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Activists challenge Videotron’s community TV service MAtv by Steve Faguy

Mar 24, 2014

Source: Ottawa Citizen

MONTREAL — What was supposed to be a simple, non-controversial request to start up an English-language community television channel is turning into a big problem for Videotron, Quebec’s largest cable television provider.

A group of community activists has banded together to file a complaint with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission against Videotron, arguing the company’s existing community channel MAtv is not respecting its mandate to provide community access to television.

“We are in fact outraged by Videotron’s long-standing failure to comply with all the CRTC’s expectations and laudable community channel goals, which we believe are crucial requirements for a community channel to build and serve a healthy, diverse, and vibrant community,” the complaint says.

The group, calling itself Independent Community TV Montreal, has proposed an alternative: Give ICTV the money that Videotron provides to its community television service, and it will create a channel that provides a real service to the community and properly respects its diversity.

Videotron calls ICTV’s claims “false” and “defamatory” and says its channel fully complies with CRTC policy.

The broadcast regulator requires large TV providers contribute five per cent of their gross revenues each year to fund Canadian programming through the Canada Media Fund and other independent production funds. But it also allows providers to redirect two of that five per cent in order to fund local community television channels. This has led to the creation of community channels like MAtv (formerly Vox), TV Cogeco, Rogers TV, Shaw TV and Bell Local that are run by cable companies and distributed exclusively by them. The exclusivity, brand promotion and control over use of funds are strong incentives for cable companies to keep community channels in-house.

All together, community television channels across the country get $125 million a year in required contributions by cable and IPTV distributors (satellite TV providers can’t deduct funding for community channels because of the difficulty in distributing them). Videotron reports contributing $23.4 million to its 35 community channels in 2012-13. This works out to about $1 a month for the average TV subscriber.

Recently, the CRTC has begun allowing TV providers to deduct a further two per cent of revenues from their Canadian programming contributions to fund a second community channel, to operate one in each language. Rogers has done this in Ottawa and Moncton, and Bell Fibe and Videotron both applied to do this in Montreal. Bell’s request was approved last fall, but Videotron’s is still pending, apparently delayed because of ICTV’s complaint.

This trend has been opposed by the Canadian Association of Community Television Users and Stations, which said it is “unnatural from a community media perspective” to separate the community into two language groups, and that synergies between two channels mean it should not cost twice as much to add a second channel. CACTUS supports the basis of ICTV’s complaint and also believes community TV channels should be run independent of cable companies.

Community TV channels are barred from carrying advertising or foreign programming, and must devote at least 45 per cent their airtime to shows developed by people from the community. (As of Sept. 1, that goes up to 50 per cent.)

ICTV argues that in Montreal, MAtv airs no programming at all that can be really qualified as community access. Instead, most shows are produced by MAtv and hosted by professionals instead of volunteers. Others have ties to commercial interests.

And because MAtv is only in French, it has ignored the anglophone community, aboriginal community and cultural communities for years.

“We absolutely oppose the CRTC rewarding Videotron for the failures it’s already made,” Gretchen King, a member of ICTV’s steering committee, told The Gazette.

She said the group, whose seven-person steering committee includes people with connections to Concordia’s CUTV television station and McGill’s CKUT radio, as well as university professors and a retired La Presse journalist, decided to get together after Videotron applied to create an English community channel, a measure Videotron argued was the best way to serve the anglophone community.

On Sept. 23, ICTV members attended a public meeting in which MAtv president Isabelle Dessureault explained the plan for MYtv. They were not impressed by what they heard.

So they decided to apply for their own community channel, one that would be in multiple languages (“rather than silo the language groups into channels,” King said), and be 100 per cent produced by the community.

“We can achieve greater community participation and dialogue,” King said, pointing to the successes of CKUT, where she is on the board of directors.

CRTC policy states where a TV distributor doesn’t have a community channel, or its community channel does not operate according to policy, an independent group can apply for a licence to create one, and it would get the mandatory funding from that distributor. ICTV’s plan is to show the CRTC that MAtv doesn’t follow policy, and it could better spend that money, with fewer repeats and more representation of minorities.

Steve Desgagné, general manager of MAtv, won’t say how much Videotron contributes to its Montreal community channel. ICTV estimates it at $23 million, but Desgagné said that number isn’t even close. An estimate based on population share suggests a number closer to $5.5 million or $6 million a year for the channel that covers the island of Montreal. Last fall, Videotron said its English channel, which would cover the same area, would have a budget of $6 million.

Desgagné conceded Videotron didn’t do enough for the anglophone community in terms of community television. That’s why it applied to create MYtv, after judging that creating an English programming block on MAtv wouldn’t satisfy either language group.

But he denied the service is failing to meet CRTC standards for access. He said the channel is constantly soliciting ideas for shows through promotions on the air, through social media or at events. And while programs are produced with the help of MAtv’s technical staff (many of whom are interns), people who present ideas for shows are involved in their production, usually as their host.

Desgagné said in the two years he has been managing programming for MAtv, he hasn’t seen any proposals from people involved in ICTV. “They haven’t presented a project,” he said. And despite the complaint, he would still be willing to work with them. “We’re very open. The door will never be closed to any community group.”

Despite that openness, Videotron’s owner, Québecor Media, strongly condemned what it called “a campaign of false statements by ICTV on social media about MAtv, with the sole purpose of tarnishing the latter’s image and reputation,” in a letter sent Monday to the CRTC by regulatory affairs director Peggy Tabet.

At the CRTC’s request, Tabet provided a list of programs that aired during a sample week in November, and calculated 59 per cent of them qualified as access programs, slightly higher than its yearly average of 57 per cent.

Of the 14 shows Videotron categorized as access programming in Montreal, four were hosted by columnists of the Journal de Montréal, also owned by Québecor. Two others were produced with the Just for Laughs festival, and three more were exercise programs hosted by people who run private fitness centres, which in turn sponsor the shows.

CRTC policy on community channels forbids advertising, but allows for sponsorships. Videotron argues these programs still qualify as coming from the community, while ICTV argues they don’t. It’ll be up to the CRTC to decide which is right.

The CRTC is accepting public comments on ICTV’s complaint until April 10. The proceeding’s file number is 2013-1746-2. Details of the complaint are posted on ICTV’s website at tele1.ca.

Most proposals to Montreal MAtv are rejected, data show

Videotron was asked by the CRTC to provide a list of projects submitted to MAtv from Sept. 1, 2013 to Feb. 14, 2014, and justifications for refusals.

Of the 37 projects submitted for the Montreal area:

Four were accepted

12 were refused because they were deemed too expensive or MAtv did not have the technical capacity to produce them

Five were refused because they duplicate existing programs or others in development

Three were refused because they did not fit the mandate of community television

Four were marked “to be developed”

Five were modified or set to be incorporated into other programs

Seven had not yet been evaluated

(Three were rejected for multiple reasons)

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