Fade to black

How cable companies and the CRTC’s lenience are killing what’s left of community TV

What do Ed the Sock, Tom Green, Dan Akroyd and FUBAR director Michael Dowse all have in common? Their careers all started on homegrown Canadian community television.

But where are Canada’s current community TV stars? Good luck finding them. Despite Canada’s credentials as the creator of community TV, Canadian broadcasters have successfully used developments in satellite and digital television as a means to lobby the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to drown out community voices. Today, if you tune into channels that once carried citizens’ passionate, engaged and sometime irreverent voices, you’ll find commercials buffering slick reportage of soft local news.

This wasn’t always the case. Just over 10 years ago, Shaw’s Calgary community television station (Channel 10) had up to 400 volunteers creating in excess of 35 hours of original local shows per week. Kids shows, sports mobiles, entertainment shows promoting local bands and even drama series all had their place on the community channel’s airwaves. There were no commercials, and anyone could walk in off the street, be trained on the equipment and create their own shows. Best of all, it was funded by a CRTC-imposed five per cent levy of gross cable company revenues — it was free for those who wanted to participate.

Today, Channel 10 is entirely corporate run, and organizations like the University of Calgary’s NUTV are barely making the airwaves. Last November, Full Frontal — NUTV’s weekly human affairs show focusing on campus life — was cut from three half-hour segments to just one half-hour segment each week. A window on campus and community life, Full Frontal features local artists, entertainers, rising sports stars and news broadcasts by students touching on everything from roller derbies to political protests and endangered frogs.

Although according to the CRTC, community television shows are still supposed to air on basic cable (channels 1 through 10), the show now only airs on Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., way up on Channel 94 — the lone English-language show on Shaw Cable’s multilingual digital channel. It’s definitely demoralizing for NUTV’s 140 members, who also produce live event coverage, On the Verge (a music show) and mini documentaries, all of which are only available online. Shaw still provides community programming on Channel 10, but in the guise of 10 hours of professionally reported local news a week, and commercials are rampant.

This, despite clear legislation (CRTC policy 2002-61), which states 60 per cent of all programming on community channels must have a local focus, and 30 per cent should be “access programming” or citizen-produced TV. The policy states, “The [CRTC] Commission noted that cable licensees are expected to actively promote citizen access to the community channel and to provide and promote the availability of related training programs.”

Now in the midst of its five-year broadcasting licence renewal, Shaw wrote in its application submitted in February by Michael Ferras, vice-president of regulatory affairs, that it not only meets these requirements, but exceeds them: “The average weekly level of access programming that has been distributed over the past licence term is over 50 per cent.”

Michelle Wong, NUTV volunteer co-ordinator, says that these policies are not sincerely respected, and do not meet the original intentions of community programming. “I know that Shaw market themselves as community TV, but what they’ll do is come out and report on your event — and they’re calling that access — but it’s not your voice, it’s their voice.”

The CRTC requires broadcasters to promote their access and training opportunities to the public, but Shaw’s recent application letter stated, “Specific messages were included in our customer bills in 2005, 2006 and 2007. We received little or no response from these and chose to supplement this activity with... individual volunteer contact.” Wong says she recently inquired about community members’ use of Shaw’s television mobile, a multi-camera portable unit, and was stunned at the cost. “I know that in other communities like Vancouver and Richmond, they don’t have to pay for it, but here it’s $5,000 a day,” she says.

Despite these allegations, Peter Foster, the senior director of television policy and applications at the CRTC, says monitoring of public access between 2003 and 2005 didn’t find any breaches of policy. “Broadcasters were respecting the requirements as far as local access. Since then, if we receive complaints, then we’ll act upon them, but to my knowledge there hasn’t been any in the last year or two.”

This is perplexing considering the CRTC’s recognition of community television as a “cornerstone” in its own 2002 policy, which states: “The factor that most distinguishes community programming from conventional television is the ability to turn the passive viewer of television into an active participant.” But are viewers becoming “active participants” if their only contribution consists of telling Shaw about a community event worthy of coverage — without even having to leave their couch?

This debate is not merely about Canadian content. The benefits of active participation were first discovered during the Fogo Island experiment off the coast of Newfoundland in 1968 (see sidebar). It was quickly expanded with the Challenge for Change program because of the proven profound impacts collaboratively produced TV had in rebuilding communities struggling to survive.

Freedom of speech and access to independent sources of information create informed, engaged citizens. The CRTC’s recognition of this fact in the early 1970s entrenched community television on our screens and established a political and cultural heritage worth holding on to.

While Canadian broadcasters have used the advent of satellite and digital television as leverage to reduce public access regulations, the U.S. and the Netherlands have embraced these new technologies, expanding their public access services in proportion to expanding bandwidths.

