Native American channel launching?

by Dionne Walker, Associated Press

Flipping through TV channels, Jay Winter Nightwolf noticed something: While blacks, Hispanics and other minority groups had niche cable networks, American Indians had no national TV outlet.

The Washington-area radio personality has joined a group of Virginia broadcast journalists and other media professionals to launch Native American Television, joining a handful of groups racing to establish the nation's first American Indian cable channel.

NATV, which the group hopes to launch by year's end, would feature programming aimed at the nation's indigenous tribes: news specials and cooking shows, films and historic documentaries, video of drumming, powwows and even stand-up comedy.

A program tentatively titled "Meet Native America" would mirror NBC's "Meet the Press," bringing together a panel of Indian journalists to interview Capitol Hill lawmakers. "Talk to Native America" would explore issues such as economic development in Indian country, Nightwolf said.

"It's gonna run the full gamut," said Nightwolf, a Cherokee Indian and weekly host of "The Nightwolf Show."

"We can see the culture, the history, the issues, the everyday life -- the smiles and the frowns -- of Native Americans."

While a handful of tribes have set up regional channels in the past, a cable network would be a first, according to a spokeswoman at Native American Public Telecommunications.

At least two others have not gotten past the planning stages yet. Indian Country Today on TV would be a televised version of the popular Indian newspaper by a similar name. The New Mexico-based Native American Television Network includes reality TV and talk shows on its proposed lineup.

American Indians in Film and Television estimates that of 41,000 acting roles cast in 2004, roughly 100 were filled by Indians.

NATV was founded in 1990 by the late Charles Kaster, a Washington-area freelance videographer, said Randy Flood, executive director of NATV.

Using his basement as a studio, Kaster trained Indian youth for careers at broadcast stations and, someday, at his all-Indian channel, Flood said. Kaster died of cancer in 2002, before he could expand his training program and begin broadcasting.

Flood estimates it will take $3.7 million to launch the channel, money he plans to raise through tribal sponsorship and federal grants.

"BET has its own network and Univision appeals to Latinos, [but] there's nothing for Native Americans," said Flood, who, like Kaster, is not an Indian. "We want to be able to create a vehicle for tribal communities."

But breaking into the cable market is easier said than done, said John Mansell, a Fairfax analyst with the Kagan media research firm.

Creators of Black Entertainment Television and Univision entered the market during the 1970s an'80s, while the industry was young, Mansell said. Now the market is saturated, and cable companies are wary of adding a channel unless it is a sure hit.

"How many new subscribers is a cable operator going to get by putting out a small niche Indian channel?" Mansell said. "These are questions that the cable operators consider."

Flood hopes to give his company a leg up with a built-in staff of reporters.

Each year, about 30 students ages 18 to 24 will spend eight weeks training in studio production, Web development and journalism as part of NATV's Washington Semester program.

"The goal is to set up a cable TV network that addresses all Native American issues -- but also to train our own reporters and our own editors," said William Butler, president of the Columbia School of Broadcasting, which will provide the program's curriculum. "It's a long way down the road."

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