The challenge of niche: APTN’s quest for brand buy-in

The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network struggles to draw brands despite its increasingly urban and national viewership.

In a series being rolled out over the summer months, MiC takes a look into the world of ethnic and native TV programming. As the CRTC mandates basic skinny packages, and advertisers explore multi-platform rewards, how will these networks fare? 

Three and a half decades ago, a CRTC committee sat down to consider a proposal: the northern aboriginal community wanted its own media outlet, and given aboriginal Canadian history, the committee noted the urgency of supporting northern, native-produced programming.  The committee’s recommendations led to the Northern Broadcasting Policy in 1983, and eventually, Television Northern Canada, or TVNC, was born.

That network eventually re-branded as the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN), winning regulatory approval to become a national broadcaster of cultural relevance. Today, 16 years later, the network is still seeking brand attention. Why the challenge? Perspectives differ on either side of the ad sales world. Those on the sales side believe a combination of factors – negative reporting about the aboriginal community, small budgets and brands’ failure to see opportunity – is responsible for low national ad revenue. But speak to people on the buy side and they offer too-small numbers, and failure-to-reach a demo they can access through other sources as reasons why they won’t invest in APTN.

Let’s Talk TV regulatory changes won’t affect APTN much, as the channel will be included in the skinny basic packageIn 2014, the network generated revenues of $43 million, according to CRTC’s recently released specialty report. But APTN pulls in a fraction of the ad revenue of mainstream specialty channels. In 2014 APTN’s national advertising revenue was only $2.4 million. By way of a simple comparison, Bell Media’s specialty channel Space brought in $26.5 million.

On paper, APTN offers good promise. It’s a 24-hour programming space that delivers content in English, French and aboriginal languages and has mandatory carriage. The channel has national reach with the capacity to reach 90% of Canadian households with TV, which means 11 million households – however, only half a million of those households are aboriginal, according to CRTC subscription data, provided by the channel.

Yet, speak to Kevin Haggith, director, sales at Airtime, who has been outsourced by the network to increase its ad revenue, and has been working with APTN for over a decade. The national reach hasn’t resulted in the kind of ad revenue he’d like to see. “People have these assumptions that all aboriginals are living on reservations and are supported by the government…but young aboriginal Canadians are no different from other Canadian youth.”

He ascribes part of the problem to news reporting on the aboriginal community, and the Canadian misconceptions about aboriginal youth. “If you look at the programming on TV on aboriginals, some of it is good but we still only see the negative stories and the sadness. The average aboriginal youth is a Tim Hortons-drinking, jeans-wearing young person not a homeless person sitting on the streets begging for money.”

Despite this challenge, Haggith says the network’s viewership is growing. Its weekly cumulative reach is up 17% in 2014 over the same period in 2013 according to Numeris data released by the company, and the daily average AMA for Canadians over 18 years is up 16% during primetime for the same period. The network’s website traffic has also increased but none of this may be good enough for buyers looking to reach differentiated audiences to sell their clients’ brands.

The network doesn’t even reach who it aimed to reach in the past, says Laurie-Lynne Ungurain, director, trading at Maxus. “They got off to the right start but then they abandoned the business model. Instead of being the by, for and about [the aboriginal community], they are trying to get a wider audience.”

Part of the challenge is broadcasting to aboriginal youth – the networks average audience age is 27 years – many of whom may be less familiar with native languages.

The network currently broadcasts 56% of its programming in English, 16% in French and 28% in aboriginal languages with English subtitling.

The fact that the channel broadcasts mainly in English is part of the problem according to Ungurain, who questions why advertisers would be compelled to invest in the channel if much of its content is similar to other, larger-audience channels

“If you fast-forward from 1992,” she says “they [still] only have 28% programming [in aboriginal languages], so clearly there isn’t a need.”

Back in 1992, in its pre-APTN avatar, the channel was focused largely on the northern aboriginal communities, and like CBC North primarily broadcast in native languages. However, in its nation-wide rebranding the channel has tried to reach a wider community, in particular urban aboriginal youth. Its one reason why advertising packages for APTN North can be separated from the network’s other stations.

