On Aug. 2, the CRTC renewed the broadcasting licences of most of Canada’s major cable TV companies, including Videotron, Cogeco, Rogers, Shaw, SaskTel, Eastlink, Telus, VMedia and Bell MTS.
Though it wasn’t technically a policy proceeding, the omnibus licence renewals allowed the commission to impose a bunch of de facto policies, or clarify existing ones, on everyone at the same time. (Licenses for Bell’s Fibe TV operations, Bell satellite TV, Shaw Direct and some other distributors weren’t part of this proceeding, and smaller distributors who are exempt from licensing aren’t affected.)
Here’s what was decided:
It’s been four years since a complaint about Videotron’s MAtv community channel alleging it wasn’t giving the community enough access sparked what was supposed to be a wide-ranging review of the practice of community TV channels owned by cable companies. Though the original complaint was settled (the CRTC found Videotron in non-compliance but allowed it to keep its channel), the larger review kept getting pushed back. Now it has finally been resolved, kinda. CACTUS, the Canadian Association of Community Television Users and Stations, filed complaints based on analysis of programming grids for community stations filed online. The CRTC dismissed these because they were incomplete or inaccurate, but asked community channels directly for programming logs and recordings, basing its analysis on that instead.
The commission did make some decisions on what, in general, qualifies as community access programming, though:
- Elected officials: A complaint against Cogeco said that programs hosted by elected officials like small-town mayors shouldn’t count as community access programming. Cogeco argued nothing in the rules prohibits this, and the CRTC agreed. “Access programming on the community channel is an appropriate forum in which to discuss matters of municipal and local relevance, and it is reasonable to expect that a mayor, for instance, may be an individual who is knowledgeable in that regard.” So long as they meet all the other criteria, a mayor can qualify as someone requesting community access.
- Magazine segments: Can a program whose format or envelope is created by the station but whose content includes segments created by members of the community count as community programming? Yes: “as long as the segments of a magazine-style program meet the criteria for access programming and/or local programming, those segments can be counted as such.”
- Junior hockey: Many community channels broadcast junior hockey games (WHL, OHL or QMJHL) and count it as local programming, but some (like Rogers) also sometimes count it as community access, arguing that the team can act as a community member requesting said access. The commission disagreed: “Since the production behind the broadcast of CHL games is generally complex and involves partnerships between the teams and BDUs, the possibility of a community member having the requisite degree of creative control is unlikely. As such, although CHL games that take place in the area served by an undertaking’s community channel may qualify as local programming, it is less likely that they would meet the criteria for access programming.” Community channels carrying CHL games won’t be penalized for it until Sept. 1.
- Media professionals: Part of the original complaint against Videotron was that “media professionals” like Sophie Durocher and Louise Deschâtelets were counted as community members when they actually worked in media (and in some cases, already had jobs with Quebecor). The CRTC agreed and deemed that such media professionals should not be eligible for community access programming. CACTUS brought up other cases at other community channels, but here the CRTC has said it will not penalize channels that used such media professionals before it clarified its policy.
Other issues relating to community programming:
- Scheduling: The Fédération des télévisions communautaires autonomes du Québec had requested a new rule requiring community channels to put programming from independent community TV non-profits in prime time. The commission said the group had not put enough evidence on the record that there was any scheduling abuse, and so the CRTC said it would stick with its current policy that says community access programming should be scheduled in a reasonable manner.
- Reporting: CACTUS demanded that community channels be required to list a bunch of information on their websites to allow the public to better monitor them. The commission didn’t go that far but did decide that for the next time, providers will be required to fill out a form that gives the CRTC information about each of its programs. They are also encouraged, but not required, to identify community access programs as such on their websites.
- Reconsideration of policy: Anger over the CRTC’s decision to allow TV providers to redirect community channel funding to local TV stations led to several requests for the CRTC to reverse that change or set limits on it. The CRTC said this issue was settled and there wasn’t enough evidence to reopen it.
- Closed captioning: All community access programming must be closed-captioned by Aug. 31, 2025.
Issues relating to community television were swept aside during a previous (short-term) renewal because the CRTC wanted to focus on how the cable companies were dealing with new rules regarding packaging of TV channels (the so-called “pick and pay” rules).
