Proposal for a National Public Access Channel

During the recent CRTC “Diversity Hearings”, I realized that

a) a national organization is needed to represent Canadian community television channels, similar to the Alliance for Community Media in the US and the Fédération des télévisions communautaires autonomes du Québec and

b) that organization should apply for a license for and administer a national citizen-access channel.

For ten years, the CMES has been the focal point for community television interventions with the CRTC
in English Canada, and the Fédération has represented community TV in Quebec. Although the CMES and the Fédération are on one another’s mailing lists and have exchanged information from time to time, we have not lobbied the CRTC with one voice to date. The differing views that these organizations have on the issue of advertising on the community channel is just one issue on which both parties have been saying different things to our federal regulator (please see the blog below).

A common and stronger front with respect to regulation is just one benefit that a national organization can bring. Others include:

a) help for groups attempting to obtain a new community TV license

b) training and guidance for new community TV license holders

c) on-going professional development for existing community TV license holders

d) a national awards program to stimulate production values and encourage the exchange of programming ideas (such as was formerly provided by the CCTA’s Galaxy awards)

e) the possibility of program bicycling

f) resource sharing, such as the posting of sample license applications and interventions on this web site

g) public-awareness raising about community television and democratic media rights

We hope that with your support, CACTUS will become this organization.

The case for a national citizen-access channel (the same as a “community-access” channel, but not confined to a small geographic community) overlaps the case for a national professional association. Such a channel could:

a) show the “best” or most nationally relevant of programming produced at local community channels across the country. Programs could be shared from one local channel to another simply by copying them at air-time. This would have the effect of giving a wider platform to programs about nationally relevant issues as well as let people in different parts of the country to know what is going on elsewhere. Award-winning local programs could be shown on the national channel.

b) show programming sent directly to the channel by independent producers; for example, the more than 100 independent feature films that are produced in Canada each year, few of which find an airing, as well as documentaries or other program formats whose producers want a wider audience than they are able to find in the commercial and public sectors.

Noam Chomsky, in an interview I did with him 2 weeks ago, said that he didn’t think US public-access had achieved its full potential because of its localism. He said that individuals and groups with alternative agendas at the national level often don’t have the resources or stamina to try to produce programs on a city-by-city basis, but might if the platform were national. He gave the example of a Ralph Nader or Greenpeace. This is equally true in Canada. There should be a national platform for citizen debate of national issues, just as there always has been for local issues via the community channel. For example, all political parties, even the ones usually excluded from national debates on the CBC and private broadcasters like the Greens, could have air time.

c) disseminate resource and training information for the community TV sector; for example, discussions about programming formats, how to recruit and train volunteers, or new technologies.

d) educate the general public about community TV, so that in regions currently not served by a local channel, people could obtain information about how to go about establishing one

How would a national citizen-access channel be operated and funded?

Because it would be mostly programmed by submissions from individuals and local community TV channels across the country, the need for a production budget would be limited to channel branding, context-setting wraparounds, and the occasional targetted national program (such as a federal political debate). My vision is that non cable-BDUs that currently give their 5% levy entirely to the Canadian Television Fund would instead direct 2% to this national channel and organization. Shaw, Bell ExpressVu, and the Dunbar Leblanc report have already raised the idea of a national channel. It could be operated like CPAC, with the contributions of many BDUs but operated by an independent board of directors (the national professional association), and carried by all BDUs on the basic tier.

Because only a small amount of this 2% would be needed for new programming and packaging per se, the balance could be used to run the national association, including an endowment fund to support fledgling community TV channels in parts of the country that do not at their inception or might never have access to the local cable levy. (For example, low-power over-the-air community broadcasters currently have no right to the levy under 2002-61.)

This scheme would level the playing field for BDUs and expand the number of channels in the community tier in our broadcasting system to two, an expansion long overdue given the enormously increased bandwidth we have now compared to when community TV started in the 1970s. Both the public tier (represented by CBC’s various channels and affiliates, the provincial broadcasters and CPAC) and private tiers have expanded dramatically during the same time period.

It would also offer citizen-made and alternative programming to audiences in parts of the country where no community channel exists.

So what do you think? I feel our best defence in light of recent attempts to weaken the community tier (such as 2007-10’s suggestion that the community channel might no longer be offered as part of the basic tier) is a good offence. Rather than fighting to retain old privileges and prevent further erosion, let’s propose a dramatic new way to strengthen the community tier.

There is precedent worldwide… With the increase in bandwidth, both the idea of local citizen-run channels and national channels to share such programming has been spreading around the world:

● US public-access channels have been sharing programming via Free Speech TV and Deep Dish satellite for several years.

● Israel has a national community channel that is distributed alongside the local channel and which is used for the “best” or most nationally relevant of local shows

● Australia has a national Aborignal channel that shares programming made at local and regional channels

● The US reserves a percentage of bandwidth in each community, not just a single channel, for public access. In many cities, there may be 5, 6 or more local access channels used by individual citizens, educational institutions and local government.

● The UK has a national community channel that airs programs made by non-profit associations.

Please give us your comments on the on-line forum. If there were to be a chance to obatin a Category 1 CRTC license for such a channel and to win the 2% levy from non-cable BDUs, this idea will need broad national support from CACTUS members.

Catherine Edwards

The photo shows the author being interviewed recently on Israel's national community channel.