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ICTV vs. MYtv: Taking sides in the fight over Videotron’s community television channel

A complaint by a group of Montreal activists against Videotron is taking on a greater significance as groups are lining up on both sides of a battle for control over Videotron’s community television service.

Last month, I wrote about ICTV, a group headed by people associated with CKUT Radio McGill and others formerly associated with Concordia’s CUTV.

After that article appeared, I was contacted by someone who wanted to set up a meeting with Isabelle Dessureault, the president of MAtv, who wanted to clear up any misconc… let’s just call a spade a spade, wanted to drive the discussion a bit more to Videotron’s favour.

Dessureault confirmed that the CRTC is not moving forward with the Videotron application for an English-language version of the MAtv community television channel, and that this process could delay the launch of that channel by a year or more. MYtv on ice became the basis for another story in The Gazette.

There was also the matter of a lawyer’s letter to ICTV from Videotron ordering it to retract statements about the company that it considered defamatory. (It doesn’t directly threaten legal action, but certainly suggests that would be the next step. Videotron confirmed the letter was sent but said “Quebecor Media is studying its options.”) ICTV refused, saying the CRTC process was the place to settle their differences of opinion.

Since then, two important organizations have backed the two sides of this battle.

ELAN backs MYtv

The English Language Arts Network, a group that supports anglophone artists in Quebec, has decided to back Videotron instead of ICTV. Executive Director Guy Rodgers and President Peter MacGibbon lay out their argument in this opinion piece published last week in The Gazette. The arguments boil down to two main points:

  1. ELAN prefers a more professional, high-quality model of community television in which artists are paid for their work instead of volunteers working for free. It believes Videotron’s model is better than ICTV’s in this regard
  2. ELAN believes that ICTV’s proposal for a single multilingual television channel would not be as good as Videotron’s proposal for two channels, one in each language.

The ICTV folks took ELAN’s stance in the measured, respectful way one expects from Montreal’s activist community: Writing an open letter with the headline “ELAN betrayed our communities by selling out community TV to PKP’s Vidéotron.” It accuses ELAN of being intentionally misleading and of supporting a “segregationist” idea of community television.

ELAN’s opinion makes sense when you consider that it represents artists, such as independent television producers, rather than the community at large. Its view has to be taken in that context. It doesn’t make them evil, and I got no impression whatsoever during their community meetings over this issue that they discouraged other people from expressing their views on the matter, nor do I think they’ve sold out to Videotron.

CACTUS backs ICTV

The other voice to take a stand here is CACTUS, the Canadian Association of Community Television Users and Stations. The group’s executive director, Catherine Edwards, presents her group’s views in this Gazette opinion piece, which was published alongside ELAN’s.

CACTUS believes in general that community television should be taken out of the hands of cable companies, and that even if there was once a reason for cable to control community television channels, technology has made that reason obsolete.

Edwards argues that community television should be in the hands of the community, not the cable companies.

CACTUS also opposes dividing community channels by language. Among the reasons for being against this are that doing this divides the two communities, leaves no place for third languages, and allows cable companies to double the amount of money they can keep in house rather than give over to Canadian content funds.

Friends of Canadian Broadcasting also has a page with one-sided information collecting comments in favour of ICTV.

The case vs. the policy

One important thing to consider in this whole affair is the difference between whether Videotron is properly following the CRTC’s community television policy and whether that community television policy is properly written to begin with.

The policy has been revised numerous times, the latest in 2010. But there’s a lot of ambiguity there. For example, the key part of community television is community access programming, but the CRTC sets only two criteria for such programming: That the idea come from a member of the community not employed by a cable company, and that this person be involved with the programming in a significant on-camera or off-camera role.

That leaves a lot of loopholes. What if the person is an employee of a company related to a cable company? Can the cable company claim copyright over the programming produced this way?

CACTUS, ICTV and others take exception to the fact that community TV channels run by cable companies are exclusive to customers of those companies. But the CRTC has chosen not to require open distribution of such community channels.

The community television policy could change soon. The CRTC has begun a year-long process of reviewing television policy, and the cable companies and CACTUS will undoubtedly be lending their voices to that process. Until then, though, the ICTV vs. Videotron complaint will be judged on existing policy.

