Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage
Room 604, 180 Wellington Street
House of Commons
re: Examination of the Canadian Broadcasting System
Imagine a movie villain with a bizarre scheme to rule the world. Globalization is contentious because it implies no escape from uniformity. In this case the fear is that huge corporations, through cross-media ownership, will supersede not just small governments but all governments.
The Internet may be available to anyone but it's been quickly dominated by the best-financed conglomerates. Small and medium-sized players are being bought out or moved to the fringes. People are afraid that globalization means privatized democracy.
Why does this matter to Canada? We've never been a dominant country. Once we followed Britain's lead. Today it's the United States. Will it be so different adapting to Time Warner or Disney? I would say so. I believe Canada has established a distinctive culture which is recognized around the world. Our influence is greater than the size of our population.
We all joke that, with hundreds of channels, there's nothing on. Studies show we usually choose among a dozen channels. The important thing is to have at least one of those channels encourage democratic debate and discussion of local issues.
Communication systems are crucial for Canada because of our geography. If our only image of success is a California apartment where no one works yet everyone is rich, where we fear all strangers are criminals, then we have a problem. The big issue for Canada is local content. We can't let all our media speak with one voice. To describe this country truthfully we need to hear from each region, each neighbourhood.
Canada has chosen to have a cultural mosaic where diversity is preserved. Multicultural television is encouraged to have strong local production, not just to replay shows from the old country. It's important for Canada's ethnic groups to have a local voice.
Similarly community television has to be local and accessible. The CRTC has proposed a new policy framework for community based media (2001-129). In this policy for local programming, citizen access and diversity of voices, the CRTC includes a new broadcasting license for community programming, available to non-profit groups representative of the community at large. In particular it specifies such licensees would be entitled to receive the applicable percentage of the cable company's gross revenues.
This is a dramatic idea which deserves everyone's support. Community TV veterans have struggled for years to get an independent community channel. What makes community television attractive is that volunteers have control over the programs shown there. What's gone wrong with deregulation since 1998 is that the community channel has been turned into a promotional channel staffed and controlled by cable company employees.
A lot of people are angry that the community channel has been commercialized. Volunteers have had award-winning shows cancelled, shows that were providing the only in-depth coverage of political and social issues, shows which were replaced by clones of commercial broadcasting.
In Vancouver's municipal election Rogers cancelled coverage of candidates. ICTV Independent Community Television Co-operative then covered all-candidates meetings voluntarily on Novus. Only after complaints from several municipal councils did Rogers allow candidates to come to their studios and speak for two minutes.
When a Vancouver City Council meeting was interrupted by a protest about the transit strike, Shaw turned off the TV cameras. That's odd behaviour for any news organization, particularly when Vancouver councillor Fred Bass asked that that taping continue.
Canada's private broadcasters aren't happy about the new commercial community channel. It takes advertising away from them. Community TV profits are growing faster than any other aspect of cable revenues.
Concentration of ownership creates structural problems in a free enterprise system. Competition ends once somebody wins. Heavily financed cross media ownership prohibits new entrants.
The problem with businesses so large that they have no real competition is that they begin to take on not just the authority, but also the obligations of government. It creates ethical dilemmas. Investments turn into bribes. We can't have strong businesses without strong governments.
That means we need people who participate in democracy, who take it seriously and believe that it can bring real change. The problem with commercial television is that it depends on passive viewing. Community television encourages people to search out events affecting their neighbourhoods. Action extends beyond the technicians and producers. Community organizers are surprised and delighted to be noticed. When their neighbours see the event, interest snowballs. That's how mass media are supposed to work. And make no mistake. By historical standards or Internet standards, community TV is a mass medium.
The community channel is the most accessible form of television, but it is not sufficient by itself as a representative of the public interest. The CBC represents Canada not just at home but internationally, particularly with those Americans lucky enough to live near the border. Like the BBC, CBC quality and independence rely on public funding.
In Canadian broadcast regulation the CRTC is responsible for social policy and economics. Industry Canada handles hardware and the broadcast spectrum. The division seems to work well. It's important for any system to have checks and balances.
There's fear that the Knowledge Network, B.C.'s educational channel, may face a private takeover as happened with Access in Alberta. It's hard to provide public education using private ethics. Far too often there are social costs down the road. Timely regulation can save those costs.
Adapting to the Internet may be less of a shock for us than our grandparents experienced with the arrival of radio. The inventors of radio and television expected them to be used for education and public information, but today they are businesses first and foremost. The same is true of the Internet. Government doesn't need to regulate the Internet as long as government is willing to regulate business.
Arguably digital television is the same as Internet access. It's easy for digital television to interact with the Internet. If television is regulated, the Internet need not be. There might be a presumption that programmers flee regulation but in many cases the opposite is true, particularly when independent producers face established businesses so massive as to remove any likelihood of successful competition. Many, perhaps most, Canadians recognize that careful regulation can encourage the development of Canadian expression.
We now have a television industry which contributes significantly to employment. Canadian content regulations strike a reasonable balance between giving Canadian producers control over shows and, on the other hand, relinquishing that control and giving technicians a chance to work with Hollywood budgets under American creative control.
In fact it's been such a good compromise that a point system for participation in key production capacities might be a good measure of volunteer involvement for community television. Community TV has to provide meaningful access to volunteers. Now they serve as unpaid labour for the cable company. As long as the cable company operates the community channel, the CRTC has to protect volunteers. Ideally community television will soon be licensed independently.
Community TV volunteers have taken great encouragement from the interest shown by the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage. Canada's federal government stands out among other nations for its willingness to go out and listen to citizens.
Of course there was a lot of optimism in 1988 with the Standing Committee on Communications and Culture. Parliamentarians back then recommended a separate license for the community channel, and funding to develop community television. It keeps coming up because it's a good idea.
Community television is a public benefit, not a business proposition, and its existence depends upon the CRTC. The recent experiment in deregulation has failed dramatically but, to its credit, the CRTC has come back with a strong policy paper. If those proposals become fact, Canada will again be a leader in participatory public access television.
C.M.E.S. Community Media Education Society