Cable / Telecom News

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Not-for-profit community TV definition won’t affect cable channels

COMMUNITY MEDIA’S LOW-COST participatory model has the potential to address both the crisis in local news and information, and the proliferation of fake news. Yet this sector has been relegated to a sidebar in discussions to reform Canada’s broadcasting system.

When Paul Manly of the Green Party and others recently put forward an amendment to clarify that community media Is not-for-profit, it was rejected by the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage.

The concern raised was that giving recognition to “not-for-profit” community broadcasting might somehow imperil giant for-profit cable and satellite corporations.

The 1991 Broadcast Act recognizes three distinct elements: private, public and community. While it’s understood the private element encompasses profit-making corporations, and the public element includes taxpayer funded entities such as CBC and TVO, the community element has been left with a confused identity in legislation.

Its practitioners here in Canada and worldwide know the “community element” (sometimes called “the third sector in broadcasting”) is owned and administered by not-for-profit organizations that are accountable to community-elected boards. In Canada, the community radio sector follows this model: There are over 200 not-for-profit “community radio stations”. Radio stations that are owned by profit-making entities are regulated as private media.

The lack of a definition in legislation stems from the early days of community TV (the late 1960s and 70s), when it wasn’t clear to regulators that community groups had the resources or know-how to operate TV stations, even though their U.S. counterparts were doing it.

The mandate and financial resources to operate “community TV stations” were therefore placed under the stewardship of cable companies. The CRTC was anxious to give cable operators a means to invest in communities, to offset the enormous profits they were about to generate while flooding Canadian homes with predominantly U.S. content.

Thus cable companies—not community-run nonprofits—were handed the keys to community TV broadcasting. At the time, cable companies were small mom-and-pop shops headquartered in the communities they served, so the model wasn’t challenged.

Over time, these entities have been fibre-optically connected and their ownership consolidated into the companies we know today. They’re the massive, vertically integrated organizations we worry about when we say media are too concentrated.

They naturally treat their “community stations” with an eye on the bottom line. They’ve shuttered community TV in small communities and turfed 50-plus years of programming archives, often the only audio-visual records of the communities they once enabled with local reflection.

In their place, the cablecos churn out staff-produced centralized content. Driven by competition with satellite services, they lure viewers with glitzy network-style programming rather than the participatory model community broadcasting was meant to be.

Today there are only about 30 distinct cable community channels left of over 300 operating in the 1980s and 1990s, many covering vast regions and even provinces. Meanwhile, some 250 not-for-profit community-owned and -operated radio and TV stations do the often-grueling work of serving Canada’s smallest communities and niche groups without recognition in the Act.

We want our not-for-profit character recognized and supported, because we are there for the long haul. We don’t throw our content in dumpsters: We collaborate with public libraries to preserve it.

We hold bake sales to keep our stations open. We receive not one cent of federal or industry operational funding, while the public and private sectors receive over $1 billion each through a multitude of production funds and direct parliamentary allocation.

Does our desire for recognition “imperil” the remaining cable “community channels”? Not at all. If a BDU wants to operate a local specialty channel, they are free to do so. But their erstwhile ‘community stations’ should be recognized for what they are: private local specialty channels.

Community media, meanwhile, should be recognized for what they are: non-profit community-owned entities that invite diverse community voices to tell their own stories with the guidance of trained professionals.

When you read the Standing Committee meeting transcripts on their study of Bill C-10, it seems nobody at the decision-making table understands the complicated mess the CRTC has made of community media.

What is needed for their benefit is a dedicated study of the sector and its needs, or a look at research already completed. CACTUS obtained a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant in 2015 in partnership with the School of Journalism and Communications at Carleton University to do just such a study. Although its contents were presented to the CRTC at its last review of local and community TV policy and to the Department of Canadian Heritage, it gathers dust on a shelf.

A better understanding of “the community element” would benefit us all. Community media host conversations across the country about issues as diverse as climate change and our recovery in the post-pandemic world. Locally operated and accountable not-for-profit media is the democracy in action we need.

Catherine Edwards
executive director
Canadian Association of Community Televisions Users and Stations (CACTUS)