A community television renaissance in Montreal

You ever tried pitching a local TV show to a local commercial station?

Don’t bother.

It’s not that they wouldn’t love the idea. But over-the-air television isn’t what it used to be. Their audience isn’t as captive, their advertising revenue not as robust. Their owners keep them going by centralizing as much as possible, including programming, to keep costs down.

But there is a place that might accept your proposal. In fact, there are two. Both Videotron and Bell now run bilingual community television services in Montreal, offering money and resources to people who want to create shows that reflect the city and its various communities. A third independent community TV service was recently given a licence by the CRTC to operate on independent providers, and its plan is to offer some English programming too in a couple of years.

I wrote about these community TV services and the issue in general in a recent story for the Montreal Gazette. But I collected far more information than I could cram into that article, so here are some additional things I’ve learned.

MAtv (Videotron Channel 9/609)

Those of you following the MAtv saga might remember that it had planned to launch a separate English channel, and Videotron asked the CRTC to double the money it could deduct from its required payments for Canadian programming and redirect to community television. The CRTC said OK to the second channel, but no to the additional money (even though it said yes to a similar request from Bell). So Videotron decided to just add English programming to MAtv.

In September, it launched that programming: Five shows, of which two are English versions of MAtv-produced French shows (Montreal Billboard, hosted by former Global anchor Richard Dagenais, consists of interviews with people from local organizations, and is a French version of Montréalité; and City Life, hosted by former CJAD staffer Tina Tenneriello, is a current affairs show modelled after Mise à jour).

Of the other three shows, two are actually from the same group, though that fact is disguised a bit in the promotional material. There’s Living 2 Gether, a series hosted by Vahid Vidah that lets amateur filmmakers explore the social fabric of the city, and StartLine, hosted (kinda) by Henri Pardo, that profiles small businesses. StartLine was submitted by Gregory Vidah, Vahid’s brother.

To understand how they got involved in this, you have to learn about a guy I didn’t have room to talk about in the Gazette article: Ely Bonder.

Bonder worked at CFCF-12/CTV Montreal for 35 years as a video editor until he retired in January. But he’s had projects on the side for most of that time. In 1984, he was part of a group headed by Roger Price that proposed a youth-oriented television channel to the CRTC. It was later withdrawn because of a lack of funding, the CRTC decision says. In 1987, the commission would finally give a licence to a new specialty programming service called YTV.

Bonder went on to create an organization called Youth eMage Jeunesse, which helped young people, particularly those who are disadvantaged, get access to video equipment to create their own productions. It was one of several organizations to get financial benefits — $200,000 — from the transaction that saw Quebecor buy TVA in 2001.

Fast-forward to last year, and Bonder is at an event called Je vois MTL, which is designed to get people involved in proposing and launching innovative projects that make Montreal a better city. “There I met Vahid, who was coming up with a concept of empowering artists,” he said. “We put our heads together and talked.”

This is where I appear in the story. They came across articles I’d written about Videotron’s MYtv project. “Lo and behold the opportunity fell from the sky to do TV,” he said. They met with MAtv people, and “they suggested that we pitch a couple of shows.”

They came prepared, more so than MAtv anticipated. With the help of Collective Community Services, they reached out to volunteers, and got so many people interested they had to turn many of them away.

“You could tell there was a real sense of community that needed to be fulfilled,” Bonder said.

“We walked into the office of the general manager of MAtv and we wowed them,” Vidah explained. “They ate us like cupcakes.”

As a result, this group has two shows on the air, with a third slated for winter.

“I’m not a TV producer, I’m a musician and a social activist,” Vidah says. “I see myself as a social aggregator.”

Vidah, the son of an African father and French-Canadian mother, has a kind of hippie look at society, but that isn’t in any way insincere.

“We have so much things in common, that it’s kind of useless for us to focus on differences,” he says.

Bonder was so impressed by Vidah that he decided to give him the company. “I felt that he should actually own the entity that he was working for for free,” he said. “I got my freedom and he got the company.”

Vidah is resurrecting it as Zenzoo.TV.

The other independent production is The Street Speaks by Paul Shore. It’s an extension of a project he started online called Quelque Show (he changed the name Quelque Show was used by CBC Montreal back in the day and “I didn’t want the CBC to send me a cease and desist order”).

Ask him about the show and he’ll tell you that when he asked people on the street when was the last time a journalist asked their opinion about something, “97 out of 100 said never.”

