When a Rogers cable subscriber in New Brunswick pays their bills, part of that money by Canadian law must be allocated for community programming.
The problem is, it currently ends up going to Rogers-owned Citytv in Toronto, rather than anything community-oriented in the eastern province.
That’s just one of the ways cable companies have used their power over Canadian regulators to twist the meaning of “community” programming to their advantage.
It wasn’t always this way.
Once upon a time, Canada had a thriving network of real community stations. In the 1980s and 1990s, over 300 studios across the country supported volunteer-driven broadcasting.
They taught a generation about media production, developing Canadian talent from Dan Ackroyd to Mutsumi Takahashi to Guy Maddin. They were the user-generated content platforms of their day, moderated by professionals under the oversight of Canada’s regulator, the CRTC.
Their coverage of local news, events and protest would never have seen the light of day in the corporate media. That included gavel-to-gavel coverage of city council meetings crucial to municipal democracy. A generation of civic leaders were nurtured by community TV’s coverage of these issues and debates.
The last two decades, however, have hit community television hard: the CRTC has been captured by cable companies, local news media has collapsed in smaller markets, and there’s been a steady decline in confidence in media institutions.
The negative effects of that decline are on display everywhere. But community television stations are still around, and could be the basis of a revival of democratic, non-profit local news. That’s why this month, we launched a campaign to Rebuild Community Media.
The federal government’s revisions to the Broadcasting Act, currently being debated, represent a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reverse the cable companies’ power grab and help community television thrive again.
Cable giants get greedy
There used to be over 200 regional cable company owners, often with some connection to the communities they served. As part of their mandate, they funded hundreds of community TV studios across the country.
But over the last decades, they’ve merged into a few massive cable conglomerates, shuttering small-town and neighbourhood community production studios along the way.
And then they got greedier. They convinced the CRTC to redirect most of the $150 million in annual revenue that was supposed to support “local expression” (i.e. community TV) to prop up their own failing private news properties.
Cable took off in the mid 1970s. Originally, 10 percent of cable revenues supported community TV stations. This number dropped to 5 per cent in 1991, and dropped again in 1997 when the Canada Media Fund was created. The subsidy was further cut to 1.5 per cent after an update in CRTC policy in 2010, and has been less than a half percent since 2016.
Today, what funding is provided is at the discretion of cable companies. They usually choose to give it to themselves to provide programming that they prefer. Communities themselves have no input, which is how we end up with rural subscribers in New Brunswick supporting Citytv production in Toronto.
The results have been quietly devastating. We have witnessed the simultaneous collapse of local private media, driven by corporate consolidation and the shift of ad revenues to a few US-based online platforms. The term “news desert” describes more and more of Canada.
The frayed edges of our social fabric—due in significant part to a lack of reliable local news and outlets for civic engagement—can be seen everywhere. The rise in right-wing extremism is surely a manifestation of the frustration of groups who have no organized venues for discussion or democratic dialogue. News comes almost exclusively from big cities. Rural areas, smaller cities, and even most big-city neighborhoods no longer recognize themselves on our screens.
Democratic, non-profit media deserves a place in the Broadcasting Act
In this vacuum, a new model of community TV has arisen. Independent from cable companies, they are akin to Canada’s community radio stations: community-owned and operated, they answer only to local, elected boards of directors. There are 65 such stations across the country, the majority in Quebec.
Despite having to cobble together funding from bingos and donations, these community TV stations are doing extraordinary work. The not-for-profit community sector now consists of over 220 radio and approximately 65 TV stations, employs more than 1000 staff, trains more than 20,000 volunteers annually, broadcasts in 80 languages, and produces a million hours of local content over the air, on cable or satellite, and online.
They do this for one-tenth of the cost-per-hour of content produced by the public and private sectors. And they do it without a cent from cable or broadband revenues (with the exception of Quebec).
As Parliament reopens the Broadcasting Act, the Canadian Association of Community Televisions Users and Stations (CACTUS) and the Fédération des télévisions communautaires autonomes du Québec are proposing that “local expression” funding be restored to its original purpose. Even more importantly, we’re calling for the recipients of community funding to be limited to non-for-profit, democratically-governed organizations.
In theory, the government wants the same thing: a network of media outlets whose first priority is to support diversity and inclusion, combined with credible local news and information. But in practice, community-owned stations have encountered roadblocks, usually bearing the fingerprints of cable industry lobbyists toward whom the system is heavily tilted.
Community-based organizations do not have the resources to lobby at that level. We rely on principled bureaucrats who can rise above corporate pressures, and support from the public.
Under-resourced and overworked, the community TV and radio sectors are doing their utmost to argue for these crucial, simple changes to Bill C-11. But fulfilling the promise of community media will require more than we can provide if we’re left to duke it out against the most consolidated private media sector in the western world..
We’re counting on finding some democracy in this process. If we do, the result could be a game changer for hundreds of communities across Canada.