It was supposed to be simple and non-controversial: An application by Videotron to create a second community television channel in Montreal to serve the anglophone community.
Anglophones had long complained that since Videotron bought CF Cable TV, they have not had a proper voice in community television. The CRTC even asked Videotron to do something about it. Just months before the announcement, the English Language Arts Network publicly called on Videotron to restore English community programming.
So when Videotron made its big splash about starting MYtv, the reaction seemed to be positive, at least at first. ELAN hosted a meeting in September to get input from the community, and though there were few people present, there were some tough questions for Videotron’s representatives.
Now, those questions have been formalized in a complaint to the CRTC.
The complaint, filed by a group calling itself Independent Community Television Montreal (ICTV), includes an 86-page document meticulously arguing that the programming that airs on MAtv does not meet CRTC requirements for a community channel. It argues that the CRTC should declare that MAtv is not complying with its licence conditions, and instead grand a licence to ICTV to operate a multilingual community channel that would replace both MAtv and MYtv.
I summarize the complaint in this story, which appears in Monday’s Gazette.
But as long as the story is, there’s still so much detail I had to leave out.
ICTV doesn’t have a licence, but it does have a website, where it lays out its plans. It is not yet incorporated, but it already has both a founding board and a steering committee.
The committee gives an idea of where the group comes from:
- Sabine Friesinger (the name under which the complaint was filed) and Laith Marouf are left-wing activists and former administrators at Concordia University Television and its parent the Concordia Student Broadcasting Corporation. They were instrumental in CUTV’s coverage of the student strike in 2012. Previously, they were heavily involved in student politics at Concordia. Friesinger is a former president of the Concordia Student Union and Marouf is a former vice-president — and this dates back more than a decade.
- Gretchen King (who I spoke with for the article) and Stephane Bertrand are active at CKUT, where Bertrand hosts a radio show and King, who worked at the station for more than a decade, including as news director, is on the board of directors. (Marouf also contributes to CKUT.)
- Abby Lippman and Yakov Rabkin are professors. Lippman is
on sabbaticalretired from the faculty of medicine at McGill and is a research associate at Concordia’s Simone de Beauvoir Institute. She’s a self-described feminist and an activist on women’s health issues. Rabkin is Professor of Contemporary History at Université de Montréal, and an expert on Zionism (which, based on his writings, he’s pretty well against).
- Jooneed Jeeroburkhan is a retired La Presse journalist and a human rights activist who has been accused of pushing at least one anti-Israel conspiracy theory.
Cathy Edwards, the executive director of the Canadian Association of Community Television Users and Stations (CACTUS), would be an advisor to the group, according to some documents.
The company would be run by its board of directors, composed of 19 people, broken down as follows:
- 9 nominated or elected by “organizational members representing the following sectors” (selected by an umbrella organization or, if none exists, any organization within the sector):
- Municipalities or public libraries
- Educational institutions and organizations
- Artistic and cultural organizations
- Community service organizations
- Independent and community media
- Labour unions and service organizations
- The disabilities community
- Third-language communities and ethnic minorities
- First Nations communities and service organizations
- 6 elected by “members that are active in the giving programming or calendar year”
- 3 elected by viewers
Math whizzes out there might note that the numbers add up to 18, not 19. They should probably fix that before incorporating.
The group has a series of issues with MAtv, mostly related to aspects of the CRTC’s community television policy that it has failed to meet.
Complaint 1: Access programming
CRTC policy requires that community channels like MAtv ensure that at least 45% of programming aired be “access” programming. On Sept. 1, that rises to 50%.
It defines “access programming” using two criteria:
- The idea for an access program must originate from a community member not employed by a BDU (broadcast distribution undertaking, i.e. the cable company); and
- The community member must be involved in the production team:
- in an on-camera role (e.g., a personality or actor that appears in a predominant portion of the production); and/or
- as a creative member of the production crew (e.g., directing, producing, writing).
“Videotron fails to meet its minimum requirement for access programming within the Greater Montreal licence area” ICTV says. In fact, it says, its analysis of a week of broadcasting last fall shows MAtv didn’t air a single program that qualifies as “access”.
Videotron says that’s nonsense, and its own analysis shows the same week had 59% of the programming qualify as access under the CRTC’s guidelines, slightly higher than its average for the broadcast year of 57%.
So who’s right? Well, the CRTC gets to decide that, of course. But ICTV’s analysis shows where the two seem to disagree. The group disqualifies as “access programming” any show that has ties to any commercial entity or is produced by MAtv, neither of which would seem to disqualify it under the CRTC’s criteria.
