumer selection of digital channels—rather than the "all-you-can-eat" packaging approach that is now so popular, and expensive—could be one way forward.
APTN is ahead of the industry in phasing out our analog technology. Four years ago we concluded that it would not make economic sense to continue to maintain and upgrade our network of terrestrial transmitters across the North.
At the same time, we know that APTN has a history of over-the-air service in the north and an important role to play in the preservation of aboriginal languages. The delivery of APTN to all northern residents will be continued. With the assistance of the Department of Canadian Heritage, we developed an innovative approach. We entered into agreements with a satellite DTH service, Bell ExpressVu, and with local cable operators and cable communities to make sure that all residents now served by analog transmitters will still be able to receive APTN's northern service without any charge through their satellite or cable distributor. We are rolling out this program in smaller communities across the north. Through this program, APTN North will be made available to northern residents as a free service. No resident is required to obtain any additional level of service from a distributor to continue to receive APTN. I don't know whether a comparable program would work in southern regions for southern broadcasters, but the program is working for us.
The Government of Canada has played a direct role in supporting aboriginal broadcasting for a long time.
The Northern Aboriginal Broadcasting Program supports the northern broadcasting societies. As I stated earlier, funding for this initiative has been static for the last 15 years or so. The northern distribution program has funded infrastructure costs to deliver APTN North across the North—this is the program that has allowed APTN to begin the transition from our analog over-the-air network.
This program is being phased out along with our analog infrastructure, as of March 2010. There are, and have been, no similar programs for aboriginal peoples in the south. APTN does not receive direct funding from the government to support our operations or our national mandate. We do obtain licence fee and equity funding through the Canada Media Fund, which supports independent production, generally, and is not focused on "local" programming, as such.
At this point, it is difficult to say whether the recently announced changes to the Canada Media Fund will hurt or further aboriginal programming, and regionally focused programming in particular. A great deal will depend on the details. For now, let me just say that one of the stated goals of the fund is to reward programs that, to quote from the Department of Canadian Heritage's backgrounder, “...have achieved and demonstrated the most potential to achieve success, in terms of audience and return on investment”.
I just want to point out that the audience in Iqaluit is not the same as the audience in the greater Toronto area. The potential return from these audiences is obviously not comparable. It is a real question for us whether smaller audiences in Iqaluit, Thompson, or even Regina and Winnipeg, for example, will be given the same kind of weight as an audience in Toronto when funding decisions are made.
We are also concerned about the focus on hit programs, which may not lead to the kind of innovation and risk-taking in programming that is required. What may be a hit for an aboriginal audience may not be with any other demographic in Canada. Will that make it any less of a hit?
With respect to the CRTC's new local programming improvement fund, APTN will not be eligible for the fund. LPIF funds are not likely to find their way to support local aboriginal programming. I'm not criticizing the LPIF fund; I'm just pointing out that it was not intended to support local aboriginal programming, and it won't.
I thank the committee for this time. I hope I stuck to my 10 minutes. I would welcome any questions later.