Radio / Television News

COMMENTARY: Community TV looks to bureaucrats to rise above corporate pressure

By Dru Oja Jay, Amélie Hinse and Cathy Edwards

CANADA’S COMMUNITY TV stations understand that the federal government’s revisions to the Broadcasting Act represent a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address the challenges of the past two decades: the CRTC’s regulatory capture, the collapse of local news media in smaller markets, and a steady decline in confidence in institutions.

Canada once had a thriving network of cable-managed community TV stations. In the ’80s and ’90s, over 300 studios across the country supported volunteer-driven broadcasting. These stations taught a generation about media production, developing world-famous Canadian talent from Dan Ackroyd to Tom Green to Guy Maddin. They were the user-generated content platforms of their day, moderated by professionals under the oversight of the CRTC.

They covered community news and events that never would have seen the light of day in a commercial environment, including gavel-to-gavel coverage of municipal council meetings, crucial for democracy. A generation of civic leaders were nurtured by a thriving community TV sector.

So what happened? Regional cable companies merged into just a few mega corporations, shuttering small-town community production studios along the way. And then they got greedy. They convinced our regulator, the CRTC, to redirect most of the $150 million in annual revenue that was supposed to support “local expression” (community TV) to prop up their failing private news properties via the Independent Local News Fund, established in 2016.

At the inception of cable TV, 10% of cable revenues supported cable community TV stations. This number dropped to 5% in 1991, 2-5% in 1997 when the Canada Media Fund was created (rural community TV stations were allowed to retain the full 5% contribution, but urban stations had to re-direct 3% to the CMF), 1.5% after an update in CRTC policy in 2010, and less than a half percent since 2016, at the discretion of cable companies to move between their commercial properties and the few remaining big-city cable “community stations”. Communities themselves have no input, so rural subscribers in New Brunswick are currently 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 extremism is surely a manifestation of the frustration of groups who have no platforms for constructive discourse. News comes almost exclusively from big cities. Rural areas and smaller cities don’t recognise themselves on our screens.

Into this vacuum, another model of community TV has arisen, akin to Canada’s community radio stations: community-owned and -operated, answerable to local boards of directors. Despite having to cobble together funding — from bingos, DVD sales and donations — these community TV stations are doing extraordinary work. The not-for-profit community element now consists of over 220 radio stations and approximately 65 TV stations, employs more than 1,000 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, on satellite, and on line, for one-tenth the cost hour for hour of content produced by the public and private sectors.

All without a cent from cable or broadband revenues — with the exception of Quebec, where 40 of the 65 community-owned TV stations are located.

With the reconsideration of 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, and — crucially — that the community element be recognized as not for profit.

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.

In practice, community-owned stations have encountered roadblocks — usually accompanied by the telltale signs of a cable industry lobbyist, 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 fulfill their mandate to supply at least dispassionate information and — hopefully — advice in the public interest.

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 the community element in our economies, civic institutions and social fabric will require more than we can provide if left to duke it out in the ring against a private media sector that is more horizontally and vertically integrated than in any other Western country.

We’re counting on finding some democracy in this process. The millions of Canadians who live outside major cities and the minorities and underserved voices who live within them are relying on it, not to mention the ‘average’ Canadian who would just like “to be exposed to the expression of differing views on matters of public concern,” (to quote the Broadcasting Act).

A coalition of interested organizations and citizens have set up an online petition to support community media – available here –  and a short video explaining the problematic history of community TV in Canada is available here.

Dru Oja Jay (above, left) is the executive director of CUTV, Amélie Hinse (centre) is the director general of the Fédération des télévisions communautaires autonomes du Québec and Cathy Edwards (right) is the executive director of CACTUS.