- Exercise shows like Absolument Yoga, Pilates and Bébé Cardio are not access programs because they’re hosted by people who run private fitness centres. ICTV considers that to mean their relationships with MAtv are commercial.
- Selon l’opinion comique, the comic talk show produced by Juste Pour Rire TV, is commercial, employs unionized on-air personalities and receives government production tax credits, which disqualifies the show from being considered as an access program.
- All other programs in Montreal are produced by MAtv and carry MAtv copyright, suggesting the shows are “under the creative control of Videotron staffers” and so do not qualify as access programs.
It bases these analyses off of nothing more than watching the shows and their credits, which could possibly be leading them to incorrect assumptions.
For Videotron, it’s clear: the idea for these shows come from the community, and the people from the community are involved in them, so they’re access programs. It lists the following as access shows on the island of Montreal for the week of Nov. 25 to Dec. 1, 2013, along with the people in the community they came from and are involved in them:
- À la page (host Éric Bédard)
- Absolument Yoga (host Sylvie Tremblay)
- Bébé Cardio (host Gabrielle Chapdelaine)
- Catherine et Laurent (producer Gilles Labelle)
- Couleurs d’ici (host/producer Akos Baktai)
- GROStitres (host/producer Xavier Beauchemin-Rondeau)
- Le confident (host Louise Deschâtelets)
- Les Soirées Juste pour rire (producer André “Junior” Girardeau)
- Mémoire de Proulx (host Gilles Proulx)
- Open Télé (host Sophie Durocher, though the idea was adapted from an earlier version of the show)
- Pilates (host Stéphanie Poulain)
- Premières vues (host Frédéric Corbet)
- Selon l’opinion comique (producer Martin Roy)
- Tout le monde tout lu! (host Jean Barbe)
The CRTC’s rules say there can be no advertising on community television channels. But shows can be sponsored. “Sometimes people bring us projects that involve a lot of advertising and we refuse them,” said Steve Desgagné, general manager of MAtv.
Complaint 2: Volunteers
The CRTC’s community television policy mentions the word “volunteer” 16 times. It’s clear that volunteer involvement is a key part of the policy, in spirit if not in rules.
But at least in Montreal, MAtv doesn’t have much in the way of volunteering going on. ICTV’s back-of-the-envelope calculations based on numbers Videotron submitted for MAtv (showing 103 volunteers contributing 4606 hours of work) suggest that very few volunteer-hours are going into each of the channel’s programs. “The ratio of volunteers and their hours worked is extremely low for the number of programs taped,” ICTV’s complaint says.
In particular, ICTV looks at the behind-the-camera people, noting that it’s the same people technically producing each show. These are paid staff of Videotron, not volunteers.
Desgagné didn’t deny that there aren’t a lot of volunteers at MAtv in Montreal on the technical side, though he pointed out that the show Catherine et Laurent, produced by community radio station CIBL, has “about 20 volunteers” working for it.
Instead, Desgagné said MAtv provides training opportunities to the community through internships.
Complaint 3: Lack of representation
MAtv currently airs no programming at all in any language other than French. It has no programming targetting the aboriginal community (Videotron supplied a list of only a handful of programs over the past four years that even included a segment dealing with aboriginal issues). And other than Couleurs d’ici, has nothing reflecting various cultural communities.
ICTV wants to have one channel that reflects the entire community, rather than, as Gretchen King put it, “silo the language groups into channels.”
Not only does having one French channel and one English channel fail to factor in all the communities of people who speak different languages, but it needlessly separates those communities apart.
Here, ICTV is on the same wavelength as CACTUS, which has opposed the creation of multiple community channels to separate programming into two languages.
Videotron doesn’t argue that it has failed to represent the anglophone community. But the application to create MYtv was supposed to be the solution to that problem. Once it gets off the ground, there will be plenty of English community programming in Montreal.
“Last year, we committed to make our programming more accessible to anglo community,” said Desgagné. “We looked at two options: one, have an anglo programming time period, and two, start MYtv.”
He said the anglo time block on MAtv didn’t satisfy either language group, and so Videotron decided to go the MYtv route.
Complaint 4: Feedback
CRTC policy says that community channels “should” provide, among other things, “feedback mechanisms, such as advisory boards, to encourage viewer response to the range and types of programs aired.”
