Last April the CRTC conducted a hearing to review a two per cent cable levy (bringing in roughly $120 million a year) that four family-controlled cable monopolies, Cogeco, Rogers, Shaw and Vidéotron, have been mostly using as their own media slush fund. These corporations already earn a 25 per cent profit margin amounting to almost $2 billion each year, and both Rogers and Shaw have raised cable rates by more than 68 per cent in recent years.
If you haven't heard about this large community media fund, it's because it appears to have been mismanaged and put towards what many consider to be commercial television endeavors.
What's more, if the CRTC had chosen to liberate these funds to independent media groups, it would have created a renaissance for media innovation and improved citizens' access to digital media skills. Should these funds have been freed from the tight grasp of cable monopolies, community media centres like W2: Community Media Arts in Vancouver would have stable funding and could expand services, training and access to cutting-edge technology tenfold.
Over the course of this year, the CRTC has heard from nearly 3,000 Canadians calling for community control over the public fund. Though the CRTC acknowledged the public outcry against the existing model, it did so mostly with rhetoric rather than through structural changes. The CRTC's August 26 ruling left the funds in the hands of cable companies instead of putting them under community control.
The CRTC did rule, however, that cable companies would have to file more comprehensive annual reports detailing their use of the funds. They also added a clearer definition of community expression and created requirements that 50 per cent of the expenditures and production that make use of the public funds must be put towards community expression.
Years until change is scheduled
This small step forward for accountability and transparency has been all but nullified by the stunning length of time it will take for policy to be put into practice -- the CRTC will not enforce these new rules until 2014. Four years is a long time in the world of digital media, and it's anyone's guess what the television landscape will look like when this ruling takes effect.
More importantly, while the new rules increase the amount of money and production dedicated to community media in theory, in practice we may see the exact same out of the cable companies as today. The new definition of community access requires that the idea for the production must come from the community, and a community member must be involved in the production. This sounds good, except that the cable companies get to decide how to define these two requirements, and if they loosely define or misreport on community access, it will be up to the communities, most of which have very limited resources, to keep them in check.
Just look to the cable companies' positive response to see whose interest this decision is in. Rogers told The Wire, for example, that the decision is "validation of how Rogers does community television."
The current practice of cable companies paying a professional crew and equating interviews with community members as community access, similar to what is done on other commercial news programs, is likely to continue. Furthermore, the cable companies are unlikely to provide funds to local community groups when they can just as easily sink those resources into their own "community access" shows. So in reality, the decision reproduces the current structural problems seen in today's community access media in Canada.
As dissenting commissioner Michel Morin appropriately put it, this ruling is, "the Commission's paternalistic community model."
Why did the CRTC fail?
When you have one of the decision-making commissioners with a past, and perhaps a future high-level position at Rogers Cable, this outcome is not surprising. Maybe if we had some representatives of the public interest community on the commission we'd get more balanced decisions. Furthermore, when the CRTC does do the right thing it is overturned and, as of late, even reconfigured by the government. In the previous column in this series, In Defense of The CRTC, a couple of key positive decisions were laid out. It was not long after this column was published that reports came out revealing that Harper was looking to shuffle the CRTC chair out of the commission.
When the cable industry has such high profits that it can effectively lobby policy makers, and when we have a government so willing to act on its behest, it can be expected that the CRTC has to pick and choose when to make decisions that contradict the position of the industry and current ruling party. Note the recent positive ruling that forced big telecom companies to play fair with indie ISPs: maybe the community media ruling was a sacrificial lamb for this key structural decision that will affect the future of Internet access. Too bad the CRTC doesn't have a free hand to consistently point Canadian media policy in the right direction.
What is to be done?
The last column noted that, as citizens and public interest groups, we will need to be better organized and more vocal if we are to counteract industry and government pressure. The move toward increased accountability and transparency is a tangible improvement of the past oblique industry management of community media funds. That improvement is the result of citizen engagement and good policy work by CACTUS and others.
It's an improvement we should utilize to the greatest extent possible and it's an improvement we should build upon. For example, as a result of the transition from over-the-air to digital TV, communities have an opportunity to launch new local over-the-air community stations and, potentially, free wireless.
As for cable, there is a new initiative designed to take advantage of the wiggle room we have provided. It's called the Cable Access Coalition and it's the project of a new group called Smart Change. The coalition aims to distribute content to local communities and provide them with support in demanding access to local cable channels for distribution. They are starting with alternative coverage of the G20 Summit, but plan to expand to other issues of the day. This coalition could also use the new CRTC ruling to pressure the cable companies to use the community media fund to financially support actual community media makers.
It's too early to say how much impact this new initiative will have, but history teaches us that organizing people around access to resources is a precondition to reasserting community control.
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