by AJ Earl
First Nation Experience bills itself as the only nationally-distributed TV channel devoted to Indigenous content, currently making Indigenous culture accessible to an audience of 22 million households—but what is the ultimate goal of this kind of access?
Lights, camera, access
Standing in “the biggest studio this side of Burbank,” Frank Blanquet (Mayan), FNX’s Producer and Director, said the station housed at San Bernardino Community College is home to a diverse and multidisciplinary team that produces original content focused on sharing the stories of Indigenous peoples across the U.S. and Canada.
One such program is Aboriginal Unity Experience, which showcases Native musicians who would otherwise not reach a national stage.
“We are familiar with [the group] A Tribe Called Red,” explained Blanquet, “but they might not be as popular in mainstream media. We’ve actually heard that, ‘yeah I never heard of ATCR until I watched FNX’. But it’s happened, so it’s a way for us to shed light on Native artists and Native music.”
While shows like AUX air on the 20 public media and tribal stations in the U.S. that carry FNX programming, wide pockets of the country lack that kind of access. In an effort to reverse that, AUX is streamed weekly on Facebook Live.
Access reliance on shaky numbers
Sporadic FB Live broadcasts might help for those who want to watch the latest Indigenous-helmed music video, but it doesn’t give access to the network itself. Expansion into other markets has been a slog for FNX, and FNX’s Tribal Liaison Sahar Khadjenoury (Navajo), said she has worked every angle.
“This has been very tricky for us,” Khadjenoury explained. “Not all PBS markets believe that there is a large enough N
ative presence to need a 24 hour, 7 day a week Native channel.”
Sometimes, she said, convincing stations they in fact do have Native peoples in their coverage area can be difficult.
A quick review of the most recent census data in markets without access to FNX reveals that several have Indigenous populations in the thousands, including notables like Portland, Oregon, where 50,796 Native Americans lived in 2015. When presented with the reality of their market’s Indigenous population, some PBS managers have an epiphany.
Describing the flair of a typical eureka moment, said Khadjenoury, “‘We know that there’s a Native presence, people have been calling, people have been writing, we have have been receiving emails, okay maybe you were right. Let’s do this, let’s go ahead and make this live!’ And, so that’s excellent that means that many people in that part of the US that many Indigenous people finally get the channel in their area. so we’re working.”
The demand is clearly there, Khadjenoury said, and Native peoples are eager to see themselves represented accurately in media.
And it’s not just the Indigenous population that seeks out FNX’s programming.
Khadjenoury points to the importance of disseminating news and information about Indian Country to a broader non-Indigenous audience, as with the case of the Gold King Mine spill. The impacts of this spill, from the water, to the agriculture, to even the cultural loss of corn pollen, are something that Khadjenoury feels are vital to connect to this audience.
“This is important for other people to understand what’s happening in Native Country is important to all of us, because although that affected (Navajos) directly, that environment is affecting everyone,” she said.
The urgency of the moment in providing quality coverage of Indian Country seems to be coming at an opportune time for FNX. New emerging technologies have been a game changer for the network, and the FNX team is quick to look into these methods.
Blanquet says FNX has looked into different methods, like over-the-top service (OTT) such as popular systems like the Roku or Apple TV, the capabilities in some current video game systems and other means to transmit that have become possible every year; he also added that recent FCC bandwidth changes are allowing further growth in opportunity in broadcast and may lead to fairly straightforward access to standard over the air PBS networks.
“The online accessibility, and the OTT services, that’s something that we’re gonna be a part of, and again that’s something we’re trying to do for free,” Blanquet stated.
Having a wide variety of methods of access goes a long way in ensuring that even the hard to reach markets are not so out of reach. This kind of improvement in reach means more eyes will be able to see FNX, and the price—free—means more accessibility.
Blanquet admits the lack of monetary draw for FNX, as a non-commercial network in the PBS model, means that some television providers are unlikely to pick up FNX right away.
“The PBS model as far as being a free public television station is something we love being a part of, because that’s the idea, to make it as accessible to everybody as possible,” he said.
The model seems to be working, too.
“It wasn’t that long ago that we were only available in 5 stations throughout the US,” added Blanquet.