The Consumers’ Association of Canada and the Public Interest Advocacy Centre complained that the CRTC’s best practices recommendations weren’t being followed by some providers, who were, for example, not allowing bundle discounts or discounts on set-top boxes to apply to those who chose the $25 basic service, and that individual channels were priced too high to give any real flexibility.
The CRTC said abuse of best practices was not “systemic”, and “the mere fact that some services appear to be more expensive on an individual basis is not sufficient to conclude that the overall pricing of standalone services is impeding the objective of choice.” So no action has been taken on the issue of packaging.
Set-top box audience measurement
The industry is in the process of preparing to collect data directly from users’ set-top boxes for the purpose of determining TV ratings. This is complex because of the many issues involved — consumer privacy, accuracy, vertical integration — and so a working group was established to work them out.
The CRTC has set a deadline of Sept. 30, 2019. By that time, either a national set-top-box ratings system will be in place, in which case providers who collect data must give it to this body, or individual broadcasters will be able to request this data twice a year from vertically integrated cable companies who also own TV channels (and could give themselves an advantage by giving those related channels privileged access to set-top box ratings data).
The proprietary nature of set-top boxes creates all sorts of issues, not the least of which is that they can often be inaccessible to people with visual or hearing impairments.
The commission has imposed new conditions of licence requiring providers to report how many accessible set-top boxes their consumers are using, and how many complaints they have received and resolved relating to accessibility.
Foreign channels like CNN offer local availabilities, where local cable companies can insert their own commercials during commercial breaks. That’s why you’ll sometimes see a random Canadian ad on CNN and some other U.S. channels. The CRTC changed its policy in 2015 to make sure cable companies used 75% of these availabilities to promote original Canadian programming on other channels. But there wasn’t enough demand for such availabilities among Canadian broadcasters to fill all that time, so the commission is allowing cable companies to fill the rest with unpaid public service announcements.
Pelmorex, which owns The Weather Network, wanted the CRTC to review how TV providers decide which channels to distribute in high definition. The CRTC said new rules for this are unnecessary, as there’s already a competitive incentive to distribute as many HD channels as possible, and a broadcaster can file an undue preference complaint if, say, a vertically integrated distributor is favouring its own channels in terms of resolution.
There was a question about app-based systems like Bell’s Alt TV and Telus’s Pik TV, which distribute TV channels through the Internet. Bell and Telus said those systems are part of their existing licenses and there were no actual compliance issues raised.
Comcast X1 platform
Questions were raised about the IPTV systems being developed by Shaw, Rogers and Videotron, all of which are based on Comcast’s X1 platform. The CRTC had no issue provided a $25 basic service can still be offered without requiring a bundled Internet subscription. It also found no worrying privacy implications, as the Canadian providers said Comcast would not have access to Canadians’ personal information. The CRTC said it would monitor these new systems.
In its individual licence renewal decision, the CRTC dealt with issues specific to Videotron:
- What qualifies as access programming: ICTV, the Montreal-based independent community television group that initiated the first complaint against Videotron, tried to have a series of programs discounted as access programming on Videotron’s schedule, including programs hosted by any professional (like a yoga show hosted by a professional yoga instructor). It also wanted to limit Videotron to counting only 20% of its access quota from independent community TV groups, misinterpreting the intent of a regulation. The CRTC dismissed these, saying that so long as a program hosted by a professional did not become a de facto infomercial, it could be considered community access. It found Videotron in compliance with its licence requirements here.
- Funding to independent groups: CSUR la télé, a community TV organization operating in the Vaudreuil-Soulanges region, wanted increased funding from Videotron (and an association of such groups wanted such funding to be generalized). The CRTC noted that though Videotron does provide independent community TV groups with with funding, it is not obligated to, and denied the request.
- HD programming: The same groups wanted Videotron to be obligated to distribute community programming in high definition. Videotron said it is in the process of upgrading its community channels to HD (eight are already there, five more will be by this month, leaving six others). The CRTC denied this request but left an encouragement for Videotron to distribute in HD wherever possible.
- English-language programming: The English Language Arts Network wanted Videotron to be required to spend 20% of its budget in Montreal (and 10% elsewhere) on English programming, and to not be allowed to redirect its budget for its Montreal community channel elsewhere. The CRTC denied both requests as inconsistent with policy.
