Is community TV facing its Waterloo? A response

The following is a letter written by Sid Tan to the Globe & Mail in response to Marsha Lederman's article: Is community TV facing its Waterloo? published on April 10, 2008

Sid Tan is a community television producer and activist with ACCESS TV (Association of Chinese Canadians for Equality and Solidarity Society) and the Slim Evans Society (producer of Working TV). His current projects include Fearless TV and Salt Water City Television in Vancouver.

Dear Editors.

Just over ten years ago, government regulators and cable companies delivered a near lethal blow to community television. The government ruling and self-serving interpretation by dominant cable operators Rogers and Shaw led to the dismantling of community television volunteer networks and local office infrastructure and resources in Metro Vancouver. This near death scenario continues, seemingly with government and corporate collusion, and begs for a judicial review. As
well, the Auditor General should review the $800-million in public money handed to cable companies across Canada on behalf of community television the past ten years. That's $60-million to Rogers and Shaw in Metro Vancouver the last ten years.

In 2003, a Senate (the Lincoln) report stated its "frustration" and "dismay" that no information exists on what happens to cable company expenditures on behalf of community television. There's no way to find out if citizens got their money's worth!

In Public Broadcasting Notice 1997-25:131, the government regulator responsible to the Minister of Canadian Heritage - the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) - handed community television to cable companies. It boldly and trustingly states: "This policy reflects the Commission's belief that opportunities for local expression would continue to be provided in the absence of a regulatory requirement. In the Commission's view,
after more than twenty-five years of operation, the community channel has achieved a level of maturity and success such that it no longer needs to be mandated. Apart from its benefits to the public through local reflection, the community channel provides cable operators with a highly effective medium to establish a local presence and to promote a positive corporate image for themselves."

The Commission's boldness was mistaken and its trust misplaced. On November 19, 1996, more than three months before the new policy announcement, Rogers began shutting down its neighbourhood television offices, beginning with 1010 Commercial Drive. Thousands of volunteers and dozens of staff worked in this and another sixteen or so community
television studios and offices throughout Metro Vancouver. In Vancouver alone, there was a full studio along with four neighbourhood community television offices ñ two in Kitsilano, one in the West End and the Commercial Drive location. Volunteer community-based productions such as Complaint Department, Production Parade, Metro Magazine, Chinatown Today, Global Justice, Pressure Point and East Side Story dominated the then Rogers cable community channel. The
programming opportunities, production training in local offices, mentorship and extensive volunteer networks are all but gone from Shaw, now the dominant cable operator in the region through a swap of assets with Rogers in 2001.

Shortly after Rogers announced the closure of the Commercial Drive office, the volunteers there hastily constituted a not-for-profit society to weather the anticipated corporate assault on community television. Rogers, taking flak for the closures, agreed to support the volunteers for two years while Community Media Education Society was organised to safeguard the spirit and legacy of community television. Two workgroups developed. One to work on regulatory and
public education efforts and the other to continued the production of community television programs. The production workgroup begat three not-for-profit community television corporations. First came Independent Community Television Co-operative, then Vancouver Community Television Association and ACCESS TV (Association of Chinese Canadians for Equality and Solidarity Society), which initiated and helps produce FearlessTV and Saltwater City Television. Along with the Slim Evans Society, best known for its Working TV, all now have regular timeslots on Shaw's local cable community channel. None receives any of the public funds collected by Shaw - an estimate $6-million annually in Metro Vancouver.

Now the Shaw's cable community channel is called Shaw TV and its community television in Metro Vancouver is directed from the Shaw tower at Coal Harbour. Ironically, with a studio there, volunteers from Vancouver need to go to Surrey for studio production in a building which also serves as a Shaw retail office and storage. Volunteers from Port Moody need to come to downtown Vancouver to pick up a camera to do a shoot in Port Moody and return the gear. Shaw's appreciation of community-based volunteers is underscored by their miserly ways towards them. Volunteers and non-profit groups pay for
all transportation, parking, refreshment and majority of tape expenses for their productions. Yet Shaw has the public money to provide the same to its production personnel, including company vehicles. More miserly and destructive was the shutdown of local offices and studios and laying off production staff over the past ten years. Shaw continues to believe and explain community television is better after cuts to local offices and staff and loss of the volunteer network. These are dastardly deeds and show Shaw's corporate greed trumping community need.

A judicial review is in order. The Broadcasting Act clearly states the Canadian broadcast system is comprised of public, private and community elements providing a public service essential to the maintenance and enhancement of national identity and cultural sovereignty. Yet the CRTC, our broadcast regulator mandated to uphold the Broadcasting Act, believes the community element no longer needs to be a regulatory requirement for cable operators. The resultant
confusion allowed cable companies such as Shaw to refuse broadcast of programs produced by not-for-profits. This was a clear violation of CRTC rules and the spirit of community television.

A judicial review may explain why cable companies receive and control the entire cable community channel levy, leaving not-for-profit groups to fundraise for their community television needs. There is no logic when community programming produced by volunteers is only available by subscribing to a corporate service. Unbelievably, the CRTC says Vancouver cannot have a low power community television is because there is no room on the broadcast spectrum. There's room for public and private broadcasters but none for the community. How is that fair?

Canada has played a central role in the development of community television and is considered by many to be the birthplace of community broadcasting. The community element was developed to provide local groups with training to access to the broadcasting system. Community broadcasting, which is local, volunteer-based and largely not-for-profit, is often able to broadcast a diverse range of voices, alternative points of view, and innovative programming ideas. In January 2008, CRTC Broadcasting Public Notice 2008-4 announced a comprehensive review of its policies with respect to community-based radio and television. The objective of this review will be to ensure that the Commission's regulatory policy supports the development of a healthy community broadcasting sector. Over two months have passed and
there is still no information available on when the review will begin.

Given the community television carnage wrought by Shaw and Rogers in Metro Vancouver, one could say the CRTC's review is too little to late. At the least, the Auditor General should let citizens know what happened to the $800-million in public money given to cable companies. The worrisome lesson here is that the federal government can hand the
public trust of community television to cable companies, who want citizens to be passive consumers and not active makers of media.

For more on community television, go to www.crtc.gc.ca and see CRTC Broadcasting Public Notices 1991-59, 1997-25 and 2002-61. You can email cmes@vcn.bc.ca if you want to get involved in community television.