Saving local culture one witness at a time: A report from inside the political struggle to rescue Canadian television

0 Posted by - May 13, 2009 - Blog, Policy, Screen

img_01261The wind was brisk and the day bright.  In front of the Canadian Parliament, dapper men and women in their suits and skirts shimmied about, their hands holding flapping ties and dresses down against the wind, faces as serious (no doubt) as the webs of imaginary and real intrigue they weave as minions and titans on The Hill.   A group of students juggled shiny chrome cups in a circle on the grass by the Peace Flame.  Nearby, a lone anti-abortion protester (who resembled a rather unsavoury character with his pasty face, sunglasses and trench coat) stood sentinel over his little domain of gruesome pictures, craziness and, ultimately, a lonely kind of fear.  Ahhh, Canada.  Circuses, nutters and suits: We stand on guard for thee.

The Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage has called hearings into the “crisis” in Canadian broadcasting.  I was invited to testify – as witness to transformations threatening to dismantle local television throughout rural and not-so-rural Canada – and on behalf of a group I work with, Campaign for Democratic Media.  Commercial broadcasters were screwing up, and some of us were given the chance to let the government know that there were other ways to save local television than by giving hundreds of millions of dollars to the major networks.  I put on a tie and trotted off to Ottawa to have a say.

Getting into Parliament, as you might expect, at least without an election, is a little more complicated than walking in the front door: x-rays, metal detectors, security guards and those guys in suits who stand around scanning crowds talking into their sleeves.

Thankfully, the line for people with name tags was short, one of the perks of being a very temporary insider.  I made my way to Centre Block Room 237-C, the Hearing room, a large high-ceilinged chamber with stone walls covered in faded murals. Dominating the room was a square arrangement of tables for the MPs and witnesses participating in the hearing.

When I arrived, only the Committee clerk was dashing about, slightly stooped, with his two rather elderly-looking helpers, collecting and distributing papers, placing name cards, directing people this way and that.  One senses that whatever we have left of our sovereign democracy – at least in its executive guise –  rests, not on the backs of politicians, but on the more humble shoulders of these tireless facilitators.  As I waited, the room began to fill with boisterous energy, laughter and collegiality, the click of leather shoes and well coiffed hair: the MPs had begun to arrive.

I spoke second — and below, you can find the complete text of my presentation. The witnesses presented, and then the Committee members asked questions. The conversation that followed, alas, was destined for the rubbish heap.

Maybe that’s unfair, but it was destined to be a day for politics.  One witness explained afterwards that there was bad blood in the air from the start.  That morning, a story had leaked that the Conservative government was cutting $56 million from CBC Radio across the network.  The all party Committee members were spoiling for a fight. The conversation about ideas that I had hoped for was being usurped by kind of politico-performance jib-jab.

The Conservatives were particularly  anxious  about a suggestion by one of the  witnesses that they ‘have it in’ for the CBC.   They don’t, according to the Conservative members at the table.  One Conservative MP held up a report from 2000 detailing funding cuts that the Liberals had made: “Did you believe when these cuts were made that the Liberals had it in for the CBC?”  He was shouting.  The mood was nasty.

Yet another Conservative rep wanted to state clearly and emphatically that no one in her party had cheered the end of the CBC.  “Ever,” she said.  The Liberals and NPDers around the table guffawed and taunted back that heckles and clapping had frequently accompanied talk in the House of Commons of the CBC’s demise and “everyone at this table knows it”.   It was raucus, and at times both bad tempered and amusing, but local television was still in trouble, and these hearings didn’t seem any closer to finding a solution.

One of the stronger presentations came from Peter Murdoch, representing the Communications, Energy, Pulp and Paper Union.  Murdock had a long list of complaints: that it was difficult for Canadians to assess the crisis because network financials were kept secret.  He argued that it was not an economic crisis, but one brought on by excessive corporate debt and shareholder demands.  He described local affiliate stations whose cameras were operated remotely, suggesting that if there was a fire at a certain studio in Halifax, emergency programming decisions would be made in Edmonton.  “Many local affiliates use their production studios for storage,”  he said.  The crux of his presentation was that the CRTC is failing Canadians because it does not enforce existing rules.  Broadcasters have always failed to fulfill their local program obligations.  The CRTC refuses to enforce its own license terms and broadcasting decisions.

The Canadian Media Guild asked, as apparently they have on several occasions before, for a seven year commitment of funding for the CBC – not even an increase in funding (although it’s certain they wouldn’t oppose one), just  seven years of stable funding that the CBC can rely on to build into the future.

