Building The Asian Television Network

By: Shan Chandrasekar

From: Polyphony Vol.12, 1990 pp. 47-52
© 1991 Multicultural History Society of Ontario

The Asian Television Network is an important communications link among the South Asian communities of Ontario, and between them and Ontarians generally. Its founder has also established an important new link that connects Toronto with an international South Asian communications network. It is a business, a kinship connection, and a contribution to the development of multicultural understanding in Ontario.

My father, K. Subrahmanyam, gave up a law career to become a film maker, and in 1936, he became the first South Indian to make a motion picture with sound. Over the next twenty years he became a major figure in the Indian film industry, producing some three hundred feature films as well as short films and documentaries. He achieved enormous success but had his share of failures as well, and our very large family experienced both great affluence and extreme deprivation. We learned to appreciate whatever we acquired and to cope with adversity.

Like so many others who lived through and participated in this dynamic period of social reform and freedom struggle in India, my father sacrificed an easy life for the challenge of leadership. He made one of the first anti-caste films, attracting controversy and criticism even within our family. His subsequent work dealing with the remarriage of widows and child marriage entrenched his reputation as a rebel and an enemy of traditional social values. His film "Tyaga Boomi" (Land of Sacrifice) was a contribution to the nationalist movement and was banned by the British government. He was a follower of Mahatma Gandhi, and this was reflected in his film "Gita Gandhi", which was also banned. The negatives were seized and he was kept for a time under house arrest; for almost eight months he was not allowed to make films.

Although much of this happened before I was born, my father's achievements and the film business dominated my childhood years. After independence in 1947, he worked with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and was one of the first to lead an Indian film delegation to the United States. It was there that he met Walt Disney and took animation back to India. He founded one of the major Indian film studios, Madras United Artists Corporation, later to be called Gemini. The two boys with bugles in the emblem of the company were my brothers.

In the last period of his career he moved away from commercial films to concentrate on children's films, and documentaries, and educational films. He became chairman of the International Film and Television Council in Geneva and was honorary chairman when he passed away in 1971. We were therefore exposed, not only to film-making techniques through my father's example, but to the idea of service and social purpose.

I was nine years old when my brothers and I experimented with leftover film from Russian Imo cameras. We all looked toward my father as a model, but my mother was not at all keen on any of us getting into the film industry. She was determined that each of us would move into a different profession. I was to be an engineer. In our family, such parental guidance was not easily rejected. I was sent to college, and although I was not fond of the work or the career prospect, I took a degree in mathematics. Postgraduate studies in electrical engineering followed, but this had only lasted three and a half months when a break occurred in our traditional family determination in such career decisions. My eldest brother, who had become a lawyer, quit law and joined my father in producing documentary films. My second brother who was a chartered accountant, also quit his profession and joined my father. My third brother had gone to Columbia University and was pursuing a Ph.D. in communications.

I was determined to leave engineering but reluctant to follow my two brothers into film making. My family agreed that I should pursue a career that would satisfy my own interests, and I chose social work. I completed a master's degree in India and met a Canadian professor who encouraged me to continue my studies in Canada. I applied for admission to American and Canadian universities and in 1967 went to Montreal as part of the staff of the Indian pavilion at Expo '67. When McGill University accepted me, I decided to stay. I was given credit for my Indian training and finished the two-year degree in nine months. I was also permitted to write my thesis at McGill's Instructional Communication Centre. This allowed me to bring together the two streams of film making and service, which was the legacy I had received from my father. My thesis topic was instructional television.

After graduation, I worked for the John Howard Society as a parole officer and social worker and continued my studies by commuting to Buffalo to take courses in communications at the State University of New York. Subsequently I joined the postgraduate program at Marshall McLuhan's Centre for Culture and Technology in the University of Toronto. I held a number of positions during these years, first with Big Brothers and then the Children's Aid Society and the Catholic Children's Aid, where I was in charge of the foster care division. Since I was neither a Catholic nor a Christian, I was very honoured by the appointment-one of the many multicultural experiences that have enlivened my life.

There remained, however, the desire for a more active involvement in communications. I was convinced that if we used social work, community service, and a knowledge of media and show business-put them all together-we would have the right commodity, something to which the general community would respond. I felt that good news, if promoted properly with an aura of show business, could be sold. Since I had been trained in television, it became the obvious outlet and the core of my professional goals. It was clear I could not move into Canadian programming overnight, but there was a vacuum to be filled and a constituency not well served: the multicultural aspect of mass media.

