INDEPENDENT MEDIA by Steve Anderson
Prior to the deregulation of community TV in 1997, all Canadian communities with 2,000 cable subscribers or more enjoyed access to a cable-operated community TV channel. Some communities even had a vibrant network of volunteer media makers, such as the 1,200 or so volunteers across 12 regional offices throughout Vancouver’s Lower Mainland. The resources for community TV came from a broadcast levy collected by cable companies, and which was considered a public trust.
Dipping into the emptiest pockets
However, in the last 13 years, cable companies have altered community channels and the levy that supports them; they are now used as a competitive advantage rather than a community resource. This represents a serious misuse by cable companies of the roughly $100,000,000 of public trust funds ($116,000,000 in 2008).
In 2008, cable monopolies earned a profit of 25 percent, before interest and taxes. Irrespective of these earnings, they are using public trust money, partially earmarked for the most marginalized in our society, for their own commercial interests. This community money should be used to create an innovative, independent media sector in Canada and provide much needed resources for underserved communities and at-risk youth. That some of the most profitable companies in Canada are taking public resources from those most in need is outrageous and must be challenged.
The missing report
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The CRTC is currently reviewing community media in Canada and taking back this public money could pave the way for an historic opportunity. A proposal by CACTUS (Canadian Association of Community Television Users and Stations) is calling for the millions of dollars already being collected by cable companies for community TV to be liberated to independent media centres. These media centres would serve to empower citizens and facilitate media innovation and the CRTC can make this a reality.
Recently, it was brought to my attention that a report detailing community channel policy around the world – “Community TV Policies and Practices Worldwide” – has been removed from the CRTC website. This missing report formed part of the public record when the community TV hearing was called. The study’s author, Catherine Edwards, is an international community TV expert and her report provides essential information for public participation.
According to the CRTC website, it removed the report because of “concerns” by licensees of broadcasting distribution undertakings (AKA ‘Big Cable’). This decision appears to be in response to a letter dated December 10, 2009, sent by Rogers Communications, Shaw Communications, Cogeco Cable, EastLink and Quebecor Media, asking for the report to be removed. The CRTC’s willingness to bend to the concerns of a few clearly biased companies draws into question the CRTC’s independence from the cable industry.
OpenMedia.ca has posted the report online at www.openmedia.ca, but it should also be part of the public proceeding.
Watchdog for whom?
The CRTC’s website indicates there are 139 cable-operated community channels in Canada, but gives no further information. We don’t know who owns them, where they are located or what their programming consists of.
As far as I can tell, the problem is that despite complaints from community TV organizations, the CRTC is not actually monitoring or supervising community TV activities. The CRTC doesn’t even appear to be collecting programming logs so how can it possibly review them?
‘Big Cable’ has been given unfettered access to more than $100,000,000 of our money and the CRTC has seemingly provided little oversight. But this situation isn’t new; over the past 10 years, an estimated $800,000,000 has flowed through this fund.
The best way to get out of this mess is to liberate the community media funds straight to community media organizations. Cable companies have shown themselves to be unfit in the role of middlemen and the CRTC has shown itself incapable of ensuring that funds are directed towards their intended purpose.
Canadians can ask for the funds to be given back to communities by sending a comment to the CRTC here: www.openmedia.ca/action
Steve Anderson is the national coordinator for the Campaign
for Democratic Media. He contributed to Censored 2008 and
Battleground: The Media, and has written for The Tyee,
Toronto Star, Epoch Times and Adbusters. Reach him