By Steve Anderson
Until recently, many Canadian communities had vibrant networks of volunteer media makers, such as the roughly 1,200 volunteers across 12 regional offices in B.C.’s Lower Mainland. However, in the last 13 years, cable companies like Shaw have altered community production facilities and the levy (a public trust) that supports them. They are now used as a competitive advantage rather than a community resource. This represents a serious misuse of roughly $100 million that belongs to communities across the country ($116 million in 2008).
In 2008, cable monopolies earned a profit of 25 percent before interest and taxes. Irrespective of these earnings, they are now using over $100 million of public money for their own commercial interests. The community-TV levy money is partially earmarked for the most marginalized in our society, like at-risk youth. That some of the most profitable companies in Canada are taking public resources from those most in need is outrageous.
A “new deal” for media innovation?
The Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission is currently reviewing community media in Canada, including the $100 million in community-media funds. A proposal by the Canadian Association of Community Television Users and Stations calls for the millions of dollars already being collected by cable companies for community TV to be liberated for independent media centres. If taken up, the CACTUS plan could pave the way for an innovative and empowering independent media sector in Canada.
One group that would benefit from the liberated funds is the Vancouver-based W2 Community Media Arts Centre. New community media centres are attracting interest from the public because they are, in many ways, a physical mirror image of the Internet. These centres are integrating Web practices and values, like transparency, openness, and participatory decision-making, into their space. Take a look at the description of soon to be launched W2 centre:
W2 will bring together hybrid art forms, community art practices, individual human development and community cultural development in a single environment...offering developmental programs in writing, radio and television production, painting, sculpture, photography, mixed media, video and cross-media.
New community media centres like W2 allow community members to engage at a level with which they are comfortable, and to freely develop their own ambitions and capacities. Community media centres could, in a sense, be the next phase of social media, bringing to life the collaborative potential of the Internet in physical production spaces.
Watchdog for who?
Recently, a report detailing community-channel policies worldwide—Community Television Policies and Practices Around the World—has been removed from the CRTC Web site. This decision appears to be in response to a December 10, 2009, letter sent by Rogers Communications, Shaw Communications, Quebecor, and others asking for the report to be removed. The CRTC’s willingness to bend to the concerns of a few companies draws into question the CRTC’s independence from the cable-industry lobby.
The CRTC’s Web site also indicates that there are 139 cable-operated community channels in Canada, but gives no further information. The CRTC doesn’t appear to be even collecting programming logs, which would be the first step toward accounting for use of the funds collected from the community-TV levy.
Big cable has been given unfettered access to more than $100 million of our money, and the CRTC has apparently provided little to no oversight. Over the past 10 years, an estimated $800 million has flowed through this fund.
The choice is ours: we can allow big cable to continue to use our money to promote their brands, or we can create new-media incubators that lead to job creation, empowerment, and media innovation.
Canadians can ask for the funds to be given back to communities by sending a comment to the CRTC.