The freedom of the media in North America had impressed me from my first day in Canada. I watched talk shows in which presidents and prime ministers were criticized and satirized. It was fascinating but a bit alarming too to someone who was brought up to be respectful of our leaders. I began building bridges in my mind between the Indian perspective I had brought with me to this new home and the mainstream media in Canada that attracted my attention and in which I hoped to build a career. It was at that time that I met Ted Rogers.

In 1971, together with a group of friends-all Indians, bachelors, and professionals in various fields-we formed a music group. I had been part of such a group in India, where we generally sang Western music-the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Judy Collins. But in Canada we sang Indian music. We cut some records and eventually launched a television show. It was purely a hobby for all of us, but it was to become for me the beginning of a new career. The show was put together in black and white at the Light Studio in downtown Toronto. There was no colour there at the time. When colour became available on Scarborough Cable, we went there to do one show in colour. Ours was one of the first serious, ongoing Indian television programs in North America.

The show became very popular and we gave it more and more of our time. Everything was totally self-financed; there were no government grants, no support from other companies and no advertising revenue. We began to broker time at City TV and in 1975 became the first Asian program produced as a series for a North American television station. It was a great success.

Although we were scheduled during "dark time" rather than prime time, the audience was there. I showed movies at midnight on Tuesday nights. Indian movies are very long and they would usually run until three o'clock in the morning. We apparently created a serious social problem in the community. On Wednesdays many people had difficulty getting up in the morning. At City TV, Moses Znaimer took a gamble with us: he was amused by this new and exotic enterprise but he was also proud of what we accomplished at that time.

From this beginning we grew with the population and also collaborated with others who were involved in television programming for their own communities. Under the leadership of Danny Iannuzzi, who had been involved in Italian television, I provided the Indian component of a group representing the Portuguese, Jewish, German, Macedonian, and Greek communities. We decided to float an application for the world's first multicultural television station. We were rejected by the CRTC and had to go back many times before receiving its approval.

In 1979 we launched Channel 47. It was no longer necessary to broker programming time elsewhere: we had our own station. It was not easy. We were a group of visionaries with inadequate financing. We were also inexperienced businessmen and there was little confidence in the market for this unknown and multicultural product. Conventional national advertisers paid little attention to us. We had moved ahead of our abilities to deliver on our promises to ourselves and others, but hard work, long hours, and sacrifices by a lot of people turned things around. Rogers, who saw some potential in our efforts, provided basic operational funding. Today, the station is fully self-sufficient and although there is still much to be done, there is optimism that we will achieve our goal to become a major competitive participant in the market within the next three to five years.

As the Indian population grew and changed, we responded with new programming. Beginning with songs and dances, we went through various phases-feature films, serials, dramas, and then discussions and reporting of issues. We are becoming a Canadian program. We carry views from India and the countries of South Asia, but we are also increasingly concerned with the question of how regional events affect us in our Canadian lives. We now discuss Canadian issues, such as Meech Lake, on our show. We have also responded to the growing multilingual reality of the South Asian community in Canada by launching programs in Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati, and in the near future Tamil. Our main program attempts to deal with broad-based South Asian issues and to involve the general Canadian community as well. We have a mandate to enhance the knowledge of South Asian people and culture among all Canadians.

We need to describe the positive contribution being made by our community and the outstanding people who have become leaders in many fields. We want people to know that our community did not come here only to receive benefits. We are making a contribution as well, and we are also here to share in all aspects and responsibilities of Canadian life.

We have used our facilities to promote charity fund-raising. The South Asian community made a large contribution to the United Way by bringing the popular Indian playback singer Lata Mangeshkar to Toronto. She sang at Maple Leaf Gardens, and $350,000 was raised. Similarly the Indian-organized cricket match at the SkyDome last year was a community-wide effort in which we played our part.

We are also beginning to give attention to a range of issues and social problems confronting our community: parent-child conflict, changing teenage values, family violence, linguistic and cultural retention. In addition we have dealt with the growth pattern in the community and future immigration trends. Family reunification is a priority in official immigration policy. At the local community level, this policy has complex effects on existing families. We are looking at the issue of parents being sponsored by their adult children who have already established themselves in Canada.

We have a large viewer base, but a diverse one. In addition to people who have migrated to Canada directly from South Asia, others are part of a second or third migration and come from East and South Africa, the West Indies, Guyana, Surinam, Fiji, and Britain. We also attract viewers among other communities. Greeks and Macedonians watch our show; they like the music. Our program also benefits from a good time slot when many other stations are running evangelical programs that have a different audience.