This is still the core of its mission, says Haggith: to be a voice for aboriginal people. “With loosened programming guidelines and regulations many broadcasters in Canada are looking to strengthen their schedules with programming to draw the largest audiences possible. When viewers tune into blockbuster movies with star power or award winning shows like Wentworth it gives us, at APTN,  the opportunity to promote our other offerings and have the audience spend more time with the network  and build our audiences.”

APTN is the world’s first aboriginal programming station, and its survival has partly been dependent on CRTC regulations that give it access to the national Canadian television audience. After all, the report that advocated for aboriginal programming – the Therrien Report - suggested simplifying licensing and regulatory procedures in the northern and remote areas and to provide opportunities for native-produced programming to substitute the domination of programming from the country’s south.

From a present-day perspective there are population factors to consider as well.

Growth in the aboriginal population is significantly higher than among other groups - 45% compared to the national average of 8% between 1996 and 2006 according to StatsCan. But even these robust growth rates don’t alter the fact that, when paired against national numbers, the aboriginal population is pretty small. Total aboriginal population, which includes First Nation, Métis and the Inuit, is expected to reach about 1.4 million in 2017, up from 1.1 million in 2006, against the current national population estimate of over 35.7 million.

The challenge is partly a numerical one. Buyers see APTN as a specialty channel reaching a niche audience that they’re able to target through other venues. The network sees itself as a national player and wants more national brand commitments, more big blue chip accounts. “APTN is still trying to sell its story to the national ad agency world,” says Haggith. One of its biggest national sponsors to date was Kraft General Foods, and the network would like to see the presence of more national consumer brands like Tim Horton’s and Walmart Canada.

Advertising is available to cover the network’s entire coverage across APTN HD, APTN East, APTN West and APTN North but is also exclusively available to reach APTN North, where CBC North is the channel’s only competition.

There are also additional ad revenue challenges. The network is governed by a board that restricts certain kind of advertising, specifically with regard to alcohol and gambling. “We had accounts with players who had really classy creative, asking us how they could get involved with us but we had to shut them down.”

Those realities aside, the network’s programming hasn’t always been the most creative.

“If you look at the schedule, it is not even second-run, it’s old,” says Ungrain. “They could probably promote a little bit better as being the aboriginal station for Canada.”

Under the stewardship of Jean LaRose, who heads the network’s board, much of this is evolving, says Haggith.

“The programming has changed. The graphics are as good or better than most of what is out there. The movie titles have gone beyond the genre of what we would think of as ‘cowboys and Indians.’” APTN recently bought the rights for Wentworth, an Australian prison-based series that is critically acclaimed. It’s best programming still revolves around news at six, which is national news show with relevant aboriginal news that is recorded in the network’s Winnepeg head office.

Moreover, the network claims that over 81% of adult aboriginal viewership tunes in to watch the network on a regular basis. It has shows that could reach a wider audience like Digital Drum, and a comedy show, Caution: May Contain Nuts, both of which are APTN staples, even if there aren’t enough numbers to prove it.

Aboriginal numbers do not appear in the research, according to Haggith, as traditional surveys do not reach out to aboriginal areas.

That audience remains APTN’s focus. “However, in an ever-changing broadcast landscape, we know it is imperative that we try to strengthen our audience numbers in an effort to reach all Canadians, especially as we move into a ‘pick and pay’ world.”

In February 2015, the broadcaster hired Loop Media to refresh its brand image and help it reach out to a younger audience. The refresh will be rolled out at the start of the channel’s 2015/16 season.

Meanwhile, Haggith hopes that he can pull in ad revenue and change mindsets around the network’s reach. “With over 80%  of the aboriginal audience tuning into APTN each week , the often unduplicated audience is a fresh opportunity to potentially reach new customers. Isn’t that what were all really all in this business to do?”