Tectonic Plates Shifting Under Cable Services (Community Access Still Protected, At Least For Now)

The CRTC is reassessing what basic cable means in preparation for the digitalization of the television industry in 2010. What is at stake are millions of dollars in revenues for broadcasters and how we organize and define what channels are "selected" for the least expensive cable service, the basic package.

Details of the hearing are expalined in Broadcast Notice 2007-1, items 7-18. In a nutshell, what is being determined in part is who gets to be included in the cable "basic package" (the question of why we have a "basic package" is not on the table). It is a money question. For every cable subscriber who receives a channel, the channel gets a fee. For example, the Weather Network gets 23 cents each month per subscriber. With 12 million subscribers, it collects about $2.76-million monthly. If your channel is in the basic package, everyone in Canada who has cable is a subscriber. Community channels are currently included in the basic package, but do not receive subscriber fees.

How channels are selected for inclusion in the basic cable package is a bit of black box magic and a bit of legislation. Some criteria are set out in the Broadcasting Act. For example, the Act states that subscribers should have access to a basic service that: (1) fosters the growth of Canada’s cultural, social, economic and political aims; (2) is varied and comprehensive, providing a balance of information and entertainment programming, at an affordable cost; (3) is drawn from local, regional, national and international sources; (4) includes educational and community programs; and (5) reflects and contributes to Canada’s linguistic duality and ethno-cultural diversity, including the special place of Aboriginal peoples in Canadian society.

So. The CRTC is challenging the inclusion of some channels while preserving the status of others. MuchMusic, CBC Newsworld, Le Réseau de l’information (RDI), TV5, Vision TV, VRAK-TV, The Weather Network/Météomédia and YTV are having their basic package status threatened. Canada's national networks, major U.S. networks and local cable access channels are not having their status questioned. Hearings begin on Tuesday, March 27, 2007 in Gatenau, Quebec to sort out which of the challenged stations should get to stay.

For more information, contact your local CRTC office and pester them with questions. This is something that all Canadians should have a say in. But because of the CRTC's Byzantine protocols, limited promotion of opportunities for public participation, and the complexity of the language generally used in CRTC public notices, the public will likely be unrepresented at the hearings.