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Cable Cutters

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Issue: 42 Section: Business Geography: Canada Topics: social movements, media, corporate

February 5, 2007

Cable Cutters

What the cable companies don’t want you to know about radical television in Canada

by Michael Lithgow

The author at a community TV station in Cape Breton. Photo: Maury McCown

There’s a big little story in Canada about radical possibilities for television that cable companies don’t want you to know. It’s a story worth close to a billion dollars -- money that should have been spent on creating community access television in every neighbourhood where cable companies sell cable. A few communities have claimed some of their share, but in most of Canada, the money goes into the pockets of the cable companies. What would happen if more communities demanded the community access funding that is their right under federal regulations?

The story of community television is in many ways the story of cable television. It begins in the early 1950s, with amateurs tinkering with televisions in their backyards. What they discovered is that a clear television signal could be easily redistributed with ground wire into areas where reception was poor. Their next discovery was that people would pay for this. Amateur curiosity became entrepreneurial enthusiasm, and by 1958 the ironically named ‘community antennae television systems’ (CATVs) were born: Canada’s first cable companies.

Cable’s promising financial future was not immediately apparent. At the time, asking households to pay for television was a weird and distasteful idea _ why pay for what you get for free? Even as late as 1968, when the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) was created by the federal government to regulate communications in Canada, cable subscription rates represented only small fractions of available viewers. One of the reasons this changed was the introduction of a new kind of television -- community access programming (television made by non-professional local residents in neighbourhoods across the country). Cable was the only way to see public access television.

Public access television was truly a creature of its time, a product of a unique set of historical circumstances. There were the fledging cable services selling programs on closed-circuit networks. There was the rebellious social turmoil of the late 1960s. And in 1967, Sony introduced the first portable video recording unit, the Sony Portapak, a 1/2 inch reel-to-reel black and white video camera. Portable video was more accessible than film because of costs, ease of use and immediacy of results.

Artists and activists quickly incorporated video into their creative and anti- establishment antics. It allowed the production of television outside of commercial venues and thus challenged network television’s monopoly over programming. It was television by the people, for the people, and in the politically charged techno-utopic fervor of the times, public access television offered an exciting glimpse into local culture and exposed mainstream households to a new form of social commentary.

No one knows for sure where it began - it could have been in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where, in 1968, local youth were taught how to make video using the new Portapak, and then their programs were aired on local cable. (This was a project of the National Film Board’s Challenge for Change, a video and film activist training program operating from 1967 to 1974.) It could also have been in New York City, where, in the same year, a community programming model was being experimented with by the Ford Foundation. And it could have been in Dale City, Virginia, also in 1968, where the local municipal government created a short-lived community cable channel. In all likelihood, they happened independently and simultaneously, products of the technology and temperament of the day.

Communities across Canada quickly became hooked on the quirky, amateurish but undeniably immediate and locally-oriented programming. By 1972, most cable companies were voluntarily providing some kind of community access. They had discovered that people liked seeing their neighbours, their families and themselves on television, and they liked the local coverage and innovative programming that was and remains the mainstay of community access programming. Community access programming was inadvertently helping cable companies to sell cable.

In 1975, the CRTC introduced the first comprehensive community channel regulations. Cable companies over a certain size were required to allocate 10 per cent of their gross revenues to access television. The CRTC did this for two reasons: to standardize the kind and quality of access that was available to communities across Canada and also to help justify the creation of regional cable monopolies.

This latter strategy was in direct response to cable company demands for guaranteed rates of return to compensate for the large capital investment required to build cable infrastructure. Community television was the CRTC’s way of extracting from cable companies a contribution to Canadian culture (in exchange for monopoly power) and to justify the creation of the monopolies to critics and the public.

Activists and artists across Canada soon got in on the game of making television. In Vancouver, video artists led the way, recognizing the potential for community television as a means to circumvent traditional political economies of galleries and commercial art markets and as a means of directly countering mainstream programming. Shows like The Gina Show (John Anderson) and Images of Infinity (Byron Black) used community channel airtime to challenge dominant ideas while creating extended video art riffs on the political themes of the times: techno-utopic ideals, radical political change, protest and direct action, the alleviation of poverty and multiculturalism. Early video policies at the Canada Council recognized community television as an important site for artistic production and distribution.

The early freedom experienced by artists and activists was not to last. Cable companies began to censor programming. Some cable operators began to illegally charge fees for access, and to use the community channel for advertising. The cable operators erroneously believed that the community channel was their property and they appointed themselves keepers of the channel and gatekeepers of community politics and taste. By the 1980s, most artists and many activists had withdrawn completely and programming was largely dictated by cable company employees. Programmers and community groups who remained found themselves begging on the steps of the CRTC with their growing lists of complaints.

After a decade of complaints and inaction, the CRTC initiated a review of community channel practice and policy in 1990. There were thousands of written submissions. The CRTC’s response was problematic and progressive. Problematically, the new regulations prohibited cable companies from charging fees for access and they allowed a limited form of advertising called sponsorships (text graphics over a still image). In addition, they reduced the amount cable companies had to spend in access television by half. But the CRTC also articulated a new set of goals and objectives for community television in Canada, a policy statement that today continues to have resonance.

The CRTC stated that community television in Canada should: (i) engender a high level of citizen participation and community involvement; (ii) actively promote citizen involvement and promotion of training opportunities; (iii) seek out innovation and alternative points of view; (iv) provide balanced opportunities for differing views; (v) reflect bilingual and ethnic diversity; and (vi) provide coverage of local events.

