Omni: Presence then silence then absence.

This post is a slightly expanded version of the opinion piece I wrote for New Canadian Media in May 2015.

There are inherent dangers and risks in launching an ethnic channel or publication. In recent times we have seen both new players and well established ones ride into the sunset.

Mehndi TV made a comet-like appearance, flashed across our airwaves for a year, only to fade to black. That was a couple of years ago. It has since appeared in another constellation – on the website for Channel Zero.

Multimedia Nova, a publishing group whose newspapers included the 59-year-old Corriere Canadese shut its presses in 2013.

The 53-year-old Canadian Jewish News shut down its print edition and went all-digital in 2013.

But the Omni announcement makes me wonder if something else is at play here.

I wonder, for instance, if Omni was “too ethnic”? In other words, did Omni take an oversimplified content strategy with the ethnic consumer?

Allow me to explain. There is too often a rush to dumb down our understanding of Canada’s multicultural markets. Too often, ethnic consumer targets are rendered into shapeless homogenized blobs that bear no resemblance to what is actually a much more finely nuanced, multi-faceted cultural reality. A content or advertising strategy created for these fictional language-centric monoliths produces fuzzy, undefined work that has little appeal or relevance.

It is tempting to limit or define foreign cultures by language just because it makes it more convenient to sell airtime or diapers or haircuts or oranges but this is both facile and dangerous. After all, there are cultures united by language and separated by geography and, equally, cultures separated by language and united by geography. Add religion and history and we start to see an incredibly complex mosaic. There is rich irony in the mental visual of senior Omni TV executives closing their eyes to this.

Worse, this oversimplification is often combined with an attempt to keep new Canadians in their ethnic boxes. To do this is to deny the powerful narrative contained in the immigrant journey and to forget the impact that becoming Canadian has on the immigrant life. A Chinese citizen in China is not the same person as a Chinese Canadian citizen in Canada.

The words over the Queen Street viaduct remind us “the river I step in is not the river I stand in.” As we make our way in Canada, Canada changes us. And we change Canada. This is powerful stuff that is rich territory for original content.

In fact I think Omni could have significantly helped its cause by taking a leaf out of CBC’s book by using original Canadian content in the official languages to target the multicultural Canadian viewer. And, by that, I mean the Canadian viewer.

I look at CBC’s HNIC play-by-play sportscasts in Punjabi and Mandarin and shows like Little Mosque – very diverse programming that reflects a very diverse reality – and I ask, why couldn’t we see more of that?

We have an amazing talent pool in multicultural Canada. There’s a multicultural renaissance going on. Right now, the Tarragon Theatre is staging an Indo-Canadian version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado and it’s been getting rave reviews. We have writers like MG Vassanji, Michael Ondaatje, Rohinton Mistry, Vincent Lam. We have  comics like Russell Peters, Mikey Bustos, Ron Josol and Sugar Sammy. Bands like Delhi 2 Dublin, artists like Ritesh Das. This is not a country with a shortage of multicultural content.

Rogers is a sophisticated media-and-message convergence advocate and a successful player in that game, so I find it difficult to accept that it is allowing its investment to fail so easily. 

I feel Omni really had a good thing going with its newscasts, but was shocked when they dropped the South Asian news in English a couple of years ago. Almost every South Asian I knew watched it.

I felt then, that it had stepped off an edge and was suspended momentarily in mid-air. Now it plummets.

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