In the U.S., “where there was one community TV channel for [every] 30 channels, well now there could be as many as 10 or 12 public access channels” explains Cathy Edwards of the Canadian Association of Community TV Users and Stations (CACTUS), who recently finished producing a six-part documentary called My TV, Your TV, Our TV, about community TV efforts around the globe (timescapeproductions.ca).

The Group advocates a public access system based on the ideal of public access, education and government (PEG), ensuring that everyone from individuals to educational and small government institutions all have a venue to broadcast their messages, “so there’s this whole avenue of communication between the city and the people that live there that we just don’t have in Canada,” says Edwards.

Across the pond, Hoeksteen Live, a community station in Amsterdam, integrates common consumer tools like home computers, camcorders and even telephones in the broadcasting process to create live, interactive TV, where citizens are directly and immediately involved in their improvised, un-programmed shows. The station prides itself on its accessibility and reach. In an article entitled Technological Experiments on Amsterdam Television, Nicole Smits, the station’s editor-in-chief, and Raul Marroquin, a media artist, write, “Breaking the strict rules of high-quality standards makes production of television programming as simple as making a phone call. This has prompted a new approach for television: anyone can make television anytime.”

How is this different from YouTube you ask? Stay tuned....

De-regulation, consolidation and one less talking sock

Closer to home, the cost of rewiring for the conversion from analogue to digital TV (mandatory by 2011) and the introduction of American competition via satellite TV, has justified the cable industry’s consolidation into fewer, larger broadcasters and squeezed out community television. In 1997, the CRTC reduced the community TV levy to two per cent from five, made it optional, and allowed advertising. “One of the CRTC’s justifications,” in addition to increasing costs, says Edwards, “was that because community TV was going for 30 years and was really popular, it didn’t need to be officially regulated or protected anymore.”

Amateur Wayne’s World-style productions came to a crashing halt. Now officially optional, and with its budgets more than halved, community TV was taken over by ad-hungry cable operators. The end of “dude-esque” production courtesy of Garth, Wayne, Tom Green and Ed the Sock might not seem like a tragic loss to local culture, but community TV was more than just beer-and bacon-fuelled productions. Edwards recalls, “When I was the volunteer co-ordinator at Shaw’s community channel in 1997, we sent out a letter in the summer to all our 400 volunteers that said, ‘We’re not going to need your services anymore, don’t come back.’ One of them was an old lady called Lillian Lynn that had been doing a news magazine show called Talk of the Town and other shows for around 15 years!”

Lynn, now 79 years old, still has strong feelings about having been kicked off the air. “May I answer you bluntly?” She asks, her voice shaky, “I was pissed off. We all felt we had been thrown aside — all of us. Most of us felt we had been used and abused. We really were not told, at least I wasn’t, that everything had been cancelled. I did more than just a half-hour show, I did a book review show, an arts series — so much more than just talk shows.”

Thanks to a public outcry generated by groups in Quebec, and the Community Media Education Society (CMES) based in Vancouver, the 2002 CRTC policy reinstated the need for community TV and set the unregulated standards we have today. However, even the CRTC’s Foster agrees a formal review of community TV is necessary. “We’re well aware of the sentiments amongst community groups that feel [public access TV] doesn’t reflect communities. We’ve heard concerns expressed — it’s anecdotal — and that’s where I think we need a formal review to get a broad cross-section of opinions, because different operators have different approaches,” he says.

Five major mergers have been approved by the CRTC since 2007 alone, worth nearly $6 billion combined. Public outcry resulted in the Diversity of Voices hearing, held last September in Gatineau, Quebec, and attracted 162 written complaints and 1,800 comments from a campaign led by Canadians for Democratic Media. The result was a new regulatory policy released in January that sets caps on ownership across mediums, but does little to reconcile Canadians with their new media landscape. The hearing did, however, reiterate the role of community TV in our broadcasting system, and order a full public hearing to take place sometime in 2009.

YouTube: the new public voice?

In the YouTube era, has community TV become an archaic medium? It’s a question likely to come up in next year’s hearings, when the CRTC debates the role of new technologies in the creation and distribution of community services.

NUTV’s Wong argues that the benefits of collaborative techniques essential to TV production are lost to lonesome webcam cowboys. “What’s special about NUTV compared to people sitting at home with their video cameras and laptop computers and editing their own stuff, is that we provide a community, so you don’t have to work in a vacuum by yourself.”

And in terms of impact, Edwards argues that the Wild West of Internet surfing is still no competitor to good old-fashioned TV, especially when it comes to local perspectives. “Because TV has always been, and still is, the most dominant medium in shaping our views, the point of community TV is that everyone has a chance to participate. So if you want a healthy democracy, there has to be outlets in all our media for participation,” she says.

