Recently, during some serious channel surfing, I discovered that there’s more to dull Saturday nights than infomercials and decorating shows. Way up in the gods of Rogers Cable TV in Toronto, on Channel 35, packaged between Country Music Television and the Learning Channel, there’s foreign-language television! Cash giveaways, salsa and tango interludes, and performances by international pop stars are all part of the extravaganza featured on what is called “just ethnic” television, flavoured with the musicality of Latin speech. On this particular Saturday night, the viewer hits the jackpot: a group of scantily clad dancers perform salsa while the two Italian hosts patiently stand by for the next segment. A musical trio from Spain performs its latest bubble-gum hit. The full three-hour show resembles more a Vegas-style stage than a demure production typically attributed to ethnic broadcasting.

Welcome to TLN Television, Telelatino for those of you who normally click on through. It is a bridge mix of some original Canadian production and a lot of overseas pickup from Italy (RAI International) and South America (Telemundo, Televisa, and CNN en Espanol) that is known outside of the Latino community?if at all?as the place to get soccer, soccer, and more soccer.

The little station that began on the advertising revenues of local pasta manufacturers and small furniture retailers offering half a lamb with the purchase of a dining suite has morphed several times to get to its position as one of Canada’s premier specialty channels. While it’s been growing up, ethnic broadcasting has multiplied, both in Canada and the United States. Huge waves of immigration have started to look like good pools of disposable income to pay TV, satellite, cable, and mainstream TV. When a mega company like Rogers Cable Inc. starts spitting out channels like OMNI 2, targeted to specific ethnic groups, even competing against its existing multilingual channel, CFMT (expected to be phased into OMNI 1 this year, focusing more on European, Latino, and Caribbean programming), you know it’s survival of the fittest time.

In TLN’s case that means more English-language programming (25 percent, approved by the CRTC). It means more market muscle and expansion through the promotional power of Corus Entertainment. And it means a fundamental shift away from its core programming, to reach outside the Latino community. Some call that maturing; others call it a big mistake.

In the lobby of Hamilton’s Sheraton Hotel, I meet the man who started it all. Sitting across from me is a man of gentle expression and winsome smile. Tieless and dressed in a navy colour suit, Emilio Mascia’s relaxed presence puts me at ease. I can’t quite guess his age, but rule out anything beyond 64 (turns out he’s 71). We talk briefly about Hamilton, his days as the barman at this very hotel, my interest in ethnic media, and, finally, his career. As he begins his story, his almond-shaped, brown eyes begin to sparkle even more behind his rectangular glasses.

Nineteen years ago, Mascia received the go-ahead from the CRTC to launch Telelatino. His second application to the CRTC (the first one was rejected) included a self-produced sum of $1.2 million and an extensive list of Italian and Spanish network contacts at home and abroad. In 1984, during its first year, Telelatino was available only on a pay-per-view basis, and secured just 7,000 viewers. Mascia knew that the $15.95 monthly service fee was the main culprit of poor viewership, but was powerless against the cable company that carried his channel. “For the first three, four years, it was just frustrating because of the attitude of cable companies, and there was nothing you could do about it,” he remembers.

But after a leak that a Rogers Cable employee was illegally decoding pay-per-view channels and selling them on the black market, Mascia got the break he was looking for. He invited the then president of the Ontario Cable Television Association, Stuart Coxford, to his office just to prove to him that Telelatino was in fact a victim of illegal decoders. Coxford and Mascia stood in silence during the operation, but once it was complete (and the independent decoder was sent home with $150 in cash), Coxford added Telelatino to Rogers’ extended basic cable lineup, prompting the ethnic station’s boost in overall viewership. “Everything became much, much easier after that,” recalls Mascia. With shows featuring news from the homeland, community highlights, and musical programs, the foreign-language TLN became a staple in Italian and Hispanic immigrant communities. Everyone was tuning in for a glimpse of this truly Latin channel.

In 1988, hoping to tap into the volatile market of second-generation viewers, Mascia introduced 15 percent English-language content into TLN’s programming. Viewers were regularly treated to show segments called “interficials” that featured everything from music to the history of Canada. On occasion, magazine-style shows were also produced on pressing issues with a guest panel discussing political events in Canada and abroad. Interpreting events occurring in the adopted homeland in Italian or Hispanic context helped promote a sense of belonging for these two expanding communities.

