Posted in Opinion, TV

Community lacking in community TV

The CRTC will be holding a hearing this month about community television, and at least one group is hoping they will close loopholes (or even just curb abuses that aren’t even loopholes) that allow cable companies to use these channels as promotional arms.

The CRTC requires cable companies to devote 5% of their gross revenues to Canadian programming. Of that, 2% must go to a community channel, kind of like those “cable access channels” we hear about in the U.S.

Even though it’s a very small fraction of their money, the cable companies decided they would put it to good use. Instead of just giving it over to an independent community broadcaster, they’d run their own community networks. Rogers uses the moniker RogersTV. With Videotron, it’s VOX. Shaw TV, TVCogeco, you get the idea.

The problem with having the cable companies in control is that this can lead to abuses. Rogers is being accused of having too much advertising. Others of not keeping proper records (which, admittedly, is a chronic problem for many low-budget broadcasters).

But the biggest problem seems to be that the programming itself isn’t fulfilling its mandate:

The CRTC audits found that Cogeco, Rogers, Shaw, and Persona all classified staff-produced news and other programming-even MTV promos in one instance-as “access programming”. Some Eastlink systems reported no access programming at all.

“The CRTC’s data show that Canada’s ‘community’ channels have become promotional tools for cable companies,” said Catherine Edwards, spokesperson for CACTUS.

A look at VOX, Videotron’s community channel, and you can see what they mean. A show devoted to TVA’s Star Académie. A show put together by a (former) Quebecor-owned weekly newspaper. Quebecor personalities are all over the schedule.

Sure, there’s the “Mise à jour [city name here]”, and the half hour where they show traffic cameras. But I don’t see much access here, nor do they make obvious how someone could get involved.

Perhaps the era of community television is over. We no longer need cable access when we have Internet access. People can just put their videos on YouTube. (Ratings certainly suggest that, with market shares of 0.1 and 0.2%.)

But until the CRTC makes that determination, cable companies should start playing by the rules – the spirit as well as the letter.

UPDATE (May 15): La Presse’s Marc Cassivi also thinks Vox isn’t doing what it should as far as community programming.

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