Four years after the CRTC found Videotron failed to comply with its obligations related to community television programming, the commission is taking a very critical look at Bell Canada’s community TV services, with questions suggesting it is concerned Bell is inappropriately redirecting funding that was supposed to go to community TV in small Atlantic Canadian communities toward large productions out of Toronto and Montreal that are essentially spinoff shows of commercial productions that air on Bell Media TV channels.
In a notice of consultation posted last month, the commission published applications for licence renewal for Bell Fibe and Bell Aliant TV services in Atlantic Canada, Ontario and Quebec. The applications, which include 42 documents, shows repeated rounds of questions over two years about Bell’s community TV operations, which operate under the Bell TV1 brand (formerly Bell Local).
Subscribers to Bell Fibe TV will soon have access to English-language community television programming in Montreal.
On Friday, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission approved an amendment to Bell’s broadcasting distribution licence allowing it to spend 2% of its gross revenues on each of a French and English community TV service in most cities of southern Quebec and Ontario.
CRTC policy requires that large cable companies spend 5% of their gross revenues on Canadian content, usually through contributions to funds like the Canadian Media Fund. But it also allows these companies to spend up to 2 of that 5% on a community television service. And recently it has allowed distributors to spend another 2% on a second community television service in the minority official language, leaving just 1% for other Canadian content contributions.
Where Bell’s community TV service differs from existing ones is that it is being made available exclusively on Bell’s video-on-demand service. There’s no linear channel to tune to. The advantage is that nobody has to worry about filling a 24/7 schedule, the programming can be of any length, and people can get the shows they want whenever they want. The disadvantage is that it’s harder to discover the content, and it’s harder to broadcast live content (like junior hockey games).
Bell Local has so far launched in English in Toronto and in French in Montreal. With this new licence amendment, an English service in Montreal will be in the works. Louis Douville, station manager for CTV Montreal and Bell’s point person for the Bell Local project here, tells me that they will now finalize the budget and start hiring staff. “I expect we should start delivering some programs early in the new year,” he said.
Videotron, the main distributor in Quebec, has also applied to the CRTC for an English community channel. Unlike Bell’s, Videotron’s would be a linear channel with 24/7 programming.