Opinion: The future of community television by Steve Faguy

Apr 22, 2014

ICTV’s complaint against Vidéotron will be judged according to a CRTC policy that leaves a lot of room for interpretation

Source: Montreal Gazette

MONTREAL — A complaint by a group of Montreal activists against Vidéotron has taken on a greater significance as groups have lined up on both sides of a battle for control over Vidéotron’s community television service.

Last month, I wrote about ICTV, a group headed by people associated with CKUT Radio McGill and others formerly associated with Concordia University’s CUTV (“Activists challenge Vidéotron’s TV service,” Gazette, March 24).

After that article appeared, I was contacted by someone who wanted to set up a meeting with Isabelle Dessureault, the president of MAtv, Vidéotron’s French-language community TV channel, as well as Vidéotron’s vice-president of content operations and public affairs. She was looking to clear up any misconcept … let’s just call a spade a spade: she wanted to drive the discussion a bit more to Vidéotron’s favour.

Dessureault confirmed that the CRTC is not moving forward with Vidéotron’s application for an English-language version of MAtv, to be called MYtv, and that this complaint process could delay the launch of that channel by a year or more. This became the basis for another story I wrote (“MYtv community channel put on ice as CRTC evaluates complaint,” Gazette, March 29).

There has also been the matter of a lawyer’s letter to ICTV from Vidéotron ordering it to retract statements about the company that it considered defamatory. (It doesn’t directly threaten legal action, but it certainly suggests that would be the next step. Vidéotron confirmed the letter was sent, but said “Québecor Media is studying its options.”) ICTV refused to retract, saying the CRTC process was the place to settle their differences of opinion.

Since then, two important organizations have backed the two opposing sides of this battle. At the same time, the public has been invited to file comments to the CRTC on ICTV’s complaint against Vidéotron. The deadline for all comments passes on Tuesday night.

The English-Language Arts Network (ELAN), a group that supports anglophone artists in Quebec, has decided to back Vidéotron instead of ICTV. Executive director Guy Rodgers and president Peter MacGibbon laid out their argument in an opinion piece published last week in The Gazette (“Controlling community television: Vidéotron is the best choice to operate community TV in Montreal, in English and in French,” Opinion, April 16). The arguments boil down to two main points:

ELAN prefers a more professional, high-quality model of community television in which artists are paid for their work instead of volunteers working for free. It believes Vidéotron’s model is better than ICTV’s in this regard.

ELAN believes that ICTV’s proposal for a single multilingual television channel would not be as good as Vidéotron’s proposal for two channels, one in each language.

The ICTV folks took ELAN’s stance in the measured, respectful way one expects from Montreal’s activist community: Writing an open letter with the headline “ELAN betrayed our communities by selling out community TV to PKP’s Vidéotron.” It accuses ELAN of being intentionally misleading and of supporting a “segregationist” idea of community television.

ELAN’s opinion makes sense when you consider that it represents artists, such as independent television producers, rather than the community at large. Its view has to be taken in that context. It doesn’t make them evil, and I got no impression whatsoever during their community meetings over this issue that they discouraged other people from expressing their views on the matter; nor do I think they’ve sold out to Vidéotron.

The other voice to take a stand here is the Canadian Association of Community Television Users and Stations (CACTUS). The group’s executive director, Catherine Edwards, presented her group’s views in a Gazette opinion piece that was published alongside ELAN’s on April 16 (“Cable companies shouldn’t be allowed to control community TV at all, in any language”).

CACTUS believes in general that community television should be taken out of the hands of cable companies, and that even if there was once a reason for cable to control community-television channels, technology has made that reason obsolete. Edwards argued that community television should be in the hands of the community, not the cable companies.

CACTUS also opposes dividing community channels by language. Among the reasons for being against this are that doing so divides the two communities, leaves no place for third languages, and allows cable companies to double the amount of money they can keep in house rather than give over to Canadian content funds.

Friends of Canadian Broadcasting also has a page with one-sided information collecting comments in favour of ICTV.

