Another $30 Million Handed to Cable Companies that Could Have Stimulated True Diversity in the Digital Economy

Ottawa (March 22, 2012) The CRTC released a decision last week (CRTC 2012-154) that hands another $30 million annually to cable companies that could otherwise have stimulated both the diversity of voices in broadcasting in Canada and our digital economy. In the fall of 2010, the CRTC announced a new community TV policy for Canada, but it failed to update Canada’s forty-year-old strategy of allowing cable companies to manage "public access” to the airwaves. While other countries have long since been licencing and actively encouraging community groups to create broadcast television, and while Canada itself has been licencing community groups to produce radio since early in the 1900s, the CRTC (and cable companies) still can’t let go the leash on TV. This... even in the new Internet environment where anyone with a camcorder can shoot and upload to YouTube.

The issue is in fact, not whether community TV licences are available (they are, but there are only 9 in Canada, compared to more than 150 community radio channels), it’s whether money is made available to support them. Public and private broadcasters have access to a range of funding mechanisms including tax dollars, industry subsidies, cable and satellite subscription revenues, and advertising. Community licence holders are expected to rely on advertising, which runs counter to their public-service mandate and is difficult in small markets even for private broadcasters showing popular US series. Meanwhile, the more than $130 million annually that has been earmarked to support “community programming” within the Canadian broadcasting system is still firmly in the hands of cable companies and their so-called ‘community channels’, despite the fact that these channels are accessible to a bare majority of Canadians: cable subscribers.

“We were excited at the conclusion of the 2010 hearing when the CRTC capped expenditures on cable community channels, and asked the public what to do with the 0.5% of cable revenues that would become available for another purpose. More than 2/3rds of respondents requested the establishment of a Community-Access Media Fund to support true community-administered channels” says Catherine Edwards of the Canadian Association of Community Television Users and Stations (CACTUS). This 0.5% of cable revenues amounts to more than $30 million annually, and could have supported 60 genuine community channels. CACTUS envisions these channels as multi-media digital training and production centres—key to Canada’s digital economy.

“We have reviewed the Commission’s decision and are disappointed,” she continued. “Instead of establishing a community TV fund—equivalent to the Community Radio Fund that was established in 2008—the money has instead gone to help cable companies pay their closed-captioning costs, or to another existing production fund of the cable company’s choice. We waited a year-and-a-half for a non-decision.”

The Commission’s analysis concluded that since the 2010 community TV policy had raised the minimum expenditures expected by cable companies on “access programming”, further resources were not required. The analysis fails to take into consideration that more than 2/3rds of the cable community channels that once existed in Canada’s smaller communities have simply been closed. The independent community channels that are springing up to fill the gap (or could spring up if a viable funding model existed) have no access to this increase in funding, which is spent in the relatively few remaining urban cable ‘community channels’. Whether the funding really supports “access programming” is also open to question. The fifth audit by the CRTC of cable community channels in a decade shows that cable companies routinely misreport the “access programming” they produce.

“If we want to make sure communities have the means for self-expression with digital tools, communities must be accountable to communities. Cable companies cannot be made accountable to communities, unless the CRTC wants to micromanage them. This $30 million was an opportunity for the Commission to support the independent community licence class that it created back in 2001, when the problems with cable community channels first came to light. We can’t understand this decision.”

The Commission analysis also stated “In Broadcasting Regulatory Policy 2010-622 (Community television policy), the Commission ... recognized the improvements in community programming made over the last decade”; however, no data was offered to support this statement. In fact, overwhelmingly evidence points to the opposite: the five Commission audits that have been done, showing widespread failures to meet access minima, the closure of more than 2/3rds of the country’s access studios, and the Commission’s own miniscule audience figures for cable community channels (released prior to the community TV policy review as public notice 2009-661-5). “That was the most disturbing statement in this decision. If the Commission is disregarding its own data, where are these decisions coming from? No study has ever demonstrated that cable community channel content has ‘improved’ over the last decade.”

Contact: Catherine Edwards (819) 772-2862