By 1998, TLN’s programming formula was embraced by 3.2 million viewers. But in 2001, during its biggest success, Mascia pulled out of the operation and sold the station to Corus Entertainment for what he calls “a good amount,” or $11 million, to be precise. “I was very pleased,” he says of the transfer. The content look on his face tells me that the timing of his clever move was just right. “There are two things in life that you don’t have to worry about because you will know when they happen to you: that is when you fall in love and when you’re ready to retire,” he says. Mascia now enjoys spending more time with his grandchildren, and he is still very active in the Italian community, especially at fund-raising and community events.

Since then, Telelatino’s programming directive has taken a number of turns. On October 30, 2001, Corus Entertainment (one of Canada’s leading entertainment companies) received approval from the CRTC to acquire controlling interest of Telelatino. As a result, its ownership rose to 50.5 percent, up from 20 percent. John Cassaday, the president of Corus, believes TLN is still “an excellent broad-based television network,” but wants its programming mandate to be even more inclusive to reflect the evolution of Italian and Hispanic immigration. “With many second and third-generation immigrants in Canada, our network must reflect the culture of our two primary targets and be less focused on language,” he says. The acquisition took place at the time when TLN’s annual profit figures were nearly $5 million. “The reason why I think Corus bought Telelatino was because it was making good money and it helped their bottom line,” says Mascia.

Ethnocultural broadcasting is big business in Canada. It is especially important in a city like Toronto, home to people from 169 countries who speak more than 100 languages. One in every three Torontonians speaks a language other than English or French at home, reason enough for ethnic programming to be available on six radio stations, closed-circuit radio services on cable, conventional television stations, and specialty cable services, which collectively broadcast in 40 languages. The 2001 Statistics Canada figures indicate that there are close to 1.3 million Italians across the country and just over 200,000 Spanish-speaking people.

Although TLN programming still includes news, sports, drama, kids’, and variety shows, the number of its original productions has now substantially decreased. Turning to exports like RAI International for its Italian-language content, and Telemundo, Televisa, and CNN en Espanol for its Spanish-language content, Telelatino heavily relies on external sources. TLN’s director of network development, John Montesano, admits that 80 percent of its prime-time programming is derived directly from RAI International, but insists that Telelatino’s original productions require more time and cost more money.

Like all network execs who cry the blues about the expense of original programming, Montesano (the former editor of the now defunct Eyetalian, a glossy quarterly by and about Canadians of Italian ancestry) is quick to point to past specials like Pier 21: Una Vita Strappa in Due (an account of the journey made by Italian immigrants to Canada), Persona (a six-part series about influential Canadians of Italian descent), and weekly shows like Hispanos en Canada (about events within the Hispanic community). “These are all specials that we’ve spent years putting together,” he says. In the near future, Montesano will launch a six-part series on Italian weddings, a documentary on Italian gardens, a one-hour special on the Good Friday procession, and a six-part series on Italian fashion.

Still, some viewers say that TLN’s original programming lacks substance. For instance, the Hispanic lifestyle show Sabadazo, which features fluffy segments on pop culture themes, has been criticized as an effort on TLN’s part to quickly secure a more mainstream audience. And just in case viewers aren’t intellectually stimulated by Sabadazo‘s Valentine’s Day edition on seduction, there is always Graffiti, a show about Toronto’s club scene, where deafening music and mindless interview questions dominate. Club-goers are often pursued relentlessly until they weigh in on their favourite cartoon characters or the never-ending debate over boxers versus briefs. The TLN-produced programming medley would not be complete without GraffitiXS, a show on which a giggly host interviews quasi-pop stars.

Even to the untrained eye, these shows signify TLN’s efforts to include a larger, younger, and more mainstream audience. Angelo Persichilli, a political columnist for the Italian daily Corriere Canadese, says that shows like Sabadazo, Graffiti, and Graffiti XS are badly produced and do not reflect the experiences of the younger generation. According to Persichilli, “There is nothing there to capture the imagination of Italian-Canadians.”

