Creativity amid constraint

THOUGHT LEADERS: Monika Ille, CEO of Winnipeg-based APTN, reveals how the specialty channel aimed at Indigenous people has focused on development to support its program suppliers and welcomes the new era of collaboration.

Monika Ille

How has the pandemic impacted your business most significantly?
The area that has been the most impacted is the production side of APTN. But within APTN itself, it’s been business as usual and we’ve successfully continued our in-house programming. To ensure that we created a safe environment for employees who needed to work out of the APTN offices, whether that was our news and current affairs teams or broadcast technologists.

We’ve also noticed a significant impact on members of our team and our community that don’t have strong internet access. It’s indicative that a lot of the population may not be in an urban center. But the pandemic has also changed the way our producers are approaching storytelling. You’ve seen it across the media, where people are resorting to Zoom or reinventing the way stories are told. Our own news department have been interviewing a lot of their subjects remotely, versus sending out a camera crew.

It’s important to highlight that during Covid-19, audiences have been more forgiving of the quality of the programming, and what was most important was access to information and awareness. As a network, we’ve made a concerted effort to cover the impact of Covid-19 in general, but especially on Indigenous communities.

None of our producers have folded during this time; everyone has been put on hold. Like everyone, we have to follow the guidelines of each province. We cut travel, like everyone else. Our revenues are somewhat stable thanks to subscriber fees we receive every month.

Our advertising sales declined significantly, like many other broadcasters, but we also saw an increase in our government advertising. How it’ll be impacted in the months to come, we still don’t know. We’re privileged in the sense that APTN is mandatory carriage and we are able to sustain our employees. People are our priority at APTN and I think we’ve really demonstrated that, throughout this pandemic and even before it hit.

Which projects have been affected and in what way?
All of our independent producers and their programs have been affected. Our in-house programming has continued, but the storytelling format has shifted as needed.

When do you expect these projects to be back on track?
Some projects have slowly resumed production in certain provinces, but everyone has had to change their method of storytelling. Certain projects were originally looking at multi-location shoots on a national scale but they’ve had to shift to a regional scale. We want to ensure we bring content to the network for our viewers, so the scope of storytelling has narrowed to a smaller pool of participants and specialists.

Scripted content hasn’t resumed just yet, since those are really the only occasions where you’ll have multiple people within a frame. A lot of our scripted content hinges on social distancing rules loosening up a bit.

What’s important to take from this is that we need to continue to be very flexible and accommodating and follow up with our creators as new guidelines emerge. They can no longer have a shooting-from-the-hip approach; it changes the narrative. They have to examine how they want to approach the topic and then go from there. We’ve always been very supportive of our producers and have always been focused on the story. So, it really comes down to how the story is meant to be told and what is the best approach for us to protect how that story is being shared.

What new programming initiatives have you introduced to make up for the deficit brought about by these projects being put on hold?
We are seeing a significant hole in our schedule because shows aren’t coming in. All the programming that we were going to pepper throughout our schedule is now all lumped into the fall. One big initiative we’ve taken is we’ve never put out so many development proposals – our development budget is almost spent for this fiscal.

Nowadays, we go to producers and say we want to develop their next season because we know they can’t shoot right now. We can invest in pre-production by figuring out who, what, where and factoring in the ‘new normal’ of Covid-19. We’re more focused on getting scripted, Indigenous-language content and foreign Indigenous-produced content to our streaming platform APTN lumi in order to meet the needs of the APTN lumi members we want to retain.

We’re also trying to find ways to support our producers financially by investing more in development. Producers seem to appreciate it because they know we’re thinking ahead; we see the ‘after’ and that gives them hope. But I know we’re not the only broadcaster doing this; there are others that are increasing development funding.

Programming has been very proactive when it comes to communicating with producers and learning how the pandemic has impacted them. We’ve also directed them to different funding bodies as a way to help them through this challenging period and find financial support. Plus, the Indigenous Screen Office, the Canada Media Fund and other bodies are coming together to support the producers as well.

One show that we turned around quickly was the Summer Solstice Concerts in June. We weren’t able to do our annual live concert, APTN Indigenous Day Live, as usual, but we still felt it was important to celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day. We found a way to put on two socially distanced broadcasts, one in French and one in English, that featured multiple artists from across the country. We wanted to support the Indigenous artists that are also struggling to reinvent themselves at this time, not just the producers.