Videotron wants to change … kinda

In my discussions with MAtv president Isabelle Dessureault and general manager Steve Desgagné, they have been trying their best to appear reasonable about this issue. They say Videotron is trying its best to be representative of the community, that it doesn’t reject proposals for community TV programs unless they fail to meet the criteria, and that despite this dispute they are open to proposals from ICTV members. (They note that they have yet to receive any.)

Videotron admits it has gotten some things wrong, most significantly its failure to properly represent the anglophone community in Montreal (an error it is trying to fix with the MYtv application). Dessureault also says MAtv will reform some of the ways it presents information to the public, by changing its end-of-show credits to emphasize the contributions from the community and by volunteers. It also plans to create an annual report for the public that outlines their accomplishments for the year.

And Videotron plans to, by the end of the year, set up an advisory committee for MAtv that would provide feedback on programming. (It had already planned to set up such a committee for MYtv once it was approved.)

Dessureault also said MAtv will be launching a new project in June that will facilitate community contributions to television. The concept is a bit fuzzy to me, but involves a website where people can contribute ideas and content, which will then be given to someone to turn into TV shows or documentaries. The purpose is to allow people to contribute without having to commit to running a weekly show.

But on the fundamentals, there are no changes planned. Most programs are still being produced by Videotron, and Videotron retains control over programming.

Community programming isn’t easy

Dessureault stresses that getting communities involved with community TV isn’t easy, though they’re trying.

ICTV, however, argues that it has the resources to make it work. It points to CKUT, a radio station where volunteers fill an entire week’s worth of airtime without the need for repeats. It believes it can do the same on television.

The money issue

The big issue here, of course, isn’t access, it’s money. ICTV could produce hours of video and post it to YouTube. But unless it wins its battle at the CRTC, it won’t get the millions of free cable money needed to pay for it.

Cable companies have community TV channels because they’d have to spend the money anyway, and otherwise it would be outside of their control.

There’s a conspiracy theory floating around (and has been expressed by commenters on this blog) that Videotron and others use community TV for monetary profit, by charging their own community TV channels for technical services.

Dessureault says MAtv’s finances are audited, both internally and by the CRTC, and attempts to cook the books wouldn’t succeed. But she does admit that MAtv does use some of its money to pay for things provided by Quebecor. MAtv shares human resources staff with Videotron, for example, to reduce costs. It also pays rent to TVA for production space (though at “well below market rates,” Dessureault said). Dessureault said these things are a very small portion of MAtv’s budget, which she said goes mainly to programming.

The CRTC has access to MAtv’s finances, and its experts are sticklers for attempts by big companies to take liberties with finances in order to reduce their obligations. So I seriously doubt that Videotron would get away with, say, overcharging MAtv for Internet access or rent in order to suck away some of its budget.

But there’s a legitimate question to be raised over whether such expenses should be paid for by the cable company, separate from the 2% of revenues it can allocate to community programming.

That, too, may be an issue if the CRTC decides to review its community television policy.

Until then, it will be judging Videotron based on its compliance with the current policy, and that policy leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

The CRTC is accepting comments on ICTV’s complaint against Videotron until 8pm ET on April 22. You can file comments using this form. Note that all information submitted, including contact information, becomes part of the public record.

Further reading

Note: A slightly edited version of this post was published on the opinion page of The Gazette on April 23.

14 thoughts on “ICTV vs. MYtv: Taking sides in the fight over Videotron’s community television channel

  1. Dilbert

    First, let me say this: I don’t think the Videotron “cooks” the books. Rather, I think that the way they structure things is financially beneficial to Quebecor. Charging less than the “market rate” for prime studio space, top end edit suites, and the like is nice, but community TV can (and often is) filmed in cheaper industrial space or even in someone’s basement. Marking 50% off of the internal cost of space that they have to pay for anyway isn’t really helping if that space is still many times higher than the alternatives.

    They don’t have to overcharge for anything – they can even under charge because any money retained is an improvement on their bottom line – they were already paying for all of the stuff anyway.

