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CRTC Deals Crippling Blow To Community Television

When Canada Needs It Most

by CACTUS


Ottawa (July 20, 2016) 

The Canadian Association of Community Television Users and Stations (CACTUS) estimates that the CRTC's new local and community TV policy will slash the budget for community TV to one sixth what it was under its 2010 policy, crippling Canada's forty-year tradition of prioritizing media literacy and public access to the airwaves. 

The CRTC's June 15th decision redirects money for community TV to private news production in a handful of mid-sized Canadian cities where local news is no longer profitable for Canada's media giants, such as Rogers, Bell, Shaw, and Videotron. 

“But the same money could have facilitated citizen-generated local news and information in 250 smaller communities that have no TV coverage,” said CACTUS President, Ivan Traill.  “These horizontally and vertically integrated companies were allowed to buy our last private TV networks—CTV and Global—because they had the deep pockets to subsidize news and drama from mobile, Internet, and pay TV services,” he said.  “So why raid community TV?”

Cable and satellite companies have traditionally been required to spend 5% of  revenues on Canadian production, including 2% for community TV.  The idea was to ensure all Canadians have a voice and to keep revenues in small communities to support a TV station. “They play a vital democratic role, airing council meetings and local events.  Many Canadians remember their quirkier content, like Guy Maddin's spoofs of the cold war on Winnipeg Videon, or Tom Green on Rogers,” said CACTUS Executive Director Cathy Edwards. 

“A generation of actors, writers, and directors got their start on 300 such channels. Almost all communities over 5000 people—wherever there was a cable network—had one.   By contrast, almost all 50-odd cities lucky enough to host a private TV station (which will benefit from the cash transfer) have populations over 100,000.”

The CRTC's decision is the latest in a series that downgrades service to small communities.  Community broadcasting was recognized as one of three pillars in the 1991 Broadcasting Act (along with public and private), but its funding has been whittled down from 10% of cable revenues in the 1970s and 1980s, to 5% in 1991, to 2% in 1997, to 1.5% in 2010, and less than 0.5% under the new policy.

Community groups have demanded the budget and administration of community TV since the 1990s, when cable companies began connecting formerly separate cable systems fibreoptically, and closing more than two-thirds of the community TV studios. For example,  New Brunswickers used to access 30 studios in the province, but Rogers now maintains six.

Groups also point to the inability of community media to balance Canada's intense media ownership concentration when the stations that are supposed to offer an alternative are controlled by the same companies.  “You don't see tomorrow's Tom Greens on cable community TV anymore.  Think of 10% QTV on Rogers in 1995. It was the first TV series to air LGBT content and the Pride Parade.  Nowadays, cable staff produce the majority of the content—mostly soft lifestyle programming nobody watches(1)”  said Dahne Jobson, Chair of the Toronto Community Media Network.  Evidence submitted to the hearing showed that few cable community channels air the 60% local and 50% citizen-generated schedule expected by the CRTC(2).

So while it may not be surprising the CRTC decided to redirect the $150 million spent on community TV by cable companies, the decision fails to recognize the potential of genuine community-owned TV, watched by 45% of viewers over the air, on the Internet, cable and satellite (3).  There are fewer than 10 coast to coast, as they struggle to auto-finance on bingos, telethons and advertising.

Along with representatives of more than 70 anglophone, francophone, and First Nations communities that want TV licenses, these citizen-run stations explained at the hearings how they leverage volunteers and partnerships with community organizations to produce content for $500/hour.  By contrast, private-sector news costs more than $6000/hour.  CACTUS, which represents many of them, proposed that the $150 million spent on cable-administered community TV go to a Community-Access Media Fund to support 250 community-operated media centres offering local content and training in traditional and new media.  The proposal won support from a broad coalition of public-interest stakeholders.   “Communities would be equipped for the digital economy, with the tools to make effective decisions, celebrate local culture, and ensure the whole community is part of the conversation,” said Shelagh Paterson, executive director of the Ontario Library Association.

All parties at the hearing admitted that redirecting the community TV budget to private-sector news would at best offer a bandaid to a long-term structural problem.  Edwards was hopeful, however:  “With the study about Media and Local Communities being conducted by the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage and the review of the Broadcasting Act announced by the Heritage Minister, we can rebuild community media.  We are a vast nation with a small but diverse population; we need cost-effective alternatives.”

CONTACT

Cathy Edwards, Executive Director

(819) 456-2237

cactus.independentmedia.ca



(1) According to Numeris, only 1.5% of Canadians watch cable community channels.  See https://services.crtc.gc.ca/pub/ListeInterventionList/Documents.aspx?ID=226182&en=2015-421&dt=i&lang=e&S=C&PA=b&PT=nc&PST=a (Additional intervention C).