- Citizen advisory committees: ELAN and ICTV demanded new restrictions on citizen advisory committees, making them mandatory at all community channels and increasing their power. The CRTC decided this was not necessary.
- Vaudreuil-Soulanges: Videotron currently operates its Montreal licence in seven zones for community TV purposes: Montreal Island, Laval, St-Jérôme and other north shore communities, Terrebonne and other places northeast, Longueuil and the south shore, St-Jean and Chambly, and Châteauguay and other western south shore areas. SUR la télé wanted a new zone for the Vaudreuil-Soulanges region, which isn’t included in any of the above (instead, it’s included in the Châteauguay zone). The CRTC denied this request, saying it would require significant expense when budgets have already taken a hit, and wouldn’t increase the amount of local programming.
- Closed captioning: Videotron requested an exception to new closed captioning rules so that it didn’t have to caption live programming and could cap the budget for CC. The CRTC said no to both.
Despite not finding any new issues of licence compliance, the commission determined that the 2015 findings related to community programming were serious enough to justify a short-term renewal. So instead of the standard seven years, it’s getting only six.
Existing exceptions, such as allowing it to carry a second PBS station in Montreal (WCFE) and not having to distribute ethnic channel ICI on its analog systems, have been maintained.
For Cogeco, there were fewer issues:
- Network formats: CACTUS didn’t like the idea of what it called network formats, shows that have the same name and structure, being counted as access programming in different regions. Cogeco and the CRTC said this shouldn’t matter — it’s the content, not the format, that matters, and community channels can save money by using a similar format for different shows.
- Assisted production: CACTUS also questioned the low number of independently produced programs on Cogeco’s community channels, saying this suggested a lack of commitment on their part. Cogeco countered that it’s the opposite — it’s fulfilling its mandate by assisting producers in getting access programs on the air. The CRTC agreed with Cogeco.
- Direct expenses: Community channels are required by regulation to spend at least 50% of their budget on direct expenses — i.e. the acquisition or production of programming. For two of Cogeco’s community channels, Drummondville and Trois-Rivières, it fell short by 1-2%. The CRTC found Cogeco in non-compliance and ordered that detailed expense reports for those two channels be provided for the next two years.
Although there was a finding of non-compliance related to a previous problem with counting expenses that resulted in underfunded contributions to Canadian programming, the CRTC decided to give Cogeco a full seven-year licence renewal.
For Rogers, besides the hockey games issue described above, there was a minor non-compliance issue with one region (Ajax-Pickering) in one sample week not meeting its local access programming quota.
- Zones in Atlantic Canada: The CRTC has allowed Rogers to operate community channels in Atlantic Canada in a zone structure, with one channel supporting multiple communities. This is done to save costs, because the communities are too small to financially support a community channel on their own. The CRTC renewed this authorization, and allowed its community channels in Newfoundland and Labrador and New Brunswick to reduce their direct expenses quota to match a previous exception regarding the amount of local and access programming in those zone channels.
- Two channels in Ottawa and Moncton: Under previous policy, the CRTC allowed up to 2% of gross revenues to be directed to a community channel, and that money be subtracted from the 5% of revenues that have to be spent on Canadian content. For Rogers in Ottawa and Moncton, the CRTC allowed Rogers to fund two community channels, one in each language, at that 2% level. The CRTC has maintained this exception, even though a similar request from Videotron related to its community channel in Montreal was denied. Consistent with the new policy, which drops the 2% maximum to 1.5%, Rogers can spend 1.5% of its revenues on each of its community channels in these areas.
- Exceptions for U.S. stations: Various Rogers cable systems have exceptions to standard rules that allow it to carry additional U.S. stations, whether they’re Buffalo stations that aren’t part of the big five networks (including PBS), or additional affiliates where the closest station was not available in HD. Those exceptions have been maintained.
Rogers was given a full seven-year licence renewal.
For Shaw’s cable systems, the issues were:
- Programming re-use: Shaw made it a habit to count community access programs on several community channels at once in a region in southern B.C. The CRTC couldn’t say exactly how much because Shaw didn’t provide complete information as requested (which is itself a violation), but decided that for several systems, the 50% community access requirement was not met.