Alas, at least from my perspective, and with a few exceptions (a genuine question or two did make it to the table), most of the substance of the presentations was ignored. Perhaps my most cynical moment came after the hearings.  A prominent long-serving MP said to me (in response to my query) that in no uncertain terms there was NO expectation of the hearings having any influence on government decisions.  A little depressing.  And when I asked how we as witnesses could best use that venue given so little prospect for meaningful impact, I was told that our comments will help them write the report, and that they will be on record ostensibly forever.  So that, the MP said encouragingly, perhaps in 12 years someone could come and find out what was said by Canadians now about these issues.

Really?  Twelve years?  Maybe its time to pour a drink.

Than again, it’s hard to say.  Maybe this was overstatement, a wee bit of pessimistic bombast.  It is, after all, a public process, and the public IS invited to speak, and our words are heard and memorandums read.  Maybe – just maybe – someone will hear something and a new idea will spark, a different thought will form, an altered way of seeing old problems will emerge – something to help guide the Canadian broadcasting system towards long-term strategies for ensuring that communities have access to the kinds of local stories and information they need to make sense of their own experiences and of the world around them.

Anyways, here are the words I left behind.  May they find their way (without too much posturing) into thoughtful minds (presented May 11, 2009 to the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage on behalf of Campaign for Democratic Media):

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to these hearings.  I am here on behalf of the Campaign for Democratic Media, a national, non-profit and non-partisan media advocacy group.  We are a network of individual Canadians, civil society organizations, consumer organizations, labour groups, media advocacy groups, academics, grassroots media activists and others interested in helping to create a diverse, accountable and quality Canadian media system. These hearings have been constituted in response to a perceived crisis in Canadian broadcasting, a “perfect storm” some have called it, of new media challenges to traditional business models and economic contraction of historic proportions.  The Canadian television sector is undergoing what many commentators suggest will be permanent and structural transformation.

One of the things we would like the Committee to think about today is the possibility that what we are experiencing as a “crisis” in local broadcasting reflects in fact some of the inherent tensions between the cultural industries and democratic accountability.  What I mean is that the critical importance of local programming in Canada is in all likelihood better understood in terms of what makes cultures democratic than it is in terms of sorting out the conflicts between local versus regional and national advertising markets.   When we talk about broadcasting in Canada, we are talking about part of the connective tissue the holds us together culturally, politically and economically.  It is finding solutions that do not sacrifice one for the other of these equally important aspects of Canadian society that we believe should be at the heart of these proceedings.

To begin, we would like to challenge certain assumptions about what is happening in Canadian broadcasting.  There are broad economic factors at work as well as changes in consumption patterns in connection with new media technologies that have helped to precipitate the current “crisis”.   But there are also structural factors that go to the core of the current crisis that are at risk of being overlooked, problems which we think point towards creative and long-term solutions.

For instance, local markets may not be failing so much as they are being ignored.  The network affiliates threatened with closure who broadcast in these small markets have increasingly been forced to serve national network needs — networks whose accumulated corporate debts and revenue strategies make small market sustainability impossible without doing away with much of  local programming.  Small markets can be and in fact are profitable; the problem is that they are not profitable enough to service these non -local needs.  CanWest Global, for instance, is struggling to make decisions about local broadcasting while trying to service almost $4 billion of corporate debt incurred through strategies of expansion and acquisition.  To put it bluntly, the citizens of many smaller communities are facing drastic losses of local programming (1) because of corporate decisions that have absolutely nothing to do with their community; and (2) because there are so few alternatives in our broadcasting system.  We have one of the least diverse broadcast systems in the world and highest concentrations of media ownership. Canadians lack meaningful local broadcasting choices, and their ability to be informed about their own communities is being held hostage by corporate debt and corporate demands for rates of return that are unachievable.

Part of the problem is that local affiliated stations function within national networks primarily as a means for national advertisers to access local eyeballs.  Revenue streams depend on national advertising markets, not local markets.  Advertising rates in local settings reflect national markets for national advertisers, and as such they end up prohibitively high and in fact exclude local businesses from the market.  We are suggesting that the current model of affiliated local broadcasters is failing Canadians not only in terms of local programming, but in terms of local advertising opportunities.   These markets may not be big enough to achieve network goals for debt servicing and particular rates of return, but they are big enough to sustain alternative models for the production of local television.  The large, affiliated centralized model for delivering local programming doesn’t work, and arguably it never has: as long as there have been license renewal hearings, there have been desperate cries to reduce local programming obligations.  We need to rethink the ways in which local programs can be produced and delivered in local settings.

Perhaps the most important point we want to make today is that there is a largely unrecognized and emergent element at work in the Canadian broadcasting system that we believe offers the most realistic long-term solution to the crisis in local programming.