    The biggest question is why suddenly both Bell and Videotron show up to add a second community channel. When you start from that perspective, the money angle becomes clear. These companies won’t get off their ass for the love of the communities they most ignore, so why now? Oh, because the rules changes and they can use that 2% in a way that is at least partially beneficial to them (and still be within the easily exploited rules given the the CRTC)

    So when you go from there, you start to see that Videotron isn’t the good guy here… then again, there is lots to be said that the other side isn’t the good guy either.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      The biggest question is why suddenly both Bell and Videotron show up to add a second community channel.

      Videotron’s move was hardly sudden. Anglo community groups had complained for years about a lack of community television, and Videotron decided to try to launch one after it finished relaunching Vox as MAtv.

      As for Bell, its request for both a French and English channel (or “service”, since it’s only available on demand) came after Bell Fibe had enough revenue that they made sense to set up.

      Reply
      1. Dilbert

        So you really don’t think that the ability to take 2% of revenue out of the Canadian production fund and put it into a self-managed community channels isn’t a driving force here? You don’t think that the ability to do it a second time (with a second channel) isn’t a driving force here?

        I think it’s clear that if the CRTC didn’t allow this 2% to be diverted, they wouldn’t be there at all. As a direct expense against operations, none of hem can justify it. As soon as there is relatively free money to do it, they want to be there. The rest sort of explains itself.

        Out of curiosity, what is the Videotron budget for MYtv? How many millions of dollars a year?

        Reply
        1. Fagstein Post author

          So you really don’t think that the ability to take 2% of revenue out of the Canadian production fund and put it into a self-managed community channels isn’t a driving force here?

          I do think it is a driving force. It’s probably the main reason why cable companies choose to create their own community channels — creating something that can be made exclusive to their service.

          Out of curiosity, what is the Videotron budget for MYtv?

          Videotron contributes $23 million a year to MAtv, which forms almost all of its budget. MYtv’s budget will be smaller because it will be only one channel covering the Montreal area. Videotron won’t say how much that is, but figure maybe half that if you consider budget as proportional to population.

          Reply
          1. Dilbert

            Apparently the CRTC saw what you didn’t, which was Videotron not meeting their expections, and using the funding mostly to keep their own staff working (most productions done by the same team).

            The logic here is that 23 million a year is a lot of money when you consider what is suppose to be happening here, which is community produced programming. CRTC made it clear, they feel they could run TWO channels (one in each language) for the same as they do a single one now. That’s a pretty good indication that this has been a Videotron profit center, and that they their intention on adding a second channel (and taking another 23 million as budget) was to make this a very profitable concept indeed. If we take the CRTC at their word, there would be something like 20 million excess funding if they took 4% total for the two channels. That’s pretty impressive.

            I don’t think for a second that cable companies do community programming because it makes them feel good. It’s profitable – and clearly VERY profitable in the eyes of the CRTC, especially when you do it the Videotron way.

            Reply
            1. Fagstein Post author

              a second channel (and taking another 23 million as budget) was to make this a very profitable concept indeed.

              $23 million is Videotron’s total contributions to community television. MYtv was only for Montreal, so would only have been a fraction of that budget. We don’t know for sure how much, but a figure of around $6 million was passed around by Videotron when it was first proposed.

              I don’t think for a second that cable companies do community programming because it makes them feel good.

              They do it because they have to spend the money anyway, and they want to keep control over it. There’s a strong argument that this is a bad idea, but there’s also a strong argument that without that control, much of community television would be so disorganized as to be dysfunctional. The CRTC will be reviewing community television this year, and both sides will present their arguments then.

              Reply
              1. Dilbert

                The thing is, if it’s just an obligation (ie, the CRTC makes them do it because the are a cable operator) then organized or not would be irrelevant. They would just be interested in filling time, and would accept pretty much anything that met the technical standards or that could be produced for very little.

                Their motivations for producing a higher end channel, we professional sets, production teams, and the like has to make you wonder. The whole thing COULD be done from a small industrial space with a couple of cameras, a green screen, and software to put in backgrounds. it could be produced independently outside of Videotron and just put on the air – and anything in the middle, including proving the technical help.

                Videotron’s choice to “up market” (and therefore up cost) things is something you have to wonder about. When it stops being an obligation and they start to do things like this, generally it’s only because there is a profit to be had in some manner. The benefits to Videotron outweigh the costs.