It’s worth thinking about these roles and objectives carefully. Despite the fact that the 1991 regulations reduced mandatory spending on community programming in half, community channel allocations have grown to between $50 and $80 million annually. That means that since the early 1990s, cable companies have collected between $700 million and $1 billion that should have been spent on achieving these roles and objectives. You wouldn’t be alone in catching your breath at the staggering failure of community television to live up to this potential, especially with such generous resources at the ready. Worse, no one knows what the cable companies have been spending all this money on. In 2005 the parliament of Canada (in its report Our Cultural Sovereignty:The Second Century of Canadian Broadcasting) stated that it was “frustrated by the absence of data on community television and is dismayed that virtually no information exists on what happens as a result of cable company expenditures (approximately $75 to $80 million) in support of community television each year.” The cable companies are not meeting the stated goals and objectives for the community channel (this, too, was indicated by Parliament in the report), and no one knows what they are doing with the money.

The next assault came a few years later, once again under the guise of regulatory reform. In 1996, the CRTC initiated a policy review - not of community television, but of cable regulations. What the CRTC proposed for community television was a voluntary commitment from the cable companies. Only if a cable company voluntarily chose to do so, would it have to allocate resources to a community channel. It was the de facto deregulation of community television in Canada.

As if Christening a ship, the CRTC boldly declared that the “community channel has achieved a level of maturity and success that it no longer needs to be mandated” and that “apart from the benefits to the public through local reflection, the community channel provides cable operators with a highly effective medium to establish a local presence and to promote a positive image for themselves.” In effect, the CRTC gave cable companies their own television channels, while at the same time circumvented the public hearing process that every other channel operator in Canada was required to go through.

The cable companies all but declared war on community access, setting into motion a series of changes aimed at eliminating programming that originated in the community. In one particularly egregious example, Vancouver’s Shaw Cable eliminated three hours of community-produced original programming (produced through a non- profit television group ICTV Independent Community Television Co-op, a group the author was involved with at the time), offering instead two minutes per week. Shaw’s community channel program manager told a CBC news reporter that “access is an evil word,” a comment that captures the cable industry’s hostility to community participation under the new regulations. By 2000, in many areas, independent community programming had been entirely eliminated from the new cable company channels.

What replaced community programs were shows produced by cable employees in service of the company’s needs. Corporate advertising appeared with increasing frequency as cable companies took the opportunity to cross-promote corporate products. The programming, having lost regular community input and now being produced entirely within a ratings- motivated framework, increasingly resembled commercial programming.

Community channels grew crowded with glib talk shows, sports programming, cooking shows, travel shows, home fix-it shows, fishing shows, and so on. Voices marginalized from mainstream television were just as efficiently marginalized under the new format. Representation from First Nations, the poor, local artists, ethnically diverse communities, opinions questioning status quo positions, and even local news coverage all but vanished.

Community channels began to look, smell and taste so much like commercial stations that commercial broadcasters started to complain to the CRTC, arguing that the new regulations were allowing cable companies to compete for local advertising and views without any sort of public review. Rogers Cable, in its own submissions on the subject to the CRTC in 2001, stated that earnings from community channel sponsorships were over $1 million and that there was an additional $1.7 million to be had if sponsorships (then text over still images) could be expanded to include moving images. Good-bye community voices, hello to the quiet whisper of dollar bills, as many as could be squeezed from the cable companies’ new-found toy.

Every action, they say, has an equal and opposite reaction. In this case, the reaction came in the tireless political and public relations lobbying of activists across the country. Organizations like ICTV and CMES in British Columbia and the Federacion du Television Communitaire du Quebec pushed back against cable company hostility and greed. Once again, the CRTC put into motion its increasingly creaky policy review process and, in 2001, launched a major review of community- based media regulations.

Over the course of 18 months, two draft policies and over 1,000 interventions from members of the public, community groups, cable companies and broadcasters, the message that Canadian communities want their community channels back finally got through. In 2002, the CRTC re-regulated community access television by reasserting cable companies’ obligations to provide a community channel that encourages access, training and meaningful volunteer opportunities, and that up to 50 per cent of the community channel must be made available for independently produced community programs.

To put this another way, the only reason your local community channel continues to resemble the unimaginative and money- grubbing gestures of commercial television is because you haven’t asked the cable company for the training, equipment and air time that you are legally entitled to. That’s the law.

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Hey can I get in on this community TV broadcast action even if I don't subscribe to a cable TV company?

And, how important is TV anymore? Have you watched TV lately? I don't think there is much worth watching, although I did watch "The Corporation" late night on satelite TV last year. I see a lot of TVs in the trash can. And, a lot of people in my community no longer have a TV and others don't watch TV at all.

The other thing is the internet. Here I am replying to this article posted by The Dominion -- try doing that with a TV, it doesn't work. It does work on the internet! I post video, audio, text, and other wierd, wild and wonderful smatterings. We download video, we listen to audio, we read news from the grassroots. It's narrowcast, and it's broadcast.

Okay, another thing, this is even more insidious from my grassroots perspective. We don't need cable/phone/TV companies. What is stopping our community from broadcasting on one of those many empty free TV channels? What is stopping us from running our own CAT5E and fiber optic cable from door to door within our community? I ask this as much as I can, and sometimes, surprisingly someone gets it. And, it's not the community-minded person I would expect to get it, it's usually someone who is tired of handing over their money to a corporation every month to watch the crap that the corporation is dealing in. What's stopping us?

Thanks for posting the article. And, thanks for allowing me a voice.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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