In addition to this, we’ve been offering free kids’ programming on APTN lumi since May. This gives families and kids access to unique educational content and it’ll continue to be free until the pandemic comes to an end.

What have you learned through these initiatives as a result?
When we come together and focus we can achieve really great things. Within a few days of the pandemic reaching Canada, we made sure APTN was able to operate in an efficient way while having more than 90% of our staff working from home. Staying connected and communicating effectively became incredibly important, as it's not easy working from home. Some are finding it challenging, while others less so. Using technology to stay connected through staff activities like bingo, yoga and meditation has been vital. We’ve always known it’s important, but the pandemic has really stressed the importance of communicating with one another and our producers.

As for storytelling, it can be done in different ways. In television, there’s a general way of doing it, but during Covid-19 our producers have needed to be very creative and innovative with their storytelling – and they’re still learning. I’m reminded of the sentiment ‘creativity is born from constraints’ – you find the tools to tell your story.

It’s very expensive to create shows and we’ve managed to create them at a lower cost throughout the pandemic. We’ve learned that it doesn’t always need to be expensive, and maybe that’s something we can do more of in the future.

How will your business be different after the pandemic?
I’m sure there will be a lasting impact on how stories are told. For others, on a personal level, that’ll impact their work. I believe people are going to maintain this ‘distance.’ We’ve never lived through a pandemic and that’s going to have a lasting impression on how we connect with others.

We’ve managed this quite efficiently, but we’re also looking ahead at how we can handle it and put more processes into place if there’s a second wave – especially since we now know what a major impact it has. The executive team has met regularly since the pandemic began, and we’re currently working on a return-to-work process. Eventually it’ll happen, but who knows when? We’re still working on a process for that so when it does happen, we’ll be ready.

How do you think the business as a whole will be different?
It’s going to be different for everybody, not just from a broadcasting perspective. But from a programming perspective, it’s really opened my eyes regarding how long it takes for our stories to be told. Going forward, we have to find programming that can be told much quicker. That’s going to be a challenge. Our producers are going to have to be more creative when it comes to creating programs that will entertain but still respect the boundaries of Covid-19.

Once we’re able to do more original programming for APTN lumi, which is more flexible than conventional broadcasting, the format of the service might change the turnaround of content and our ability to engage with audiences. We’re not completely there yet, but we’re open to it. Change is going to happen and there are going to be different ways to tell stories. But the fact that we’re open to it is a very strong way to move forward.

In general, we have to think about everyone’s ability to telework. Some companies have already had that in place for years, but for many it’s completely new. I think many businesses are going to examine how efficient it is to telework, not just for the short term, but the long term as well. You realize how everything is interconnected: the economy, our school system, our health system. This pandemic has touched every level of society. Navigating that has been an interesting challenge.

What will be your biggest challenge?
Sustaining this creativity and our current way of doing things. You have to be creative and innovative to maintain your business at this time and that’ll be a challenge.

What will be the biggest opportunity?
There are always opportunities. Even in times of crisis there are many opportunities that arise. As a broadcaster, it’s the opportunity to continue creating these new storytelling methods. The opportunity and the challenge go hand-in-hand. In addition to that, humans are social beings and now we have to maintain a physical distance from others. Will this physical distance translate into a distance around sharing knowledge? Sharing point-blank? Being unable to get together with others will absolutely impact our relationships.

And we’ve seen that within members of our community. This is the powwow season for many members of Indigenous communities, and that’s their way of connecting, socializing and displaying their pride for their culture. However, some organizations are putting on virtual powwows. This speaks volumes about their adaptability and resourcefulness in a time like this.

What ‘good’ has come of the pandemic?
It’s been a period of creative thinking, since the pandemic has forced all of us to slow down. That’s the message we’ve been telling our producers, to take this opportunity to think of concepts, develop ideas, to take their time. And it also makes us take a step back and look at our processes as a company.

It’s been incredible to see how many members of the industry are working together and finding ways of supporting one another. We’re seeing way more partnerships, some unseen before. The 90-minute benefit concert broadcast Stronger Together|Tous Ensemble aired on some 120 different platforms including TV, radio and online, making it the largest multi-platform broadcast in Canadian television history.

APTN also supported #IndigenousGrad2020, an online celebration of Indigenous graduates, by working in collaboration with the National Association of Friendship Centres.

There’s a new level of collaboration that I’ve never seen prior to Covid-19.
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