The Battle for Community TV

If asked to think about community television (or public-access television, as a similar institution is called in the US) most people would probably conjure up the movie Wayne's World or its real-life analogue, The Tom Green Show: TV made by people who would, under normal circumstances, never appear on TV, shot in someone's basement or living room. Or perhaps they'd think of earnest, low-budget shows that showcase community events that wouldn't otherwise be televised, such as ethnic festivals or the Canadian Improv Games.

In fact, though, community television has not been like this for some time. While Canadian cable companies are required by the terms of their licenses to provide one or more community channels, there is little oversight as to who creates the programming, nor is there much restriction on the content so long as it can be considered "local": under CRTC regulations half of the airtime must be made available to independent community producers, but for the last decade there has been no funding available for community groups to produce programming. Cable companies have stepped into the breach with pre-packaged show formats which they can drop into each market for a minimal cost, such as Daytime, which appears in twelve different markets, and First Local, which appears in seventeen markets. Most recently, cable companies have begun questioning whether they will continue to provide community television access at all and a 2007 notice by the CRTC indicated that the Commission considered this a possibility.

While community television has become more like commercial TV, much of the content that was once carried by community channels has moved online: would-be Tom Greens or Wayne Campbells are much more likely to find an outlet, and an audience, on YouTube. The Internet has become home for some community programming as well, but at least in the short run its potential there is limited because by definition community channels are meant to serve audiences not well-served by commercial television, such as recent immigrants and small communities, and these audiences often do not have high speed Internet access or are simply not online.

Fuel has been thrown onto this fire by a recent report from the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage entitled Issues and Challenges Related to Local Television, which recommends that cable companies' contributions to the Local Programming Improvement Fund be increased from one to two-and-a-half percent of their distribution revenues and that community production groups be given access to a portion of that money (it currently goes to commercial stations in small markets.) This might have the effect of moving production funding from the cable companies to community groups, giving them the money to produce programming which the community channels would then broadcast. Of course, you need more than money to produce programming: volunteers need to be trained, and equipment needs to be available. A group called the Canadian Association of Community Television Users and Stations has suggested that a portion of this funding be used to create community media centres that would provide training and facilities to a variety of groups, following the model of the W2 Community Media Arts centre in Vancouver.

The CRTC's community television policy is currently under review, with hearings scheduled for April of 2010, and whether the CRTC will either increase the cable companies' contributions or dedicate a portion of that fund to community media centres very much remains to be seen. Some recent CRTC decisions have been to the detriment of community TV: for example, until this year cable systems with fewer than 6,000 subscribers were exempted from having to provide community television channels, but in August that number was raised to 20,000, meaning that many small communities that previously had community television may lose it (one example is the channel "La Television des Iles" in the Iles de la Madeleine, which was an independent community channel receiving funding from Eastlink cable.) The Notice of Consultation which the CRTC used to announce the coming hearings raised a number of other possible changes as well, including allowing advertising on community TV.

Meanwhile, community television has been drawn into the fight between cable companies and broadcasters over what the networks call "fee for carriage" and the cable companies call a "TV tax." This is a fee that the cable companies would pay broadcasters in order to carry their programming; the cable companies estimate this would add between five and ten dollars to the average monthly cable bill. As the cable companies have tried to cast this in terms of an added cost to the consumer, broadcasters have claimed that they need the money to preserve local programming in small markets -- arguing, implicitly or explicitly, that the community channels funded by the cable companies are not fulfilling that role.

The CRTC has rejected fee-for-carriage twice before, and further hearings on the issue are currently underway. With all of the attention being paid to new media, it's easy to forget that for many people -- and particularly people in small or underserved communities -- "old" media such as television remain the most important way of keeping informed. When you consider things like the increasing concentration of media ownership and the disappearance of local news and programming on commercial channels, it's may be that community television needs to return to its roots -- and to the hands of the community.