Black Market

Do African Canucks have the consumer clout to see ourselves on TV?

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media hounds monitoring televisionland’s colour code are getting fed up with poring through mounds of bureaucratic ink, parsing dense annual equity reports and hearing pro-diversity suit-and-tie-speak. Most wanna see themselves represented in front of and behind the scenes in TV-Land. And they’re getting impatient.When FLOW 93.5 FM launched a year ago last February after a 12-year-long skirmish with the CRTC to diversify the radio airwaves, it created a spate of new expectations in the black/urban media community for Canadian-based black-themed programming. But over a year later, no one can decide where the next breakthrough will come from.

Many are monitoring CTV and Global to watch for changes following the CRTC directive last August that the two networks diversify. My little sampling of Global suggests there’s a long way to go (see sidebar). Others insist it’s time to take a pass on the mega-networks and stake out some turf on the new digital channels.

But everyone agrees, the problem of representation in Canada goes beyond the good intentions of broadcasters — nasty as this is, blacks’ media visibility is dependent on the extent to which African Canadians and this ambiguous “urban” audience can turn themselves into a major consumer bloc.

Former long-time CBC staffer Hamlin Grange is co-hosting a conference in mid-May called Innoversity, a meet aimed at letting multiculti TV pros pitch story concepts to gatekeepers at the major networks.

But despite the play to the biggies, Grange believes the days of African-Canadians cozying up to the mega-broadcasters to get gigs are waning. “I think ultimately creators of colour who understand the industry — it’s time they talk about more ownership. Take control. Get our own network,” he urges.

That’s what CTV vet Trevor Bindoo and Janice Jeremiah are attempting as partners in the Caribbean and African Television Network (CATN), which was awarded a specialty category-two digital licence by the CRTC. But there are a lot of hurdles before this proves a viable route.

For one thing, in the case of category-two licences, owners must make deals with individual cable and satellite companies just to get on the air at all. Then there’s the reality that at present only about 2.9 million Canadians can even receive a digital signal on their TVs — and each of the many stations only gets the tiniest fraction of the watching audience.

But Bindoo is optimistic. “Our community is a significant niche market. If you look at it, you’ll find niches within the niche. There are African Caribbean, Chinese Caribbean, Indo-Caribbean, indigenous black Canadian and African (viewers) from the continent.”

Still, that market is often elusive. Witness the disappearance of CFMT’s groundbreaking arts and news show in the 80s, Black World, not to mention the 90s’ Caribbean Pepperpot on Citytv, and Phat TV, a hiphop-themed show. All vanished, victims of advertising deficits.

Says Sandra Whiting, former associate producer and reporter at Black World, “As associate producer, one of my jobs was to go out and find advertising. Our community doesn’t seem to be able to afford it or doesn’t understand the necessity of paying for it, and the wider community says, “Well, we can reach that market through other shows.'”

That may be the problem. While everyone in the field admits there’s not enough data to know confidently what African Canadians watch, listen to or buy — unlike the situation in the U.S., where corporations know their black consumers — one can make some assumptions.

According to retail consultant John Winter of John Winter Associates Ltd. of Toronto, who works in the area of ethnic market forces, studies of the Chinese community show that half their money goes into ethnic Chinese stores and the other half into mainstream chains. “There’s a distinct difference in the patterns (from mainstream consumers) — it’s remarkable,” he says.

Sooner or later, he says, most media outlets and advertisers will clue in to their need for more segmented markets. “The good old days when you just bought some time on CBC and sold people ketchup are long gone,” he says.

But what if some of that segmentalization is around artistic preferences and not ethnicity at all? Consider the example of FLOW. According to Murray Christenson, VP of sales at IMS Radio, sales agents for FLOW, the radio station assumes it’s generally targeting 18-to-34-year-olds, and more on the male side. But they have no data on the ethnic base of their listeners, and most advertisers just want the “urban” market — most of which may be white.

“We know from the hiphop perspective that a majority of the record sales in that genre are bought by white kids, so it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to pigeonhole or brand FLOW as a “black radio station,'” says Christenson.

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