(2) See www.comtv.org.  Over 60 complaints against cable community channels are pending.

(3) Study by CREO. See https://services.crtc.gc.ca/pub/ListeInterventionList/Documents.aspx?ID=226182&en=2015-421&dt=i&lang=e&S=C&PA=b&PT=nc&PST=a (Additional intervention B).

 

BACKGROUND and ANALYSIS:  CRTC 2016-224

 

Most Western countries—and an increasing number of developing countries—recognize community media as having a unique and complementary role to public and private media, but only in Canada is 'community TV' counter-intuitively administered by the private sector.  Canada was the first to develop policies for community TV in the late 1960s as an outgrowth of the NFB's celebrated “Challenge for Change” series of filmmaking, when the equipment was arguably still too expensive and unwieldy for community groups to maintain.

Since the late 1990s, community groups have argued that community TV stations should be owned and operated by communities, as they are in community radio and in other countries.  Significant reviews of the Canadian broadcasting system have supported this demand, including the 1986 Caplan-Savageau Report on the Task Force on Broadcasting that led to the 1991 Broadcasting Act, and the 2003 Lincoln report by the Standing Committee on Canadian Broadcasting Our Cultural Sovereignty.

The CRTC decision is a giant step backward according to CACTUS Executive Director, Cathy Edwards.  “The private sector is supposed to stand on its own, creating mass-market programming.  Public funding should be directed to the more difficult mandate of serving niche groups, training the public in media production, and tackling the tough topics that are shaping our communities and our nation.  These are the roles of the public and community sectors.”

Community media associations have asked on several occasions that the CRTC maintain a community media liaison position or Ombudsperson, with a sole focus on community media.  CACTUS organized a conference in partnership with Carleton University and other community media before the hearing, with the purpose of enabling all parties to gain an understanding of the potential of community media in the digital environment to serve large and small communities, as well as Canada's growing multicultural and First Nations communities (4).  Edwards added, “Unfortunately, no CRTC employees attended.  The decision acknowledges that the role of community media in the digital environment has changed, but appears to incorrectly conclude that their role is less important.”

 

          CRTC: 2016-224:  Another objective, that of providing training to Canadians to create community programming, has become less onerous given that the tools required for production are more readily available and simpler to use. As a result, community channels do not need the same level of funding as they did in the past in order to achieve these objectives.” 

          This statement ignores the proliferation of digital tools and platforms for media, all of which Canadians must master to create and distribute content.  Displaying an apparent double standard, the Commission accepts that for BDUs, the creation of local news and information has become more challenging (and requires more resources), yet for unresourced community groups and volunteers, it has become easier.

         The statement also focuses on technology, and ignores the 'soft' or human skills needed to write, interview, edit and produce quality content.

 

Other statements in CRTC 2016-224 that are difficult to understand include:

1)             BDUs [cable and satellite companies] are in the best position to offer community TV services because BDUs are licensed or operating under an exemption order, giving the Commission a mechanism for overseeing their activities”. 

In fact, BDUs do not hold licenses for community TV channels.   The right to use subscriber money for community TV is a perk of holding a cable distribution license.  By contrast, CACTUS member stations have had licenses specifically to operate community TV channels since 2002.  The 1986 Caplan-Sauvageau report recommended that all community channels should be separately licensed, such as in the community radio sector.  

         Almost 200 community-owned and -operated radio stations have been licensed by the CRTC, whose performance is closely monitored.  By contrast, several interveners in the policy review pointed pointed to the lack of data on the public record regarding BDU community channels.

2)              “The Commission is of the view that no new evidence was brought forward during this proceeding that significantly alters the position it took in 2010” (regarding the need to divest control of community TV from large vertically integrated BDUs). 

         This statement disregards the evidence placed on the public record that the majority of BDU-controlled community channels are not compliant with CRTC policy (see www.comtv.org).

3)              In an apparent nod to the importance of the public-access mandate of community channels, the new policy tightens the definition of “access” by excluding the participation of professionals. 

         However, community channels have always been a fertile source of experimentation and cross-pollination between professional media makers and the general public.  The problem isn't the participation of professionals (many use community channels to 'test-drive' new ideas and develop new skills), the problem is paying professionals for their participation, which was noted as being widespread in the finding of non-compliance of Videotron's Montreal MAtv community channel in 2015, for example.

         The only paid staff of a community channel should be those that train and facilitate production by members of the public.

 

(4)  Conference proceedings are available at www.ComMediaConverge.ca.

 

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