New CRTC Community TV Policy Little Better than Previous One

After eight long years of complaints from the Canadian public that they have been excluded from “community TV channels” on cable, the CRTC recently released a new community TV policy for Canada that is little better than the existing policy.

As dissenting Commissioner Michel Morin dubs it, “The Commission’s paternalistic community model” leaves community cable channels and the money that is collected from Canadians for “local expression” firmly under the control of cable companies. Catherine Edwards, Spokesperson for the Canadian Association of Community Television Users and Stations (CACTUS) noted, “The Commission ignored the request of the Canadian public—which was made abundantly clear at these hearings—that the time has come for community broadcasting to be in the hands of communities, as it is in all other countries that have a community sector. This is how it operates here in Canada in the community radio sector. Why not TV?”

Licences for communities to run their own channels were introduced in 2002, but there was no funding formula. The CRTC’s analysis acknowledges that a lack of funding explains why so few community licenses have been requested, yet the new policy denies communities access to the Local Programming Initiative Fund, to commercial advertising, and to the more than $120 million collected annually from Canadians for “local expression”, but which instead goes to cable companies for their professional regional channels.

Edwards reflected, “What’s particularly sad is how outdated the Commission’s model of community TV is. Approximately 40% of Canadians don’t subscribe to cable, so a cable channel as a digital townhall for Canadians just doesn’t work anymore. We also presented data to show that the majority of the more than 300 unique community channels and studios that once existed on cable have already been closed. This evidence appears to have been ignored. The relatively minor tweaks to the existing policy do nothing to address the closures.”

CACTUS proposed a new model of community broadcasting that would offer access to digital technologies, tools and training in every community across the country, available on all platforms, not just cable. “It’s a real missed opportunity,” said Edwards.

The two apparent improvements to the existing policy are the following:

1) Access Content Minimum Raised

The 2002 policy stipulated that a minimum of 30% of a cable community channel's content must be "access programming". In the new policy, this minimum is 50%, which sounds like a lot more equitable relationship with the cable company, except for these facts:

- The new minimum doesn't take effect for four more years! This is almost unheard of in CRTC policy-making. Policies themselves are supposed to be re-examined every three years, so this renders the change almost meaningless, and also implies that a review can't occur for at least another seven years! Complainants during this year's hearing have effectively been silenced for a long time into the future... a meaningless amount of time in today's fast-changing communications environment.

- The existing 30% minimum was unenforceable. The Commission had audited cable operators from 2002 through 2006, knew the minimum was not being met, yet did nothing. Cable operators routinely classified their own staff-produced magazine programming as "access programming" on the grounds that the ideas for the segments came from the community, and that the community was given air-time in front of the camera talking about their organizations and events.

2) New Definition of "Access Programming"

The new policy attempts to address this problem by defining "access programming" as programming initiated by the community and in which the community plays a creative role on the production team, but that role can still just be an on-camera role. This means that the new-magazine format that most cable companies now favour (over full-length programs produced by volunteers) could still be claimed as "access programming".

- Even if 50% of the programming week is given over to the exhibition of "access programming", the onus is still on the public to monitor and enforce the limit, and the community will always be fighting for control of a channel with a for-profit entity whose priorities are elsewhere.

The Commission has not absorbed the message that "access" to the airwaves is not just about single Canadians getting to make programs here and there. The overall direction of a channel, its mandate, its training and staffing policies--all affect the identity of the channel and its impact and ability to interact with a community's culture on every level. These need to be under the community's control to have a chance of achieving the community's full aspirations. Access TV is meant to be a learning process... it's about media literacy. You can't have a corporation mediating that process on behalf of a community in today's hyper-competitive climate. It is "patronizing", as Commissioner Morin wrote. And with the size of today's cable companies the relationship will always be grotesquely unequal.

Quebec's community producing groups had asked to be given licenses that would put them in equal control of spending and programming decisions with the cable operator (still an uneasy and illogical partnership in a 500-channel universe... is there really not room for both?) and even that was denied.

We can interpret this decision on the part of the Commission as either extremely cynical or extremely naive, or perhaps a peculariarly Canadian weird combination of both. We can either believe that the Commission serves its client license-holders first and foremost (cable companies) and the public whom the Broadcasting Act is meant to serve a distant second (the cynical take), or we can suppose they really believe that it is possible for individual citizens at the community level to share control of a television channel with a national corporation (the naive take).

Or perhaps a third interpretation is the disappointing truth: that the Commissioners just have bigger fish to fry and not much time to spend on this. How many times did they meet since the oral hearing to rewrite the policy? Once maybe? Very little has changed. It's still a long rambling policy with many unclear and apparently contradictory requirements for multiple classes of community licenses, when we had asked for a simple policy with a single over-the-air community-access license class, with mandatory carriage in the basic cable tier, like any other local channel.

In any case, these are the principal new elements to the policy (the Commission did hear our message that there are problems with access), it's just that the Commissioners' proposed solution is to prop up the existing, outdated, and unworkable system. They didn't listen to Canadians on what the solutions should be, despite the fact that the policy is meant to serve us, and we are the ones on the ground who have been experiencing the deficits in the current policy.

They also apparently ignored evidence about the vast number of station closures and the damage done by zone-based licensing, presumably because the only logical solution to that problem is independent over the air truly local channels, and they're not prepared to take away funding from cable companies to do it.

There are a few other tweaks to the policy whose potential impacts we are still discussing. More soon.

Feel free to add your thoughts on the new policy. Anyone can create a membership and post comments at any time.

Cathy Edwards
CACTUS Spokesperson