But whether TLN is in fact a viable cultural outlet for the communities it claims to represent is still up in the air. Today, TLN is fighting an even bigger battle, one that could forever change the balance of “original” versus “imported” programming. RAI International, one of TLN’s main content providers, has threatened to pull out of the 20-year-old partnership unless the CRTC allows the state-owned television full and unfiltered access to the Italian community in Canada. According to Montesano, this politically motivated decision is intended to “discredit and embarrass Telelatino.” He insists that the dispute is about a foreign government wanting to control the ethnic media in this country for the purpose of political manoeuvring. “What they’re actually proposing is against the regulatory law in Canada. A foreign government cannot come in and pull all the programming from a partner they have in Canada and compete with them directly…the CRTC will not recognize that,” says Montesano.

But not everyone perceives this as political wrangling. Persichilli says that the clash is about the way RAI programming is treated once it has been purchased. According to him, TLN cuts programming on the hour without any regard for its completion: “The programs are not being treated diligently,” maintains Persichilli. TLN execs, however, insist that the content is only being standardized to North American standards.

On the debate of good versus bad programming choices, even the political community appears to be divided. The executive director of the Canadian Ethnocultural Council, Anna Chiappa, says that she is unhappy with the overall quality of programming featured on Telelatino. She is particularly dissatisfied with the imported variety shows because, she believes, they are irrelevant to the Italian community here. “What they should be doing is having more Canadian content rather than relying on the low-quality programming from overseas that has very little relevance here,” she says. And as for the 25 percent English content initiative, Chiappa feels equally let down: “I was disappointed to learn about that because they originally got their licence to fill a gap.”

But Felix Mora, the former president of the Canadian Hispanic Congress, feels that Telelatino’s ability to reach generations and cultures on a national level, and hence educate people about what it means to be a Canadian of Hispanic descent, is of benefit to both ethnic and mainstream society. Mora insists that the English-language component is necessary and inevitable in ethnic broadcasting, and says that it helps with the integration process. “That’s the main idea?to integrate into society and to share our culture with the mainstream society,” he concludes.

However, loyal viewers like Myrna Hernandez, a 64-year-old retired school teacher, are furious with the recent infusion of English-language content. Although fully bilingual, she is more interested in a truly Latin channel: “I think that TLN is no longer interested in its ethnic audience because one-quarter of its programming is already in English. Is that really the norm for an ethnic station? If so, can we even call it ‘ethnic’?”

Enrico De Dominicis, a 45-year-old independent pension consultant and a Canadian of Italian descent, typifies the core Italian viewer. A member of the Canadian-Italian Business and Professional Association and a man who is plugged in the Italian community in Toronto, he knows all about the many faces of TLN. “Telelatino used to be a strictly Italian and Spanish station, and now it looks like a regular channel.” A die-hard soccer fan who religiously watches Domenica Sportiva (RAI’s weekly edition of soccer highlights and commentary), he says he is particularly unhappy about TLN’s recent launch of the Anglo-packaged edition of the Italian sport: “I don’t mind some BBC guys talking about an Italian league, but it’s not my first choice. I’d rather listen to an Italian commentator,” he says.

But according to TLN president Aldo Di Felice, positive feedback has flooded the station since the launch. Viewers of non-Latin background have also been tuning in for the English play-by-play soccer commentary. “We’re pleasing our core audience because they want more soccer games, and they’re willing to listen to them in any language, and they certainly understand English,” insists Di Felice.

TLN’s recent initiatives have been mostly embraced by second and third-generation Italians and Spanish. According to Gina Carletti, a 25-year-old systems analyst and a Canadian of Hispanic descent, TLN’s current programming mix reflects the kind of shows people of her generation want to see. A fan of Spanish soap operas like Esmeralda and Entre el Amour y el Odio, and Latin video specials, Carletti is supportive of the station’s cross-cultural endeavors: “I think it’s great to have a station like Telelatino step over those rigidly defined ethnic boundaries. I don’t know many ethnic stations that bring together cultures and generations in a non-cheesy way.” Viewers like Carletti have had a huge impact on TLN’s current programming mandate and advertising choices.

Today, multi-million-dollar corporations like Italpasta and Sony Music Canada are two of TLN’s biggest advertisers?a good indication that the changing face of ethnic television is in fact under way. But what this might mean in the long run is anyone’s guess. As we continue to speculate whether an all-inclusive programming formula is suited for an “ethnic” broadcaster, one thing is for certain: lambs and dining room suites aren’t making a comeback.