ICTV points out, and Videotron confirms, that no such advisory board exists for MAtv. Videotron has proposed one for MYtv, though members of the community were skeptical about this at a meeting in September because the advisory board would have no actual power over programming.
Desgagné said Videotron has committed to creating an advisory board for MAtv by Dec. 31.
Complaint 5: Promotion
Opportunities are useless if you don’t know about them, and ICTV has expressed concern that Videotron is not doing enough to promote the access opportunities afforded by MAtv, essentially selling it as a regular television channel.
Community channels are expected to promote their access opportunities through various ways, including “billing inserts, website, on-air announcements, participation at community events, visits to schools/colleges/universities, social media.”
Specifically: “All terrestrial licensees are expected to distribute a billing insert describing the availability of access programming and methods by which proposals can be made. Such billing inserts should be distributed annually. The Commission will review the efforts of licensees in this regard as part of the licence renewal process.”
I get my Videotron bills electronically, so I don’t get inserts. I certainly haven’t seen one promoting community access on MAtv.
But a notice started appearing on Videotron bills in February, saying the following:
Got a good idea for a TV show? A program that would be useful, informative, educational, interactive? Submit your project to MAtv! http://matv.ca/page/matv-proposals
Clearly Videotron has taken note of the complaint here.
Videotron notes that it also promotes MAtv through social media, using Facebook and Twitter, and promotes access opportunities through on-air promos. And when they go to events, “we always take advantage to promote MAtv as community access programming,” Desgagné said.
But the biggest way is through the MAtv website, because that’s where most of the proposals for programs come from.
Complaint 6: Ignoring proposals
To make its case that Videotron is failing to represent the anglophone community, ICTV’s complaint includes reference to a complaint written by Jason Gondziola of CUTV in 2009, saying he made proposals to Vox/MAtv that were ignored.
Desgagné said he’s been in office two years and can’t speak to what happened before he got there, but he hasn’t received any proposals from CUTV or ICTV since he started working in his job. He said he’s open to receiving them, despite the heated rhetoric in front of the CRTC.
“We’re very open. The door will never be closed to any community group.”
The CRTC asked Videotron to compile a list of all proposals made from Sept. 1, 2013 to Feb. 14, 2014, and say what happened to them, giving reasons for those that were rejected.
The list provided included 37 projects submitted for the island of Montreal. Of them, four were accepted, four others were marked “to be developed”, and five were to be combined with other proposals or with existing programs.
Seven others had not yet been evaluated.
Of the remaining 17 that were rejected, the reasons for doing so matched what Desgagné told me: Either they duplicate existing shows, they don’t fit the mandate or they’re too expensive or impractical to produce.
We shouldn’t read anything statistically into the rejections. But they’re interesting from a qualitative perspective. Among the series rejected are a documentary series about family life (more suited to Canal Vie, MAtv said), a documentary about aging in Quebec, France and Switzerland (not local and too expensive), a trade-places-with-a-celebrity-for-a-day show (not a community show, too expensive), and shows that MAtv deemed beyond its technical capacity to produce: a show about cultural personalities sitting down to dinner together, an interview show featuring where-are-they-now celebrities, and a vegetarian recipes show. The devil may be in the details about why they can’t be produced by MAtv.
- ICTV’s calculation of MAtv’s budget suggests it spends far more on programming per hour than it should
- MAtv doesn’t cover Montreal city council meetings, as community channels normally would
Ambitious is putting it mildly. ICTV will commit to a community channel that provides live coverage of events, representation from every community, and 70 hours per week of original programming (more than three times what we see on MAtv). And it would expect to be on the air nine months after getting CRTC approval and funding.
I won’t get into too much detail because a lot of it is vague and so much of it seems unlikely to make it to air. But the group is definitely committed to the community programming spirit.
The plan will have to wait, though. Videotron’s public process is about the complaint against MAtv, not ICTV’s application for a new licence. The course of the latter will undoubtedly be affected by the decision on the former.
Videotron won’t say what MAtv’s budget is for Montreal. ICTV estimated it at $23 million a year using a very general (and very flawed) calculation based on average cable bills and the population of Montreal. Desgagné said this isn’t even close to the real figure.
But we can infer the amount of money involved. Quebecor’s report to the CRTC shows $23,371,000 in contributions to its community television channel throughout Quebec. If we assume that, with 23% of the population of Quebec living on the island of Montreal, that 23% of MAtv funding goes to its Montreal channel, that would work out to about $5.4 million.