Leaving politics and corporate agendas aside, you don’t want to tune into crap. So when it comes down to content, you can’t compare people filming their pets, capturing spontaneous flatulence and ranting in their parents’ basement on fuzzy webcams to well thought out and painstakingly produced dramas, documentaries and any other community television programming. YouTube’s ethereal quality cannot attract the same level of conscientious dedication necessary to produce television, and it certainly does not build on community collaboration.

Perhaps the CRTC’s very own Diversity of Voices report summarizes it best: “While the Commission recognizes that the new — and largely unregulated — media constitute an increasingly important source of both professional and non-professional editorial voices, the evidence indicates that most Canadians still view traditional media as more trustworthy and credible. These are the voices that still have the greatest resonance.”

Get on the air!

• Tune into Channel 10 and Channel 94 to view Shaw Cable’s community television offerings.

• Contact Shaw TV’s program manager to inquire about how you can access the airwaves (shaw.ca, 1-888-750-7429).

• Go to nutv.ca to view real public access shows, or visit the organization’s University of Calgary office to learn how to contribute.

• If you are unsatisfied with your current level of access to community television, write a formal complaint to the CRTC (crtc.gc.ca).

The Fogo Island Experiment

It’s 1968 and a small island community of 6,000 people off the coast of Newfoundland is almost entirely dependent on welfare, forced into poverty by the competition of big fishing trawlers. Before embarking on the heartbreaking and costly task of removing the entire community from the island, the government decides to commission Colin Low, a well-known documentary film-maker, to find out what this community needs and wants.

Citizens are filmed expressing their opinions on what needs to be done. Allowed to select the footage they want to make the final cut, and to edit out everything else, people feel comfortable in front of the camera.

The films are played in town hall meetings, and an amazing thing happens. No longer passive recipients of government programs, they listen to each other and collaboratively agree to pool their resources into a co-op, invest in a big fishing trawler, create just one school system instead of three and fix their roads.

The experiment is an overwhelming success, and the Challenge for Change program is established to help disenfranchised citizens across Canada save their communities through self-expression and collaborative problem-solving.

In 1969, Rosedale, a depressed little town in Alberta with no sewage, electricity and other basic services, is another community to benefit from this program.

In 1971, Frank Spiller, the National Film Board program manager, begins working at the CRTC and creates a document requiring cable companies to set aside 10 per cent of gross revenues to fund what we now call community television. Intended to be a positive building tool, it also allows cable companies, which use public land to dig their cables into the streets, to give back to communities. This signals the beginning of Canada’s leadership of the international movement towards democratizing the broadcast medium.

(To find out more and see Fogo Island films, visit: nfb.ca/collection/films/fiche/?id=10451)


From homemade kung fu flicks to psychic advisors, little old ladies and dorky DJ’s, the community airwaves once had an eclectic edge now nearly vanished from Calgary’s social consciousness. However, good luck finding this footage on YouTube. In 1998, Rogers dumped 30 years of community TV tapes in the trash. Here’s a sample of this lost community TV heritage:

Metal Man — a cross between Beavis and Butt-head and Wayne’s World, Steve Pheby and one of his buddies reviewed records and show cover art between clips of Ozzy or Motor Head videos and anything else worthy of a good head-bashing in the early ’80s.

FM Moving Pictures — A wealth of alternative music information from the late ’70s to early ’80s, Mike Bezeg and Calgary Herald music critic James Muretich reviewed, for e.g., the latest Joy Division record, between clips of Nash the Slash, Iggy Pop and other musical acts passing through town.

The DJ Call In — request a song, dedicate it to your honey and watch this dorky dude with longish hair and tinted aviator glasses play KC and the Sunshine Band as song titles and dedications scroll along the bottom of the screen: “Jeff says high to Kimberly in Bonavista.”

Money Talk with the Three Kens — Need some stock tip advice? Three finance professionals — who all happen to be named Ken — dished out weekly stock-tip advice during the mid to late ’90s.

Crooks Corner — A talk show hosted by Andy Crooks, a lawyer and entrepreneur, chatting about the latest hot button political topics like native land issues in the mid to late 90’s.

Talk of the Town — Still an active community TV member, Lillian Lynn hosted a variety of news magazine shows for 20 years before Shaw shut down its community TV channel in 1997.

Lynn and Company — Filmed on location at local schools and featuring kids performing acts of their own devising, this talent show opened with Lynn telling a story and ended with a performance by a children’s entertainer.

Unleashed — A comedy show hosted by hilarious Ruth Ferguson, who would perform skits involving ostrich farms and sumo-wrestler costumes.

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