Winnipeg Free Press Article #2 re. Bumping Community TV Off Basic Cable Tier

What Will Become of Community TV? (Part 2)

If you were following this column 2 weeks ago, you’ll know that for the last 10 years, citizens in Winnipeg have not had access to their “community-access channel” (channel 9). These days, the channel is entirely programmed by Shaw staff, despite CRTC requirements that at least 30-50% of the content be “access programming” (initiated and executed by members of the community at large). Gone are the days of cult shows like Math with Marty, What’s New Pussycat, or the Pollock and Pollock Gossip Show, let alone hours and hours in every genre covering local sports, children’s, multicultural activities and local affairs.

The latest nail in the coffin for community TV is the current CRTC proposal to remove the requirement that the community channel be carried on the basic cable tier. Canada’s Broadcast Act says that there are three tiers in our broadcasting system: public (the CBC and provincial educational broadcasters), private, and community. Since there are so few public and community channels compared to the vast array in the private tier, the few there are should be as widely available as possible; for example, the CBC and provincial educational channels are available over the air as well as through cable and satellite. Ideally, the same would be true of the community channel. When cable was the only game in town, the community channel (the sole representive of that “tier”) was available to most Canadians. Up until 1997, approximately 80% of Canadian homes had at least basic cable service. Since 1997, satellite customers have lost access to the community channel. If the community channel is removed from basic tier, it will become even more of a rare bird, more likely to be neglected by cable operators, and to lose further funding. (Financial support for community channels fell from 5% to 2% in 1997).

By comparison, the community tier in many other countries is not a single channel. In the US, a percentage of bandwidth (often 5 or 6 channels) is set aside for community use, showing programming made not just by private citizens but by municipal governments, universities and schools, resulting in access to a rich educational local mix. In Australia, Israel, and the UK, there are national public-access channels in addition to local community channels, which play the best and most nationally relevant of the alternative voices that make their way onto community channels.

So what can we do? The CRTC proposal is not yet policy. The Commission is asking for public feedback by October 9th. Telling the CRTC what you think is as simple as accessing, scrolling to the end, filling out an automatic feedback form, and clicking “Send”. If you want to read the document in full (which deals with carriage rules for all channels, not just the community channel), the key paragraph is 73. If you used to participate in production at or watch Winnipeg’s community channel, tell the Commissioners what value it has had to you or community groups to which you belong. Ask that the channel be reopened for access by the community, and that it remain in the basic cable package.

Catherine Edwards