The Broadcast Act in section 3 identifies three elements that make up the Canadian broadcasting system: public, private and community. The community sector is rarely addressed, and yet it is here that we find new media programming strategies and hybrid models of organization that point the way forward to longterm sustainable local programming solutions.  These hybrid models of organization, what are sometimes called mandate-driven media or civil society media, combine market responsiveness with professional journalistic practices and a strong ethical mandate to fulfill democratic roles such as ensuring that public and private institutions remain accountable to the public, and that the public has access to accurate,  reliable, diverse and independent  sources of news and information about the communities where they live.

These are not, to be clear, volunteer media organizations.  They are media who work on multiple bottom-lines: ethical and economic.  Because they are mandate driven, small profit margins don’t equal failure, but rather an opportunity.

These hybrid models of media combine entrepreneurial ingenuity with NGO commitment to public objectives and resourcefulness.  In the United Kingdom, they operate under the name Community Interest Companies or CICs.  CICs are for-profit companies whose rates of return are capped and whose purposes for incorporation include community service.  In addition, and importantly, the assets of the company are “locked” and cannot be sold except to another CIC .  There are thousands of CICs incorporated in the UK carrying out a range of services – affordable housing, the arts, education and training, pre-schools, home support services, recycling, and media groups (Bridge and Corriveau 2009).

A similar approach has been taken in the US with the creation of the low-profit limited liability company (L3C).  L3Cs guarantee the public nature of their work and limit dividends to investors through operating agreements. To quote Richard Bridge and Stacey Corriveau, from a recent report, the primary goal of L3Cs and CICs  is to introduce market solutions to community needs by providing “access [to] the vast pools of market driven wealth to make socially responsible investments.”  Local broadcasting is an excellent opportunity for socially responsible investment, a way for the tension between democratic and industrial needs that has so far stifled local programming to be addressed.

It is critically important to understand that we are talking about professional media organizations with journalists who are legally accountable, strive to achieve standards of accuracy, fairness, diversity, and reliability.  These organizations create revenues through hybrid models – advertising, direct audience donation, grants.  They may be for-profit or not-for-profit, but their reasons for incorporation are tied the communities they serve.

In Canada, one example of a hybrid solution is the community broadcast license.  These are television stations locally owned either for-profit or not-for-profit who exist to service local audience, information and advertising needs.  These community broadcasters  are not owned by cable companies, although their signals must be carried on local cable systems. These are independently owned and operated television stations who exist specifically to provide local programming within their broadcast footprints. There are currently 10 in Canada  – CIMC-TV, or Telile Community Television in Cape Breton, CHCT-TV, or St. Andrews Community Television in New Brunswick; CHET-TV in Chetwynd, British Columbia; CHMG-TV in the city of Quebec, to name a few.  The Local Programming Improvement Fund should be made available for use by these organizations, and to assist new mandate-driven community broadcasters to fill the vacuum in local programming.  Toward this end, in addition to LPIF funds being made available for community broadcast programming, a portion of the Local Programming Improvement Fund should be allocated to one-time grants that assist in the start-up of new community media outlets.

There are also possibilities for hybrid new media strategies – online contributions by mandate-driven media production groups who focus on local programs for local audiences.  As many commentators have noted, more and more Canadians source programming through the internet.  Resources should be made available through tools like the Local Programming Improvement Fund to support locally-oriented media production groups who distribute primarily online.  These are in fact the ways that our broadcasting system is growing and where entrepreneurial innovation is leading the way in transforming structural changes into opportunities.  These groups can provide locally driven creative solutions to local program deficiencies.

A key role that the federal government can play in response to these opportunities is to initiate legislative reform that would allow the incorporation of limited liability for-profit corporations (as has been done in Vermont and is being considered in Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon and Wyoming, as well as at the federal level).

Another legislative change that could assist local broadcasters concerns carriage.  Currently, community broadcast signals must be carried on local cable systems, but they should also be mandatory for satellite broadcasters.  In addition, community broadcasters should receive fees-for-carriage in exchange for local programming commitments.

We also recommend that the Local Programming Improvement Fund be increased in size through matching federal government funds.  This would make more resources available to address the crisis in local programming, and it gives Canadians through our representative system more say in how these resources are spent. The Local Programming Improvement Fund should and must be publicly accountable.

The Local Programming Improvement Fund should also be made expressly accessible not only to the affiliated networks, but to community broadcasters, independent program producers, and online local media groups.  This is an opportunity for Canadians to expand capacity and diversity within the Canadian broadcasting system for the production and distribution of local programs.  The model of broadcasting dominated by a few networks with strings of affiliated stations has failed Canadians.  New models with greater local accountability and diversity should be encouraged.

Further, we recommend that management of the Local Programming Improvement Fund be as diverse as the Canadian broadcast system, including representation from the public, private and community elements including representation from independent producers and community broadcasters.  Control of the fund must reflect the broadcast systems diversity, especially representation from the sectors where the most innovation can be found.

