Slava Levin, the chief executive officer of Ethnic Channels Group Ltd., the only Canadian company that brings multiple language programming to Canada’s diverse population, has a simple yet compelling broadcast philosophy.
Slava Levin and his father, Israel [Sheldon Kirshner photo]
“I want to bring the world to Canada,” he said.
Levin, an immigrant himself, has been bringing international programs to viewers in Canada for the past six years. He licenses content from a host of countries – including Russia, Israel, Egypt, Greece, Germany and Pakistan – and distributes it on 36 channels through providers like Rogers Cable, Telus, Shaw, Bell TV and MTS.
Ethnic Channels Group, based in a 10,000-square-foot-plus facility in northern Toronto, distributes foreign programming, from news and current affairs to general entertainment and sports, to hundreds of thousands of subscribers in Canada and the United States.
In compliance with regulations mandated by the CRTC – the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission – it also produces local content. And since 2008, Ethnic Channels Group, a media sponsor of Al Jazeera English, has offered an Internet television service, NexTV.
“We’re truly a multicultural company in a multicultural country,” said Levin, 42, who was born in Kiev, Ukraine, and immigrated to Canada with his parents, Israel (Izzy) and Paulina, in 1976.
The Levins arrived in Canada, settling first in Hamilton, at a time when emigration from the former Soviet Union was severely restricted. Israel Levin, a typewriter repair man who’s now 62, wanted to leave Ukraine so that his son would have a better future.
Originally intending to immigrate to Israel, he changed his mind during a nine-month layover in Italy. Once in Canada, he would play an integral role in his career.
A graduate of Newtonbrook Secondary School in Toronto, Levin studied business and marketing at George Brown College and then architecture at Humber College.
But after graduating, he was unable to find a suitable job. “The market was down, the competition was tough,” explained Levin, who was then a bachelor. “I wouldn’t have been able to support myself.”
Having noticed that there were no video rental stores in his neighbourhood in Richmond Hill, he opened a shop, Moving Pictures Video, and ran it for three years. “I did pretty well until jumbo video outlets came along. It was hard to compete with them.”
Around this juncture, Israel Levin, a big fan of Russian TV, bought a satellite dish. After figuring out how to hook it up to a satellite, he watched Russian shows at home. Sensing an opportunity, Israel printed flyers advertising his services. The response from the Russian community was positive. “Our phone didn’t stop ringing,” said Levin, who together with his father began installing satellite dishes in Russian homes.
Taking the idea one step further in the mid-1990s, Levin established International Satellite Antenae Services, which won the rights to distribute Russian-language programming in Canada.“It was an immediate success,” he recalled. “The Russian community was starving for content from Russia.”
Back then, 30,000 Russian families, nearly all Jewish, lived in Toronto and environs, compared to 80,000 families, about half of which are Jewish today.
Levin then approached NTV, a Russian state channel, and won the right to distribute its programs in Canada and the United States and, later, in Israel, Australia and Germany. As NTV’s chief operating officer in North America, he travelled every other week. ”I was tired of the travelling. I’m probably the only guy who ever went to Australia for one day.”
Having launched NTV world-wide, Levin, now married and a father, was ready to try something new. In 2004, he launched Ethnic Channels Group, renovating a Royal Bank space he turned into offices and studios.
His rationale was clear.
“I realized Canada was still virgin territory for ethnic TV. There were a handful of providers – Chinese, Italian, Greek, South Asian – but the market was basically untapped. I knew there was an opportunity. I had done my homework. If I didn’t do it, someone else would. I was in the right place at the right time.”
Levin’s analysis was spot on. Consider the math. Canada today is home to 32 ethnic groups with a population of more than 100,000. The population of 10 of these communities is one million or more.
For Levin, therefore, the future seems exceedingly bright. According to Statistics Canada, one-third of Canadians will be members of a visible minority by 2031.
Levin has two partners, Gregory Antimony, his old boss at NTV, and Oleg Masliy, who joined him with “open arms and open wallets.”
They have some 40 employees, representing a rainbow of nationalities, and depend on three streams of revenue: subscription fees, advertising and technical support services
Though Levin’s father is not officially employed by the company, he comes in once in a while as a volunteer “to make sure we’re doing our jobs. He has helped me build this business.”
Levin, in part at least, owes his success to his network of contacts in Toronto’s ethnic communities.
“It’s hard to get into this field,” said Levin, a car buff who has owned 20 cars in the last decade. “A lot of it is based on relationships, rapport and trust. You have been entrusted with preserving content, not defacing it with your own agenda or political views. If I do something wrong, there are repercussions.”
Careful not to broadcast offensive content, he believes in free speech as long as it does not incite violence or ethnic tensions. “Generally, we stay out of the political scene,” he said.
He agreed to carry Al Jazeera English because it is “very different” from its Arabic counterpart, which has been accused of being anti-Israel.
Looking ahead, Levin hopes to expand Russian, Greek and South Asian programming. “We want to add value to them,” he said.
He has applied for another Israeli channel and has won CRTC approval for Jewish Life TV, which was only available in the United States until now.