The fate of one of the most democratic elements of the Canadian broadcast system is up for grabs. This week in Ottawa the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) announced public hearings to decide the future of community television in Canada.
Unlike the private and public elements, community television is founded on the idea of public access – to equipment, studio facilities, training and airtime. But the ‘how and why’ of managing Canada’s community channel assets has come under increasing scrutiny with the advent of online alternatives and the recent crisis in local broadcasting, a crisis that has not only prompted the creation of a $60 million fund to improve local television programming, but which is linked to the larger crisis in the Canadian media sector that has seen media giant CanWest Global stumble into bankruptcy.
Community television in Canada receives over $100 million annually ($116 million in 2008), money that cable companies are mandated to use to provide community channels. Where in the turmoil of Canada’s changing mediascape does the hyperlocal, well-funded public access project of community television fit in?
One of the key issues on the table is the role of community television in an online and digital future. Community channels are distributed on cable and are included (by regulation) in every basic cable subscription. Community channels air programs made by cable companies and independently produced programming. But Canadian culture is increasingly made for online engagement. The last five years have witnessed an unprecedented migration of television, film, news, music and radio to online platforms. What are we to make of a cable channel when so many other opportunities to create and distribute programs seem available?
One idea making the rounds is to use community channel money to help establish a network of community media centers, much like local libraries, that would help Canadians access the tools and technologies necessary to participate in public culture. It is an idea being put forward by CACTUS, a national community tv advocacy group, that recognizes the importance of cultural participation in citizenship. In what ways this idea asks are Canadians allowed to play a role in remembering their past, understanding the present, and envisioning their future through public culture?
Community channels were created when there was little and more commonly no public access to production. Closed circuit (cable) television offered an opportunity for communities to make television about themselves and to use it for political activism and artistic expression. The medium exploded (at least at first) as Canadians (re)discovered themselves through unique, local and at times quirky programming. Community television provided an otherwise nonexistent window on the very local realities of Canadian communities, their politics and their unique ways of expressing themselves.
Over the decades, open access devolved into a complicated and contentious arrangement between community groups and cable companies who wanted creative and editorial control over programming. What was originally intended as an opportunity for the public to be heard was remade into a hybrid cultural vehicle for cable company public relations, limited advertising revenue, traffic and weather reports, and severely restricted public access.
Since their creation in the early 1970s, community channels have attracted well over $1 billion in mandated funding. This money has been spent on programming and to create a network of television production facilities across the country required to “provide and encourage citizen access” in order to give communities the “widest opportunity for self-expression”. Regardless of how well these objectives are being met in its current form, who ends up with these assets, the cable companies or the Canadian public, and how they should be used in the future, not to mention what will happen to the annual funding, are some of the key considerations in these public hearings.
The CRTC wants to hear from Canadians: What are the objectives for community television? How accessible is it in its current form? How should it be funded? What future in the digital age?
The deadline for written submissions to the CRTC is February 1, 2010. Comments can be sent in electronically or by mail.
For more information see Broadcasting Notice of Consultation CRTC 2009-661.