Since 1997 Canadian cable companies including Calgary-based Shaw Cable,1 have been stealthily withdrawing their support for community-produced programming in favour of their own in-house news and lifestyle shows. This has caused considerable anguish to the community television community and, with a few exceptions, virtually destroyed community access television in Canada.
In 1997, in response to competition from satellite broadcasting and the creation of the Canadian Television Fund (CTF), the Canadian Radio-Television Commission (CRTC)2 partly deregulated community television. Cable companies were given the option of giving 5% of their gross revenues to the CTF and not having a community channel; or retaining 2% for the operation of a community channel and giving 3% to the CTF. To avoid losing control of this chunk of their revenues, the cable companies chose the latter course.3
In 2002, the CRTC introduced a new class of low-power, over-the-air community license through Policy Framework 200-61.4 But the intent and definition of this licence was left open, even whether it would be available for profit or not-for-profit stations. No requirement for community access was included and most important, no funding formula was described.
The Canadian Association of Community Television Users and Stations (CACTUS)5 noted that the one good thing about this licence class was that it:
“Seeded the idea that community channels could become independent of cable companies, but still be available on cable as part of the basic tier, as with all local over-the-air channels.” 6
The proposal did little to support new community programming and has been hardly used.
No monitoring of cable company performace
The CRTC only got around to reviewing the performance of the cable companies’ public television channels in 2009. However, CACTUS pointed out that the Commission had provided scant information to the public about the programming of these community channels and requested under federal Access to Information legislation, copies of complete station programming logs.
The CRTC replied that it that had not been collecting this information from the cable companies. “The CRTC’s reply is in effect an admission that it has not monitored the cable industry’s spending of more than $100 million annually on ‘community programming’ in almost 20 years,” CACTUS concluded.7
Over 3,000 people responded to the CRTC’s 2009-661 review, the overwhelming majority in favour of community ownership and control of programming.8 At the hearings, 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.
New model of community broadcasting
CACTUS suggested that most of the $116 million that the cable operators currently spend each year on in-house community programming be put into a new Community Access Media Fund, which could create and maintain 250 multi-media community training and broadcasting hubs across Canada.9
However, in its August, 2010 decision 2010-622, the CRTC opted for the status quo.10 CACTUS executive director Catherine Edwards later wrote that:
“What is particularly sad is how outdated is the Commission’s model of community TV. Approximately 40% of Canadians don’t subscribe to cable, so a cable channel as a digital town hall 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.” 11
Dissenting CRTC Commissioner Michel Morin protested that the Commission’s paternalistic community model left community cable channels and the money that is collected from cable subscribers for local expression firmly under the control of cable companies. CACTUS estimates that 90% of Canadians now no longer have access to a genuine community television channel.
“It’s a real missed opportunity,” Edwards concluded.