It’s a new dawn in local television. CTV Montreal has a new 5pm weekday newscast, City Montreal is preparing to launch evening news at 6pm and 11pm, and ICI is getting an infusion of cash thanks to OMNI’s successful bid for mandatory distribution at 12 cents per month per subscriber.
It’s a big enough change that I was asked to write about it for the Montreal Gazette. That story leads Saturday’s Culture section.
But while the new investments are great news for people who like local television (and, indirectly, people like me who like writing about it), there’s a big loser in this that isn’t getting discussed much: community television. The additional money going into local news is coming straight out of their pockets.
Let’s not talk TV
When the CRTC announced it was undertaking a long consultation process it called Let’s Talk TV, proponents of non-profit community television were excited about the prospect of finally bringing their issues to the forefront. A complaint from the independent group ICTV against Videotron’s community channel was in progress (the commission would later find that MAtv had failed to respect its licence conditions in terms of giving enough access to people from the community). And there was a growing opinion that community channels were not fulfilling their mandate.
The Canadian Association of Community Television Users and Stations and other groups filed complaints about other television providers that they felt were doing the same things to their community channels, ignoring their commitments to community access and using their funds to produce professional broadcasts and give side jobs to people affiliated with the company.
But the Let’s Talk TV process didn’t talk much about community television, and when it led to its first decisions in January 2015, the commission decided to kick the can down the road on community television, announcing it would begin a separate process to consider that. And that process would also include discussions of local news.
As expected, a review of the community television process was hijacked by discussions of local commercial television. People were more concerned about whether their local station would stay on the air or how long their local newscast would be than how their local Rogers TV or Shaw TV would be funded.
And the complaints about community channels still haven’t been properly evaluated, years later. That will happen at a hearing on the renewals of their licences, scheduled for October.
Let’s step back a bit and look at what community television is and has become in Canada.
Since 1971, the CRTC has required cable television providers to support community channels. Back then, television equipment was very expensive, very large and hard to obtain and operate. Community access was the only way many people could see themselves on television and communicate with the public through video. Cable companies would set up studios at their head ends and let people from the community broadcast on a special channel they set up.
Since the turn of the millennium, the situation has changed. Getting access to equipment isn’t the biggest problem — as the CRTC says, “many Canadians now carry an HD camera in their pocket in the form of their smartphone” — editing can be done on a home computer, and distribution is much easier thanks to YouTube and other free online services.
Instead, over the past decade, the issue has been more about money.
All cable television providers are required to spend 5% of their gross revenues on Canadian programming, but most are allowed to redirect some of that money to a community channel rather than simply hand it over to a fund like the Canada Media Fund. Most large terrestrial television providers do this because it allows them to keep control of that money, create a service that’s seen to do a public good, and provide added value for subscribers.
Critics might point out some other benefits, such as billing yourself for Internet access and providing side jobs for your employees. (The CRTC limits such overhead costs, but there isn’t a bright line that says you can’t be a supplier to your own community channel.)
Since 1991, the amount of money allowed to be redirected to community channels has been capped at 2% of gross revenues. Though there were many exceptions (small cable companies could devote the full 5% to a community channel, and companies that offered community channels in each official language could devote 2% to each one).
It might not seem like much, but when you have more than a million subscribers paying more than $50 a month, that’s a million dollars a month right there going to community TV.
As budgets for community TV grew, and technology advanced, they started to get more ambitious in terms of programming. Some even started broadcasting professional sports until the CRTC put a stop to that. (The ban doesn’t affect junior sports, and many junior hockey league matches are still broadcast on community channels.)
Community television is in an odd place because on the one hand it’s supposed to be volunteer-driven but on the other hand it’s required to spend money on programming. The pressure has always been there to keep the cable-access stuff to a minimum so more popular professional-looking programming can entice people to buy or keep their cable subscriptions.
And there was the added benefit of using community channel money to benefit related productions and personalities. Bell’s TV1 had shows linked to The Amazing Race Canada, the Much Music Video Awards, the Montreal Canadiens, The Social and eTalk. Videotron’s MAtv had side projects for such Quebecor personalities as Sophie Durocher, Louise Deschâtelets and Dominic Arpin.