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One important thing to consider in this whole affair is the difference between whether Vidéotron is properly following the CRTC’s community-television policy and whether that policy is properly written to begin with.

The policy has been revised numerous times, the latest in 2010. But there’s a lot of ambiguity in it. For example, the key part of community television is community-access programming, but the CRTC sets only two criteria for such programming: That the idea come from a member of the community not employed by a cable company, and that this person be involved with the programming in a significant on-camera or off-camera role.

That leaves a lot of loopholes. What if the person is an employee of a company related to a cable company? Can the cable company claim copyright over the programming produced this way?

CACTUS, ICTV and others take exception to the fact that community-TV channels run by cable companies are exclusive to customers of those companies. But the CRTC has chosen not to require open distribution of such community channels.

The community-television policy could change soon. The CRTC has begun a year-long process of reviewing television policy, and the cable companies and CACTUS will undoubtedly be lending their voices to that process. Until then, though, ICTV’s complaint against Vidéotron will be judged on existing policy.

In my discussions with MAtv president Dessureault and general manager Steve Desgagné, they have been trying their best to appear reasonable about this issue. They say Vidéotron is trying its best to be representative of the community, that it doesn’t reject proposals for community-TV programs unless they fail to meet the criteria, and that despite this dispute they are open to proposals from ICTV members. (They note that they have yet to receive any.)

Vidéotron admits it has got some things wrong, most significantly its failure to properly represent the anglophone community in Montreal (an error it is trying to fix with the MYtv application). Dessureault also says MAtv will reform some of the ways it presents information to the public, by changing its end-of-show credits to emphasize the contributions from the community and by volunteers. It also plans to create an annual report for the public that outlines its accomplishments for the year.

And Vidéotron plans to, by the end of the year, set up an advisory committee for MAtv that would provide feedback on programming. (It had already planned to set up such a committee for MYtv once it was approved.)

Dessureault also said MAtv will be launching a new project in June that will facilitate community contributions to television. The concept is a bit fuzzy to me, but involves a website where people can contribute ideas and content, which will then be given to someone to turn into TV shows or documentaries. The purpose is to allow people to contribute without having to commit to running a weekly show.

But on the fundamentals, there are no changes planned. Most programs are still being produced by Vidéotron, and Vidéotron retains control over programming.

Dessureault stresses that getting communities involved with community TV isn’t easy, though they’re trying.

ICTV, however, argues that it has the resources to make it work. It points to CKUT, a radio station where volunteers fill an entire week’s worth of airtime without the need for repeats. It believes it can do the same on television.

The big issue here, of course, isn’t access — it’s money. ICTV could produce hours of video and post it to YouTube. But unless it wins its battle at the CRTC, it won’t get the millions in free cable money needed to pay for it.

Cable companies have community-TV channels because they’d have to spend the money anyway, and otherwise it would be outside of their control.

There’s a conspiracy theory floating around that Vidéotron and others use community TV for monetary profit, by charging their own community-TV channels for technical services.

Dessureault says MAtv’s finances are audited, both internally and by the CRTC, and that attempts to cook the books wouldn’t succeed. But she admits that MAtv does use some of its money to pay for things provided by Québecor. MAtv shares human-resources staff with Vidéotron, for example, to reduce costs. It also pays rent to TVA for production space (though at “well below market rates,” Dessureault said). Dessureault said these things are a very small portion of MAtv’s budget, which she said goes mainly to programming.

The CRTC has access to MAtv’s finances, and its experts are sticklers for attempts by big companies to take liberties with finances in order to reduce their obligations. So I seriously doubt that Vidéotron would get away with, say, overcharging MAtv for Internet access or rent, in order to suck away some of its budget.

But there’s a legitimate question to be raised over whether such expenses should be paid for by the cable company, separate from the two per cent of revenues it can allocate to community programming.

That, too, may be an issue if the CRTC moves to change its community-television policy.

Until then, it will be judging Vidéotron based on its compliance with the current policy, and that policy leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

© Montreal Gazette