In a victory for those who feel community TV channels run by cable companies are using loopholes to get around the spirit of the rules, the CRTC has ruled that Videotron’s MAtv community television channel has not complied with its obligations, but will be given a chance to do so.
In short, the CRTC agreed with the complaint by Independent Community TV, an independent group that wants to replace MAtv with its own grass-roots service, that MAtv isn’t providing enough community access programming, and instead counting shows created and hosted by professionals as access programs.
It also found some programs MAtv counted as “local” aren’t specific enough to Montreal.
The regulations require community channels to be 45% access and 60% local, but found MAtv was, during a sample week studied, only 30% access and 39% local.
The CRTC held up an application for an English-language version of MAtv in Montreal as it dealt with this complaint. That decision was also released today, and it allows Videotron to start up the service but denies the additional funding necessary to do so.
Cable companies start community channels because the CRTC allows them to deduct that funding from the 5% of gross revenues that they must spend on Canadian programming (mainly contributions to the Canada Media Fund). The rules allow up to 2% of gross revenues to be used for a community channel. But recently the CRTC has been allowing some companies to deduct a further 2% to create a second channel in another language — Rogers has this in Ottawa, Moncton, Fredericton and Saint John, while Bell has this for its Bell Local service in Montreal.
But because of the non-compliance, and because it felt MAtv already had enough funding, the CRTC says Videotron must start this new service without any additional funding. That severely lessens the chances of it happening.
In addition to a general requirement to come into compliance by the time its licence is up for renewal in August, Videotron must establish a citizen advisory board for MAtv by March 15.
The commission notes that the community TV policy will be reviewed in the coming year, and presumably the discrepancy between Videotron and Bell will be addressed through that.
UPDATE (Feb. 10): The Canadian Association of Community Television Users and Stations has issued this press release:
PRESS RELEASE CRTC Decision on MAtv Doesn’t Go Far Enough: CACTUS
Ottawa (February 10, 2015) According to a complaint by Independent Community TV (ICTV) of Montreal, problems with Videotron’s Montreal MAtv community channel stretch back over a decade. The CRTC’s decision last week (CRTC 2015-31) appeared to agree with ICTV broadly, stating that MAtv “is not respecting the objectives of the Community television policy relating to access programming and local reflection”.
However, the Canadian Association of Community Television Users and Stations (CACTUS) doesn’t think the CRTC’s directive to Videotron to rectify the situation before its cable licence renewal in August of 2015 goes far enough. “Montrealers have gone without access to training, equipment and TV air time to tell their own stories for a decade,” said Catherine Edwards, CACTUS’ spokesperson. “The CRTC’s decision does not address ICTV’s application for approval to operate the community television service in Montreal on a not-for-profit basis. ICTV filed its application following the letter of the CRTC’s community channel policy. The policy states that if a cable company does not comply with CRTC policy, a not-for-profit group within the licence area can run the community channel using the budget collected for this purpose from cable subscribers. This clause has been in CRTC policy since 2002, because Commission audits have shown chronic and systemic abuse of community TV channels by cable companies since the late 1990s.”
Laith Marouf shared ICTV’s reaction to the CRTC decision: “We spent four months preparing our application, including canvassing local groups and organizations that could use a genuine community channel to get messages out. We developed a model for a fully multilingual channel that would work with indigenous and multicultural communities, to ensure Montreal would have a genuine platform for citizen dialogue. We will continue our efforts towards this goal.”
Other countries that have enabling legislation for community media recognize the right of the community to manage broadcast licences. In Canada alone, for-profit corporations are expected to offer community media services, instead of communities themselves. Various parties have pointed to the conflict of interest this creates since the introduction of community TV in the 1970s. Edwards continued, “We argued that communities should administer community TV by definition once again at the CRTC’s 2010 community TV policy review. The CRTC assured us that if communities could prove one by one that cable companies were not meeting the expectations of the policy, those communities would be empowered to run these channels. This is explicitly provided for in the policy, yet that hasn’t happened.”
The onus will again be on the public to prove that Videotron is in non-compliance in August, effectively lumping a cable company’s ability to offer community media services in with its ability to offer cable services. Said Edwards, “Videotron owns the cable infrastructure in Montreal. The Commission is not going to take away its right to manage that infrastructure; that’s Videotron’s core business. Its ability to effectively offer community media services should be dealt with separately—as is provided for under the current policy. It’s time to turn the licence over to a community-run entity. This is the way it works everywhere else in the world but here.”
UPDATE (Feb. 11): ICTV has issued its own statement, questioning why the CRTC did not go further, and saying it plans to nominate people to MAtv’s citizen advisory committee (which should make for some fun meetings). ICTV’s Laith Marouf has an op-ed piece making similar points in the Montreal Gazette.
The ICTV statement compares what happened to Videotron to the situation of CKLN-FM, the Ryerson student radio station that had is licence revoked in 2011 for non-compliance with its licence. It says the CRTC “moved quickly to revoke the station’s license rather than offering a second or third chance as in the case of MAtv.” While it’s true that the station wasn’t given a second chance (and that was the basis for a commissioner’s dissenting opinion in the decision), the compliance issues it cited went back to 2007, and the most severe of which to 2009.
Nevertheless, you have to wonder if there isn’t an institutional bias in favour of large corporations that answer the commission’s phone calls and emails while being otherwise just as non-compliant with the conditions of their licence.