Similarly, the newly created Canadian Media Fund should  also be widely rather than narrowly representative.  Control of this fund must be shared among ALL elements of the broadcast system – public, private, and community. The funds must be made available to independent documentary and dramatic producers, to online media production groups, and to local community broadcasters.

We recommend (as we did during the CRTC’s New Media Broadcasting hearings) that the federal government create an Internet Broadcast Fund to support the production of Canadian content.  This fund could be used to help support new media responses to local programming deficiencies.  The Fund represents a small levy on the revenues of telecom companies. This would provide yet additional resources for Canadian producers.

We further recommend that the federal government conduct an audit of community channel funds.  Community television in Canada last year received $115 million dollars, almost double the size of the proposed Local Programming Improvement Fund.   This money is required by regulation to be spent on the production and distribution of local reflection television.    However, communities across Canada have been complaining that cable companies misuse these resources by restricting or disallowing community access and using community channels for corporate promotion and attracting advertising revenues.  If the federal government is proposing to “fix” the crisis in local programming with a $60 million dollar fund, we must ask: what has been happening with the $115 million that cable companies collect from Canadians?  The Standing Committee on Culture and Heritage in the Lincoln Report expressed “dismay” that they were unable to get this information from the cable companies.  The federal government should request forensic auditing of how these monies (amounting to over $1 billion since 1997)  have been spent.  One way to help make community channels more responsive to the needs of local communities would be to take their administration out of the hands of cable companies and encourage true community ownership and administration.

On the matter of funding for broadcasters in general …On the one had, we would encourage making local programming a priority for the public broadcaster. Rather than creating a pool of funds for the private broadcasters, who even with access to these funds can’t guarantee their ability to service smaller markets, the federal government could and should make monies available to the CBC and make local coverage a priority.   Let the public broadcaster help fill a gap that is apparently impossible for the commercial sector to fill.    It is important to remember that Canadians currently spend between $28 and $33 annually for public broadcasting, well below the $80 average among Western nations (Nordicity 2006).

We recommend that the CBC be funded on a substantially increased fee structure – something closer to the average – and be mandated to address local programming deficiencies.

On the other hand, we oppose the creation of a special “bailout” fund for commercial broadcasters for the reasons indicated.  The monies are better spent nurturing strategies for local programming that better reflect the kinds of local accountability and economic scales that can lead to long-term sustainability.

In concluding, we would like to offer an example from recent history of how the existing model of network affiliates is failing Canadians.

In Hamilton, CanWest Global’s local affiliate is CHCH-TV.  When CanWest Global announced that it wanted to sell the station or even close it down, the Hamilton community rallied to save its only local broadcast station.  They brought together the requisite technical expertise, capital investment, and support from local representatives from all levels of government.  The only thing left was for CanWest to sell the license – just as CTV did recently when it sold three E channels to Shaw Cable.

But CanWest didn’t sell the license to the community group.   They have in fact gone back to the CRTC to request significant reductions in local programming requirements for all of its stations, including CHCH.  It suggests that Hamilton’s communities have cynically been used as bargaining chips, holding their local programming hostage in exchange for significant reductions in local programming commitments.   Whether or not this is the case, the network is using the crisis to  reduce its local programming obligations, while a local initiative with a local focus, and local ownership, and a viable business plan and sufficient capitalization, is being frozen out.  That’s the problem.  Communities have a very different interest in local broadcasting than national networks and international media groups. We need to find a way to help locally-owned  initiatives who are aimed at creating and maintaining independent broadcasting and programming.  We believe that our recommendations herein are steps in this direction.

In summary, our recommendations are that:

The federal government change relevant laws to allow the incorporation of limited liability for-profit companies.

The size of the Local Programming Improvement Fund (LPIF) be increased through matching federal government funds.

The LPIF be accessible to broadcasters operating with a community and/or low-power broadcast license, independent program producers, and online media producers who focus on local programming.

That representatives from all elements of the broadcast system including independent producers, community broadcasters and new media producers be allowed to participate in the management of the LPIF and the Canadian Media Fund.

That funding for the CBC be increased to reflect average spending on public broadcasting internationally and be mandated to respond to local programming deficiencies.

That the federal government create an Internet Broadcast Fund through a levy on the revenues of  telecom companies (including ISPs and mobile communications companies) in order to support the production of Canadian content.

That the federal government conduct an audit of community channel funds.

Sources Referenced

Bridge, Richard and Corriveau, Stacey. 2009.  “legislative innovations and social enterprise: Structural lessons for Canada”.  retrieved May 5, 2009 from

Nordicity Group Ltd.  2006. “Analysis of government support for public broadcasting and other culture in Canada.” Prepared for Canadian Broadcasting Corporation / La Societe Radio-Canada.  Retrieved on May 5, 2009 from

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