C.M.E.S. Response to Broadcasting Decision CRTC 2008-19

Ultimately it's about the money. Canada's $80 million annual broadcast distribution levy has created the modern hybrid community channel, a community-corporate partnership where the entire tax is returned to the company to be used for business promotion.

When CRTC commissioners rejected the C.M.E.S. application to provide the community channel for the Telus TV distribution network, they considered three issues. The middle issue is that C.M.E.S. might not be able to provide a community channel without revenue from Telus. From its own resources C.M.E.S. is being asked to fund this channel. The CRTC suggests advertising, going into not-for-profit competition with commercial TV.
In fact cable companies are seeing dramatic advertising revenue growth on community TV ─ $5 million in 2005, money that once would have been available to broadcasters to help fund Canada's entertainment industry. Now some cable companies have become so financially dominant they can refuse to pay the tax that helps finance the Canadian Television Fund.

The third reason given by the CRTC for rejecting the C.M.E.S. application is that distribution of shows for Alberta and BC would come from Calgary and Vancouver. Production would take place in all fourteen communities covered under the Telus licence, independent shows controlled by residents in those communities, but the CRTC did not consider that to be sufficiently local. Until Terrace and Lethbridge can have a full local schedule financed by local subscribers they can't have anything.

The mayor of Medicine Hat disagreed, the mayor of Prince George disagreed, and twenty-five other people representing municipalities, universities or themselves disagreed; but that was not enough to convince the CRTC. Once Vancouver's community channel had eleven neighbourhood offices. Now we see centralized programming throughout the Lower Mainland and beyond. Thousands of volunteers have been replaced by a few paid professionals. Is it finally time for municipalities to manage the system, guaranteeing channel access in the same way that public libraries are open to everyone, especially since for community TV a funding structure is already in place?

The first reason the CRTC uses to reject participatory public access TV in BC and Alberta begins by acknowledging C.M.E.S. strengths. C.M.E.S. is genuinely structured for community control of its management, operations and programs. C.M.E.S. has operated on a volunteer basis for more than a decade, along with other community TV groups in Canada who constantly have to turn away volunteers. In spite of that, the CRTC doubts that starting out with part-time workers and volunteers is practical. Until everyone can be paid no one can be paid.

Canada's $80 million community channel tax on imported US TV signals is paid annually by all Broadcast Distribution Undertakings (an exceptionally clumsy phrase, usually shortened to BDUs.) In English-speaking Canada cable companies administer the tax they pay, much as if you managed the details of how your income tax is spent. Not-for-profit societies may receive the channel funding if community programming otherwise would not be available. This is the clause that C.M.E.S. has just tested unsuccessfully. If BDUs breach the Key Elements of the CRTC 2002-61 Community Channel Policy they also forfeit the levy money but the CRTC monitors compliance only when there's a public complaint. Parliament has been told that "virtually no information exists on what happens as a result of cable company expenditures" (Our Cultural Sovereignty, Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, June 2003, page 368).

Judging by their decisions, CRTC commissioners believe in strong businesses. Once Canada spent money to encourage political participation, recognizing the importance of public discussion to a nation. At the moment an almost religious faith in rugged individual anti-social economics blinds too many policy makers. The vogue for small government was not supposed to entrench big business but that's where the power has gone.

This decision against C.M.E.S. is equally problematic for Telus who will find it even harder to meet the local standard laid down here. When the Broadcasting Act included community television as one of the three pillars of Canada's broadcasting identity, when Pierre Juneau and Frank Spiller set out to involve us all as television producers, not just as consumers of American shows, they knew that the community channel would need secure funding. Like health care and education and its own armed forces, Canada needed to support community TV financially. Later when the argument came into fashion that all government services could be provided more efficiently by private businesses, the $80 million annually for community TV was irresistible to the private sector. The result was that all other social services began to suffer from the lack of discussion and promotion that had been provided by community television.

If the CRTC is true to its public trust, the only possible reason it might have had to reject the C.M.E.S. application is that C.M.E.S. did not set its sights high enough. Throughout the hearing process no one ever expressed any doubt that C.M.E.S. could operate a community channel. At the Kelowna public hearing C.M.E.S. director Brock MacLachlan pointed out the financial Catch 22 where credit unions and foundations require core funding before grants and loans will be given. C.M.E.S. made it very clear in Kelowna that its application was all about the money.

BDUs talk about competition but in fact a few cable companies retain the lions' share of subscribers, whether the competition is from little multipoint businesses or big telephone companies. Now in the Canadian Television Fund hearings a couple of cable companies like surly teenagers have become big enough to take a swing at their parent. If our government can be bullied then we have no government at all; or, even worse, we have government by large corporations. Without effective and sufficient taxation we always will have weak government. It has to be about the money.

Law courts and concentrated capital are powerful but nothing is as powerful as an idea that is right for its time. Community TV was founded on eight Key Elements, listed on page 333 of Our Cultural Sovereignty. These Key Elements are conspicuous by their absence on corporate community channels.

The best explanation for the CRTC decision against C.M.E.S. would be CRTC fears that the Telus web-based system won't succeed against its cable competitors. C.M.E.S. energy and, worse still, the enthusiasm of volunteer producers would be depleted to no purpose. That would explain why Telus got the licence in 2003 but the C.M.E.S. application was delayed til late 2007. The CRTC most likely recognizes that a favourable decision for the Telus system may not be enough to reinvigorate community TV. Nonetheless the C.M.E.S. application was necessary to see whether volunteers had the determination to carry the process through to a decision.

The real challenge is in Canada's major cities: creating a participatory public access community channel under independent control with full BDU funding. Whether this is done by municipalities or not-for-profit community groups, it must be done. The Community programming undertaking provision in CRTC 2002-61 states that the community channel must be operated according to CRTC 2002-61 Key Elements. If it can be proven in Vancouver that this is not being done, then $5 million is available there annually to support civic issues, public discussion and all-around fun. The same opportunity exists in Calgary and all of Canada's communities, large and small. This is the only tax most BDUs ever pay. It's all about the money.

Richard Ward
Director, C.M.E.S.

Link to Broadcasting Decision CRTC 2008-19

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