- Closed captioning: A requirement that Shaw’s community channel closed-caption 100% of its original programming was converted to an expectation. Shaw will be subject to the same conditions on the same time frame as other cable TV companies.
- Distribution of TFO: The French-language Ontario public broadcaster wanted mandatory distribution on Shaw’s cable systems. The CRTC said this was not necessary and would be an unfair burden on Shaw.
Mainly because of the “systemic” nature of issues with community channels (even though some of them have since closed), Shaw’s licence was renewed for only five years.
For Telus, much of the CRTC’s concerns related to the structure of its on-demand community service. Called “Storyhive”, it differs from other community channels in that it’s directed more at aspiring filmmakers than members of the community. As a result, the programs produced are more drama and documentary than current affairs or educational programming. The CRTC found that this model was inconsistent with the goals of the community TV policy. It is therefore requiring Telus to change its model and report within three months on how it will do so.
- New platforms: Telus asked for permission to distribute community programming on new platforms, like the Internet or VR platforms. (They’re not prevented from doing this now, but they can’t count stuff toward their quota unless it’s on the community channel.) The CRTC said Telus didn’t provide enough information about how it would allocate programming funds.
- Zones: Telus asked for community channels on several systems to be combined into zones, like with Rogers and others. The five new zones would be Northern Alberta, Southern Alberta, Okanagan, Vancouver Island and Northern British Columbia. The CRTC said again that Telus failed to provide sufficient justification for this request.
- Regional licences: Telus asked that its two regional licenses (for Alberta and B.C.) be converted into seven service area licences, for Calgary, Edmonton, Burnaby, Kelowna, Surrey, Vancouver and Victoria. The reason was so that it could make cable systems serving smaller areas exempt from licensing, which changes their requirements. It said this would put it on more equal footing with its main competitor, Shaw. The CRTC said this would be going backwards, as it wants to move more licences to a regional model, and denied the request. Telus still has some flexibility, and the CRTC will continue to allow it to devote more money to community TV where it has fewer than 20,000 subscribers.
- Canadian programming spending: Incorrect calculations related to required spending on Canadian programming led to a significant shortfall on Telus’s part, which the CRTC brought to its attention in 2014. Telus paid the shortfall over the following two years, and the CRTC was satisfied with this.
Because of issues with the community channels, Telus’s licences were renewed for only five years.
For Eastlink (K-Right Communications in Halifax and Persona Communications in Sudbury), the issues were:
- Community programming: Eastlink’s licensed systems in Halifax, Dartmouth and Charlottetown missed their quotas on local or access programming on at least one of the sampled weeks, even after the CRTC dismissed allegations by CACTUS that some programs were misrepresented as being local and/or access when they weren’t. The commission has accepted a request from Eastlink to count programs produced in the Halifax Regional Municipality as local for all its systems in that region.
- Annual returns: An omission in the annual statements Eastlink is required to file related to the expenses of its community channels was allowed to continue for five years because it was unaware of the requirement. The CRTC found it in non-compliance with its licence.
Despite the compliance issues, Eastlink got a full seven-year licence renewal.
The remaining providers were handled omnibus, with few issues to debate. Access Communications, which operates in Saskatchewan and has only one licensed system in Regina, asked that it be exempt from licensing even though it doesn’t meet the under-20,000 threshold. The CRTC said Access already has an exception allowing it to spend all its Canadian programming quota on a community channel, and denied the request for a special exemption.
Atop and VMedia were also found in non-compliance over emergency public alerting and Canadian programming contributions, respectively. Both issues were resolved.
The following were all renewed for a full seven years:
- Access Communications (Regina)
- 2251723 Ontario Inc. aka VMedia (Ontario)
- Atop Broadband (Greater Toronto Area)
- Bell MTS (Manitoba)
- SaskTel (Regina and Saskatoon)
The CRTC also imposed new conditions of licence on Bell’s other systems related to set-top box measurements. Those licences don’t expire until next year, but the CRTC is allowed to impose new conditions of licence after the fifth year of a licence term. In any case, the new conditions have no effect until Sept. 30, 2019.