More telling, at the meeting with ELAN in September, Videotron said the budget for MYtv, which would also operate in he Montreal area, would be about $6 million a year. So it’s safe to say that we’re talking about a number that is around this figure for each of MAtv and MYtv in Montreal. That number would get bigger if ICTV wants to take over community channels in neighbouring communities like the south shore, Laval, Terrebonne and Châteauguay, though these areas have community television groups operating in them.
What about Bell?
One thing I wondered about this group is why it hasn’t gone after Bell, which has also proposed a community television service in each language for its Bell Fibe subscribers in Montreal.
Unlike Videotron, Bell’s community channel isn’t a linear channel. Instead, it’s a series of videos made available on its video-on-demand service. The CRTC deemed it acceptable to do it this way, even though not finding a channel on the channel grid will likely mean much less viewership.
ICTV didn’t really have an answer to that question. I suspect they haven’t really looked into it much yet, having focused so much on Videotron. If this complaint is successful, Bell could easily be their next target.
It seems like a long shot to think that the CRTC will just yank Videotron’s licence for MAtv. A more realistic scenario is that the CRTC imposes new conditions on Videotron, or clarifies rules about community television.
ICTV and CACTUS have also left open the possibility of a compromise whereby MAtv would be allowed to continue but ICTV would replace MYtv and get its funding.
But even if the complaint is rejected, it doesn’t mean the end of ICTV. They could still produce programs for MAtv or MYtv (assuming the latter is accepted). And Videotron would be required to air it, because that’s a clause in the community television policy:
Where there is one or more local not-for-profit community television corporations (TVCs) in a given licensed area, up to 20% of the programming aired during each broadcast week by licensees shall be made available for access programs from these TVCs. Where more than one TVC is in operation in a licensed area, each must be guaranteed a minimum of four hours of access programs per broadcast week, upon request. This 20% is considered part of the access program requirements set out above.
So ICTV would be given up to three and a half hours a day (assuming an 18-hour broadcast day) of programming on MAtv.
Funding isn’t as clearly spelled out. Rules require at least half of programming expenditures be given to access programming, but it’s not made clear that the funding for independent community television corporations should be proportional to their airtime. I would suspect that it would be, though, and another complaint would be forthcoming if Videotron tried to discriminate in its funding allocation. Its report to the CRTC suggests that funding is about proportional to airtime.
MAtv’s Desgagné has made it clear he’s willing to work together, and said they even approached CUTV to get them involved.
ICTV’s willingness to work together this way is unclear, but King said “we would still be interested in pursuing community television licensing for Montreal” even if the complaint is rejected.
What is community TV about?
Reading all these documents, it seems clear to me that this is an argument about the fundamentals of community television. ICTV and CACTUS don’t seem to like the rules as they’re written now, and have complained even though Videotron is following the letter of those rules.
It’s a big question: Is community television about service to a community, providing local information in a professional way with the help of money from cable TV distributors? Or is it about access, giving any guy off the street half an hour a week to talk about whatever he wants?
It’s a question I don’t have an answer to. But the CRTC is in the process of a wide-ranging review of television policy, and this could be one of the issues it decides to tackle, especially if it finds that cable companies are following the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit.
The CRTC is accepting comments on the ICTV complaint against MAtv (which you can download here) until
April 10 April 22. (ICTV had asked for an extension to April 17, since Videotron got a one-week extension on submitting information, but that request was denied. The CRTC later extended the deadline anyway when it decided to seek more information from Videotron, to be submitted by April 7.) The file number is 2013-1746-2. You can submit comments online here. Remember that all information submitted goes on the public record.
ICTV’s website is tele1.ca. It includes the individual files submitted to the CRTC as part of the complaint.
- A story in Le Devoir in February about the ICTV/MAtv battle
- Stories in Cartt.ca last fall and earlier this month (latter one by me) about the CRTC process
- CIBL story about ICTV and interview with Sabine Friesinger
- A petition in support of ICTV
- Gretchen King’s comment in the McGill Daily against MAtv
- A post on Huffington Post Quebec by Ronald Cameron, general manager of the Institut de coopération pour l’éducation des adultes, supporting ICTV
- CACTUS’s page about this complaint
- A document outlining how ICTV’s proposal differs from MAtv/MYtv
- Comments submitted to the CRTC on Videotron’s MYtv application (community groups in favour, ICTV against, and groups that rely on the Canada Media Fund worried by the drop in funding that would result), and Videotron’s reply to those comments