This is a big part of the reason why CACTUS and others wanted community television taken out of the hands of big cable providers and put into the hands of non-profit community groups. But the CRTC has repeatedly resisted that effort, believing that the cable companies have the best resources available to provide high-quality community programming on a sustainable basis.
In 2010, the commission decided to freeze contributions to community channels. It found that the amount of money going to community television had almost doubled in a decade, and “although the Commission acknowledges that various metrics can be used to evaluate the success of community channels, it nonetheless considers that overall viewing to community channels remains modest relative to the growth in contributions to this sector.” Rather than cut the funding down, though, it decided to freeze it. Existing television providers would be capped at their 2010 levels until those dropped to 1.5% of revenues, and then they would stay at 1.5%.
In June 2016, the CRTC released its new policy on local and community television. There, it cut the contribution from 2% to 1.5%.
But the bigger blow was their decision to allow distributors the “flexibility” to redirect funds from community channels to their affiliated local stations to spend on local programming. For Canada’s five largest cities (Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton), that redirection could be 100%, since the CRTC believed that people in those areas “have access to many media sources on television and radio, as well as online and in print, that provide community reflection.” For smaller areas, at least 50% of that money would still need to be spent on community television.
By the CRTC’s estimate, $65 million a year could be redirected from community channels to local stations owned by the major vertically integrated companies.
But what about independent stations? Where do they get additional money?
To help out most of them, there was already a fund called the Small Market Local Production Fund, funded by Canada’s satellite TV providers. The CRTC transformed that into the Independent Local News Fund, adjusted its admission criteria to include larger-market stations like CHCH in Hamilton and the V stations in Quebec and Montreal (while excluding small-market stations owned by the media giants), and required cable companies to contribute into the fund. Everyone kicks in 0.3% of revenues to support independent stations.
So in the end, all independent stations get extra money from this fund, and non-independent stations get funded through TV providers who share the same owner.
News pro quo
In exchange for the extra money, there were new requirements for local stations:
- In addition to the amount of local programming they have to air each week (still set at 14 hours for major-market stations and 7 hours for smaller ones, with some exceptions), they must air a certain amount of locally reflective news programming as well — six hours in large markets, three in smaller ones.
- There’s also a financial requirement for investment in local news: 11% of gross revenues for local television stations must be devoted to locally reflective news. (This number, proposed by the three English networks, is based on previous spending on local news.)
For community stations, even though they got less money, there were stricter regulations imposed to ensure that the money they did get was spent correctly:
- Starting this year, cable companies must spend 60% of their community channel allocations on direct programming expenses. That rises in increments and reaches 75% after 2020.
- Diverse citizen advisory committees are required in Canada’s five largest markets.
- Rules on what qualifies as access programming have been tightened to stress that the community member that initiates a project must have creative control, and “is neither employed by a (TV provider) nor a media professional who is known to the public or who already has access to the broadcasting system.” They also can’t profit from the show (by turning it into a de facto infomercial for their business, for example).
The changes took effect on Sept. 1 after being formally approved as amendments to the regulations and enshrined in TV stations’ conditions of licence.
But most companies didn’t wait that long to make major changes:
- Rogers closed some Rogers TV community stations and cut back at others in the greater Toronto area.
- Shaw closed Shaw TV in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton, eliminating 70 positions and sending $10 million to Global TV stations.
- Videotron cut the budget of MAtv by 25%, reflecting the drop of the maximum deduction from 2% to 1.5%. (There hasn’t been an announcement of any redirection of funds to TVA stations.) The cuts meant the cancellation of Montreal Billboard, a weekly series featuring interviews with local community groups. MAtv director Steve Desgagné told me the decision to cut that program was strictly budgetary.
- Bell made serious cuts at its TV1 community channels, which operate in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City. It declined to provide specifics when I asked.
It’s hard to evaluate the impact on community television by looking at programming, because much of that programming is short-term projects. But you can expect less programming, and especially less of the non-access local programming produced directly by the cable companies, particularly in the larger markets, as a result of these changes.
On the TV side, Bell’s CTV and Rogers’s City have both announced new expansions of local news, both to make use of these new funds and to meet the new locally reflective news requirements. Global has been non-specific about how it’s using the additional money.
What definitely won’t change is the strongly held belief among supporters of community television that cable access needs to be less cable and more access.