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Challenging Peladeau's Quebecor for control of Community Television

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Image: Chadi Marouf for ICTV

Citizens have a chance to make Independent Community Television (ICTV) a reality in the greater Montreal area. ICTV is attempting to liberate public funds earmarked for Community Television production from the clutches of media mogul Pierre Karl Peladeau owner of the Quebecor empire. Up until April 22, the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC) is accepting public comments on whether Videotron stands in non-compliance with the guidelines for running a community station.

At stake is more than $20 million annually collected as a tax on Videotron cable revenues to fund community television. Currently the money is being intercepted by Videotron and spent on the professional "community-like" channel; MAtv (formally known as VOX). This challenge has been brewing for decades, and now a wave of community groups across the country are trying to hold Broadcast Distribution Units (or BDUs ie cable companies like Videotron and satellite providers like Bell) accountable for our public funds.

Annually, over $100 million of public funds disappear into the black hole of BDU community television, which very few community members know exists and even fewer watch.   

Community TV as a mirror of society

Community TV, like community radio, exists for communities to produce content that represents their issues and events. Since 1971, cable companies have been required to provide public access channels in Canada. There have been changes over time, but in 2002, the CRTC issued a decision reaffirming that community TV in Canada should cultivate a "high level of citizen participation and community involvement." This same decision called for community television programming to represent both official languages as well as the "ethnic and Aboriginal composition of the community" (see CRTC Broadcasting Decision 2002-61).

BDUs are required to put aside five per cent of their revenues to Canadian content and local community television. If no such community station exists, all the money is distributed to canadian production funds, with the biggest being the Canadian Media Fund.

There is a long history of struggle to make community produced TV a mass reality in Canada. However, today we have two types of community TV in the country. BDUs run their own access channels and intercept two per cent to fund them. Videotron runs MAtv and uses $23 million annually to fund it.

Second, community TV licences operated by community groups. Only nine such independent, community licence holders exist in Canada, none of which receive any money from the BDUs as they exist in markets that already have a BDU station. Unfortunately, most community TV channels in Canada are owned by cable companies.

No taxation without representation

In the greater Montreal region, MAtv, that has been in non-compliance on the requirement to represent both official languages as well as the "ethnic and Aboriginal composition of the community" for the past ten years. None of the content aired by MAtv is produced by volunteers and no programs are controlled by the community. MAtv programming is produced with fully paid crews of 30 to 70 people with a production cost of $6,400 to $19,000/hr.

These numbers are astounding when compared to the Quebec community sector average production costs of $600/hr, or the corporate production sector, like MAtv sister station TVA, who report an average production cost of around $6,000/hr.

Keep in mind that MAtv has a maximum reach of 18,000 viewers across the province of Quebec in comparison to the hundreds of thousands that watch TVA. These numbers point to one of two things, either that MAtv has a failing business model, or that productions do not actually cost this much and money is being disappeared through creative accounting practices.

Videotron believes it should be rewarded for this shameful record of broadcast regulation violations with a second license, where it will herd the English community along with the Native and visible minority communities who it currently refuses to service on MAtv. This will apply regardless of the community member official language preference or where they live in the greater Montreal area forcing them to travel to downtown Montreal for any services.

To fund the second station (MYtv), Videotron has requested to have the right to intercept another two per cent of the five per cent it is obliged to earmark for canadian content and community television. Many groups have already objected to this request by Videotron and that includes the non-profit organization of community media experts, professors and activists that call themselves ICTV.

The group has made an official Part 1 complaint, charging that MAtv is in non-compliance and requested that the license be given to the non-profit to run the station as the law intended. ICTV is offering to produce 168 hours of programming that accurately reflect the diversity of the island of Montreal, with 50 per cent of the programming in french, 20 per cent in English, ten per cent in native languages and 15 per cent in third languages; all produced by and for the communities that will have access to complete training and equipment. In comparison, the MAtv/MYtv formula offers only 20 hours of programming in each language with zero access or say for the community.

Community TV, segregation vs. inclusion

Earlier this month, the CRTC ordered MAtv to answer a list of 11 questions that help determine if the station stands in compliance. Documents released last week showed a pattern of disregard to the law and total disrespect to the diverse communities living under the license area.

When asked to provide a list of Native programming, MAtv produced a log of five segments, over a four years span, produced by MAtv Montreal and one single in depth documentary produced by Chateauguay-TVC. All productions listed maintain the pattern of looking at the Native peoples as "subjects" through the lens of outsiders (mainly paid staff) to tell the story. None of the station portals, (website, facebook or twitter) are provided in English, nor any programming, leaving the region's 600,000+ anglophones, Aboriginals, and speakers of third languages out in the cold.

This pattern of segregating and isolating communities is a favourite for the owner of Quebecor, the parent company of MAtv, which controls 40 per cent of all media in the province. Peladeau, currently is also running in the Quebec elections on a ticket with the ruling Parti Quebecois. This gives him influence over the three arms of television in the province, public television represented by Tele-Quebec, private television represented by TVA and community television represented by MAtv.

Comparing Peladeau to Italy's Berlusconi under these conditions is an understatement as the latter never controlled community television in Italy. In addition, PKP, as Peladeau is commonly known in Quebec, owns SUN Media TV, the most nationalist and right wing of the english television networks constantly spewing anti-Quebec and anti-immigrant propaganda. This while his French media empire is flooding the market with separatist and anti-immigrant propaganda, sensationalizing for example the Charter of Identity, that has been blamed for an increase in attacks on visible minorities and institutions in Quebec.

Today, the heat is on Videotron, and a community victory is almost palatable. One of the questions the CRTC ordered Quebecor to disclose by February 10 was detailed records of the programming it airs.

After delaying a week (blaming March break) and filing incomplete records on February 17 (in which the disputed programming logs have still not been published), Videotron lawyers threatened to sue ICTV and requested of ICTV to remove all information about the company's financial accountability and lack of community participation from its web presence. ICTV responded by pointing Videotron to the correct legally empowered venue for such matters, the CRTC, and that citizens "must be free to state their opinions, objections and complaints without fear of intimidation, harassment and legal bullying."

Now the CRTC has reiterated their demand for the logs of the week investigated and gave Videotron till April 7 to comply.

How you can support ICTV

Readers interested in weighing in by April 22 on the issue can read ICTV's complaint and proposal for a multilingual, citizen-run and citizen-programmed community channel on ICTV's own website or on the CRTC's web site under proceeding # CRTC 2013-1746-2.

Laith Marouf is a community activist and longtime community radio and television contributor with a passion for creating media spaces where under-represented and misrepresented communities can tell their own stories.

Image: Chadi Marouf for ICTV

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