There is now substantial and continuous involvement of the community in our activities. Our show is important to them. They view it with a sense of pride. It took some time before it was recognized that we were both a commercial and a community operation, and that it was necessary to produce a professional product and attract advertising revenue. It is often assumed because we are a part of multicultural television, that we are subsidized by the government, but in fact, we operate like any other business. We-the program and the community-have grown and developed together, and our expectations of each other have become complementary.

In 1975 most of our advertising came from corner grocery shops and businesses generally characterized as ethnic. But mainstream advertisers now recognize the large potential in the non-English and non-French communities. We now have a combination of advertising dollars from both sources. We have also invested a lot of time in upgrading the quality of so-called ethnic advertising and marketing. We always knew what was good-quality programming, but we did not have the funds to produce it. We are still short of development capital, but we are getting closer to our goal. The main lesson I have learned-especially working with Rogers Cable-is the need for professionalism in quality. We have to be very good to attract an audience outside our traditional viewing constituency, and we need to do this if we are to grow and play the larger role we have envisioned for ourselves.

The invention of remote control has provided a great opportunity. Many of those viewers who traditionally watched only CBC or CTV now sit in their chairs and flip through the channels. Some will pause at one of our programs and will stay with us. We are confident that if we deliver quality, we will attract that larger audience. We do some of our shows in English and others in a bilingual format: English and Hindi, English and Punjabi, English and Gujarati. Many of our films and dramas, and occasionally our news programs, are subtitled. Most are done at the source, but we have done some in our own studio. The English language was the link that facilitated my journey to Canada; it remains the link that allows multicultural broadcasting to be shared among new and old Canadians.

We have established a company, the Asian Television Network, to produce and operate in this field. The name expresses a vision that still remains in the future: we seek to build a Canada-wide service. At this time, however, only Toronto has multicultural commercial television. In the rest of the country, such programming appears on cable television. We do try to collaborate as much as possible. We have a small show on British Columbia TV, produced there but partly prepared in Toronto. We experimented with the development of a relationship with Cathay International Television, also in British Columbia, but this did not work out, although we did learn a lot from the Chinese activities there. They have twelve thousand subscribers and therefore, a very substantial income. We watched also the birth and growth of Tele-Latino across Canada, as well as China-Vision. There is an extraordinary amount of activity going on in this field. We have collaborated with other multicultural media across Canada-newspapers and radio as well as television, in a variety of ways. We are doing some cable TV shows on local stations and exchange programs with larger centres. In addition, we are participating in the Vista Television network with the result that our programs now have a national audience and market. We have provided technical assistance to a range of communities, not only South Asian, in the production of religious programs for Vista. We use our own studio as well as our remote crews who go out to film events for future broadcasts.

In 1977 we joined with others to get a licence from the CTRC for the establishment of Channel 47 because we could not obtain adequate studio time for our own productions. Our success brought us a fine Toronto broadcast facility, but because it has had to serve twenty-four international communities, the problem of shortage of studio time re-emerged very quickly. To provide some additional space for Asian programming, I established a small studio on John Street in Thornhill. It was just a simple two-camera shoot facility, however, and we quickly outgrew it. There was, in addition, the problem of establishing a high-quality standard. Much of the ethnic programming was technically weak, having been produced with home video equipment. My dream was to establish a large studio with state-of-the-art technology that would compete in quality, if not quantity, with the product of the mainstream industry. And with Jaya, my wife and my partner, the dream has come true. She has shared in the personal financial sacrifices required to make this investment. She has been willing to risk a secure life in order to respond to this challenge. And she has been primarily responsible for the quality and sensitivity of all our productions. While I am the part of the team more often seen on camera; she is behind me and the whole operation, ensuring good technical and production standards.

In 1990 Jaya and I opened our new studios in Newmarket. We are still relatively small, but there is production space to meet current needs and room to grow. We have, as well, installed the latest technology. We can produce an excellent product, and this has attracted the respect of colleagues in the large networks. Our two main programs, "Asian Horizons" and "Sounds of the East" have approximately 1.2 million viewers. We believe in multiculturalism and have surely benefited from the generosity of spirit that has informed this policy. In the long term, however, multiculturalism must grow into a new and broad-based Canadian culture. We seek to play a role in achieving this goal by producing South Asian programs for mainstream television, by making multicultural programs part of the ordinary activity of the entertainment and information industry. In doing so, we intend to compete with CBC and CTV for attention and audiences. It is just a question of time.

Shan Chandrasekar is the President of the Asian Television Network.

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