Advertising on the Community Channel

The issue of advertising on the community channel is becoming more and more contentious. Prior to 1997, only sponsorship messages without moving video were allowed. Since 1997, moving video, product placement, and infomercials seem to have become rife on "community TV", particularly corporate-run channels such as Shaw, which use every opportunity to promote their own services.

Most community TV practitioners (and the early legislation) envisioned a non-competitive, educational platform for local voices and issues, free from the need to compete for the dollar. In recent years, however, there has been pressure from two sources to liberalize the restrictions on advertising on the community channel:

1) From the cable operators, who want to be able to turn their 2-5% cable levy contribution to commercial advantage

2) From small independent community TV organizations who have inadequate or no access at all to the 2-5% cable levy ear-marked for community TV

The Dunbar-Leblanc report that was recently filed as part of CRTC policy hearing 2007-10 also recommends that advertising rules on the community channel be liberalized.

Resistance to liberalization of the rules comes from two sources also:

1) From CAB and its member broadcasters, who rightly see advertising on the community channel as competition

2) From community TV practitioners such as myself who worry that liberalizing the rules will not only change the character of community TV programming in the long term to favour more commercial formats that will appeal to larger audiences (and exclude the niche audiences that the channels were designed to serve) but also give the CRTC an excuse to give away the 2-5% of the cable levy for other funding initiatives.

If you've read the interventions to 2007-10, you'll know that both the Fédération des télévisions communautaires autonomes du Québec and many MPs and municipalites throughout Quebec intervened to ask for liberalization of the rules. I spoke to Gérald Gauthier at the Fédération this week and he confirmed that most of the letters from Quebec MPs and municipalities had been written at their request. He said that because many independent community TV organizations in Quebec have little or no access to the cable levy money, they need alternate sources of money to survive.

When I asked him whether he feared that more advertising would skew the mandate of the channels away from non-discriminatory access toward more commercial varieties of programming, he said that many of the autonomous channels receive money from the Quebec Ministry of Culture and this affords them two protections:

a) A steady base source of income. Advertising revenue is a supplement only, not a basic organizing principle for the channel, as it is in the private sector.

b) The Ministry of Culture provides funding only if the community TV organization is non-profit and meets stringent requirements as to its programming, including non-discriminatory access by members of the community.

He also claimed that in a recent survey done of community TV viewers in Quebec, that a majority said they liked seeing local advertising on the channel, because it made them more aware of businesses in their community.

My own fear that the CRTC may eliminate the 2-5% persists, and that liberalizing the advertising rules will just give it more excuse to do so.

My experience in travelling the world visiting community TV channels in Australia, Israel, South America, Europe, Nepal and the US tells me that community TV needs a steady source of non-commercial funding. These channels are funded from municipal tax dollars in Europe, by a combination of government and municipal funds in Israel, and by the cable industry in Nepal and the US. Where steady non-commercial sources of funds do not exist, trouble almost always ensues fulfilling the channel's access mandate. For example, in Australia and Brazil, the government gives licenses for community TV, but no funding. A couple of Australian channels survive on sponsorship, such as in Brisbane. About half the air-time when I visited was filled with harness racing, because the harness racing association was underwriting the channel's costs.

In Brazil and other parts of Australia, the "channel" is just a playback head-end, often no bigger than a closet, where groups in the community bring their tapes for playback. They have to find their own shooting and editing facilities, and the result is that they have no live interactive programming at all (since there is no studio), volunteers quickly burn out because documentary-style shoot-and-edit production is time-intensive to produce, and there is no cross-fertilization of ideas among producing groups, because each is isolated and there are no common production facilities. No sense of programming a single service on behalf of the community results. In Brazil, most of the programs are made by well-endowed organizations like churches and trade unions. Few opportunities for access by individuals exist.

The one exception to this trend that I discovered was in Peru, where an informal network of commercially funded community-access TV has sprung up on its own, due to several accidental environmental factors converging at once. The capital and financial centre of Peru is Lima. Lima is dominated by people of Spanish descent, and until the early 1990s, major national commercial TV networks had their headquarters in Lima and regional smaller offices scattered throughout the indigenous-dominated Andes. When Fujimori’s government fell, capital retreated to Lima and the major networks sold most of their small affiliates to local indigenous owners.

These new owners found themselves with small studios and equipment, but no money for local production. Throughout the Andes, these operators almost unanimously opened their doors to the community and invited them to make programming via a 50-50 profit-share. Any advertising that either the channel or the producer could find for a program is split evenly. Because the local people had always resented the dominance of Spanish programming and culture, the locals enthusiastically stepped up to the plate and began programming in their own languages, and showcasing their own dances, costumes and culture.

The Peruvian example is the exception to the rule, in my opinion, however. While it does demonstrate that where there is a strong desire for local expression that people will find a way to do it, it could only flourish when the airwaves had been voluntarily opened up and abandoned by retreating media giants. The economy of South America is also significantly less globalized than in Canada, meaning there was a much larger market of local businesses to take advantage of local advertising than in most small Canadian towns.

So, what do you think? Please join our forum and give us your 2 cents’ worth from your part of the country. If possible, we'd like to be able to evolve a common approach to this issue for future CRTC hearings.

Catherine Edwards