                It’s pretty obvious that it’s good for them – they want to expand to an english channel as well as long as they can keep another 2% to enjoy.

                It would be really interesting to see the internal emails and documents about these services, things are pretty wild.

              2. Fagstein Post author

                The thing is, if it’s just an obligation (ie, the CRTC makes them do it because the are a cable operator) then organized or not would be irrelevant. They would just be interested in filling time, and would accept pretty much anything that met the technical standards or that could be produced for very little.

                But then what else do they do with the money? We’re talking about millions of dollars here. They want to make a product that provides added value for cable subscribers, since the service is exclusive to their system. That’s why we’ll often see things like junior hockey games end up on these cable-company-run community channels.

                Videotron’s choice to “up market” (and therefore up cost) things is something you have to wonder about.

                But the cost is the same. Videotron is spending 2% of its gross revenues on community channels. That’s the case whether they do it in-house or not. Since they have to spend the money anyway, why not spend it on good stuff?

                Arguably this goes to the heart of the issue with MAtv: Videotron was concerned with producing the best quality programming. But ICTV et al were concerned with having the most accessible programming. The CRTC sided with the latter view.

              3. Dilbert

                “But the cost is the same. Videotron is spending 2% of its gross revenues on community channels. That’s the case whether they do it in-house or not. Since they have to spend the money anyway, why not spend it on good stuff?”

                Where do you think they get the “good stuff” from? Higher cost studio space, and all the costs related to operating in the downtown core, all purchased (or budgetted from)… Videotron.

                Basically, they get the high end services from another arm of their own company, and thus the money flows through and turns into profit in other areas. It’s a wonderful captive way to turn the 2% not into community programming, but into income for other parts of the company (and profits as a result).

                It’s a normal part of business, but one where the company can grandly abuse the system and create benefits for itself, all while appearing to remain within the concept of 2% for community programming.

                Easiest way to figure it out is that they don’t want to give that 2% to someone else to do it. Clearly there are both control and bottom line issues at play here.

              4. Fagstein Post author

                Where do you think they get the “good stuff” from? Higher cost studio space, and all the costs related to operating in the downtown core, all purchased (or budgetted from)… Videotron.

                Their studios are in the TVA building, but I don’t have information about where they buy their equipment from. It’s definitely a concern when you have cable companies funding their own community channels, and hopefully the CRTC will seek and release information during its review that will be able to tell us for sure whether any companies are abusing the system to financially profit themselves. That said I have no evidence that Videotron or any other company is in fact abusing this system to benefit themselves financially.

              5. Dilbert

                “That said I have no evidence that Videotron or any other company is in fact abusing this system to benefit themselves financially.”

                I think the point is that it’s not specifically abusing the system, as much as playing the system as much in their favor as possible. It looks like perhaps Videotron got a little too greedy and crossed the guidelines, using too many professional hosts, too much of their own paid staff, and not accepting enough true community programming.

                If they obtain services, products, production help, or whatever from other parts of the Videotron / Quebecor world (almost unavoidable) and those areas make profit as a result, then they are benefiting from running the community channels. I suspect that this is really the point, they looked at the extra 2% for the english channel as a way for their “other services” to make a profit by selling services to the community channel. It’s not nefarious or anything, but it’s another one of those problems of vertically integrated company outsoucing to itself, and being able to redirect funds intended for community productions into their own coffers.

  2. CD

    “ICTV could produce hours of video and post it to YouTube”

    You hit the nail on the head. Any individual or community group can buy a camcorder for $300 and post whatever they want on the internet for free. Anybody can then watch it by subscribing to internet, which these days is about the same as subscribing for cable.

    So: why oh why does CRTC still require community cable TV? It’s just a waste of money.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: CRTC finds MAtv failed to fulfill its community TV mandate, denies additional funding for English-language channel | Fagstein

  4. Phoenix

    The times they are a-changing. As the TV industry struggles to adapt to future world, I see more community engagement by common people and business in common, e.g. JEVOISMTL and LaboratoireMaTV.

    Let’s see what rabbit can be pulled from the Videotron hat, in this time of change.

    Reply

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