The Street Speaks is a kind of everyman’s soapbox, in which people on the street give their opinions about issues. But unlike the man-on-the-street interviews you see on the nightly news, these discussions are more open-ended, about bigger issues than the divisive political issue of the day. “I don’t talk to people about news or pop culture, ever,” he explains. “I don’t have canned questions. I’m not looking for sound bites, I’m looking for people to have the opportunity to express themselves.”

Shore conducted long interviews with his subjects, and broke up their responses into themes to create 12 episodes of 28 minutes, with two themes per episode.

“It wasn’t that hard to get people to talk to me,” he explained. “I gave people the opportunity to express themselves even though they didn’t know they wanted one. Everyone has such rich stories to share.”

He does the interviews himself, without a production team. “It’s much easier for me to get really authentic interviews when I’m one on one with them,” he explains. The professional help comes in the postproduction process, particularly editing.

MAtv has changed a lot since the slap on the wrist from the CRTC. It makes much clearer now that it’s a place for people from the community to pitch programming, and airs a short intro before each episode of an access program pointing out where it came from. It has also launched a programming advisory committee, with input from many communities.

“I’m impressed with what we did over the past few months,” said Steve Desgagné, MAtv’s general manager, at the September programming launch. “We did the job and we’re really happy with the result.”

But there’s still a long way to go. The CRTC highlighted MAtv’s deficiency in presenting programming for an aboriginal audience. Desgagné said a project is in the works, but “we don’t know if it’s going to happen” yet. It all depends on the group that proposed it.

Even English programming was a bit hard to attract. He said they got “maybe 20 or so” submissions for English shows, while there are hundreds of proposals for French shows every year.

“We have to make more of an effort. The response was not what we expected,” he said. But “the projects we got are quality projects.”

The issues aren’t limited to programming, though. Videotron still faces a lawsuit from a group called ICTV that proposed its own grassroots community TV station to replace MAtv, which it successfully argued to the CRTC wasn’t respecting its mandate. In the meantime, ICTV isn’t proposing projects to MAtv, and MAtv hasn’t reached out to ICTV.

TV1 (Bell Channel 1)

Bell beat Videotron to the punch on English programming, mainly because Videotron’s application was stalled for a year by ICTV’s complaint.

Unlike MAtv, TV1, launched as Bell Local, is a video-on-demand channel instead of a linear one. Since Bell Fibe has no analog subscribers or other legacy issues to deal with, it can exploit the system’s technology to its full potential. This also means that episodes don’t have to fit into half-hour blocks.

Some of the shows it’s produced so far:

TV1 also has shows with obvious Bell Media tie-ins. A show about Amazing Race Canada auditions, an eTalk TIFF special, and a 24CH quiz show. Those don’t count as community access.

Discussing with Nicolas Poitras, VP Residential Services at Bell, who’s the big boss of TV1, the word “quality” came up a lot.

“There’s a perception that community TV is of lower quality,” he said. “Our desire was really quality. Our first preoccupation was to make sure that the quality was there.”

Poitras said Bell surveyed its customers and determined four broad themes that they wanted programming on: food, people, places and events. But if there’s quality stuff that doesn’t fit into those categories, they’ll still go for it.

“The only criteria is: Is it going to make interesting TV?”

While MAtv prefers series with 10 or 12 episodes, TV1 is much more flexible. Some are one-offs, some have just a few episodes, and others already have multiple seasons done. And because there’s no weekly schedule, deadlines aren’t as tight.

“We load assets when they’re ready, and people can consume them when they want,” Poitras said.

Another difference between Bell and Videotron is that the former gives more freedom to the producer to do what they want with the content. “We pay for the production and once we’ve aired it, the content is theirs, so they can broadcast the content on other channels,” Poitras said. Many producers have taken advantage of that to put their shows on YouTube (TV1 also puts stuff on YouTube, but it’s segments, not complete episodes.) MAtv, meanwhile, demands exclusivity for two years.

Both TV1 and MAtv are exclusive to their subscribers, and don’t offer full episodes online. That means for someone without a cable TV subscription, it’s easier to watch the latest episode of a hit U.S. drama than a community television show.

Télévision Communautaire Frontenac

There’s a third player in town. In August, Télévision Communautaire Frontenac was approved as Montreal’s first independent community television service. According to CRTC rules, all licensed terrestrial TV providers (cable or IPTV) must now offer TCF unless they have their own community channel.

