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 watches1” 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 1 According to Numeris, only 1.5% of Canadians watch cable community channels.
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 satellite3. 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.”