So far this means only two small providers: Colba.Net and Distributel (Zazeen), both telecom companies that have recently added IPTV service in some areas of the city.

TCF dates back to 1995, and its home is in an office that was very clearly designed to be an apartment on the ground floor of the Tours Frontenac, a nonprofit housing complex across the street from the Frontenac metro station. It’s as bootstrappy low-budget as you can get, with only seven people on salary (not all of them full-time) but producing 200 hours a year of original content, soon going up to 300.

“We put money on the screen,” explains program director Louis-Martin McArdle.

Recently, an empty commercial space was given to the station to use as a studio, but before then it shot all its studio programs inside its cramped offices. For much of its life, TCF served only the towers of the complex, though that’s still about 800 units, or 2,000 people.

“There are community television services in Gaspésie that have fewer subscribers than there are people here,” McArdle said.

TCF eventually became the official community channel of VDN, a cable provider specializing in large apartment complexes. When VDN was bought by Bell, that came to an end, though there was an arrangement to share programming with Bell’s community channel.

TCF is distributed as an analog service inside the building (it’s watchable through cable boxes by choosing the channel reserved for building cameras), though it produces content in high definition and recently updated its editing equipment. It also posts content online.

McArdle said they hope to be running on Colba.Net and Zazeen in the coming weeks. The plan is to add English programming in the third year of operation, 2017-18.

A change in policy?

The fact that Videotron and Bell subscribers can’t access each other’s community programming is one of the things about the CRTC’s community television policy that irk independents.

Soon they’ll have an opportunity to change that. The CRTC is in the process of reviewing its community television policy, in a hearing to take place in January. Community TV, and certain aspects of local TV, were carved out of the recent Let’s Talk TV process so they could be dealt with separately.

Though the fact that community and local TV are being lumped in together also irks Cathy Edwards, executive director of the Canadian Association of Community Television Users and Stations (CACTUS). She’s worried that community TV concerns will be overshadowed by debates over local commercial TV.

Edwards wants to take community TV away from the cable companies and give it to independent groups.

“Canada is the only country in the world that recognizes a community media sector where it’s not defined automatically by nonprofit citizen media ownership,” she told me earlier this year.

“I get complaints all across the country we can’t get on our community channel or our community channel is closed.”

The fact that community channels are tied to cable companies is more historical than anything else. Back when cable was analog and there was only one cable company for every region, that was the only technical way that made sense.

But now, distribution isn’t the problem. People can use YouTube for that. What matters more is access to equipment and funding. And besides, the introduction of new competitors to cable means there isn’t just one company offering pay TV anymore.

A grassroots system like Edwards has in mind would be a challenge to set up. Not every community has a group ready to take the reins of a TV station. And even with money from cable companies, it still requires a lot of volunteer work. But the CRTC could start by requiring community TV services in a local area be carried by all providers in that area, and breaking down the silos that limit community programs to the cable company that funded them.

Comments on the CRTC’s local and community television review are due by 8pm ET Nov. 5 Nov. 6 (it was extended again). More than 1,100 comments have already been filed. Comments can be filed here. Note that all information submitted, including contact info, will be made public.

Submissions for new programs on MAtv and TV1 are welcome. Start by going to their website and filling out a form.

One thought on “A community television renaissance in Montreal

  1. Dilbert

    “renaissance”? Are you kidding? It’s more like Wall-E finding a single plant on the decimated earth. It’s a miracle, and it’s incredibly sad to think that we are reduced to that level.

    It’s sad as hell that the only place local TV producers can even hope to have a show is on a community channel with little hope of a real return on investment, and a very limited audience to boot. It’s probably better for them just to produce for YouTube, sad but true.

    It’s sad as hell that the old “local TV matters” department doesn’t give a flying flip about local content or local productions, preferring to ship the money to the US for syndicated programming that turns every channel into the same mindless mush.

    It sad as hell that any rebirth is only due to the CRTC forcing the issue. It’s not a natural situation to have to force community channels to actually carry programming from all of the communities it serves, and not just one.

    It’s sad as hell that the community channels are left with the distributors rather than being independent and free to make it’s own choices. It’s equally sad that most of the money set aside for community channels will end up cycling back to pay the distributors employees, rent and such rather than to support a vibrant, stand alone community programming system.

    it’s sad as hell that some people will be able to see one or the other but not both channels.

    Renaissance? more like dead cat bounce.


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