Communities need to take back community media

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A lot of people over the years have have had the experience of going to the local community cable production studio to do an interview, operate a camera and even host their own show.

These facilities have been provided by the big cable companies as a condition of their license. But there aren't as many of those opportunities anymore. Community production centres have been closing all over the country in recent years. Many small communities used to have their own community cable studio.

Now, people have to drive miles away to get to the nearest studio. Production facilities across the country have been shut down, as cable providers have been regionalizing production centres in larger communities.

There are also fewer opportunities for people to create their own shows. Creative control largely rests in the hands of the big companies who are using community programs for their own promotion and branding. People can still volunteer, but they report to staff producers who call all the shots. Programming can best be described as lifestyle programming rather than serious issues that might be controversial.

Most people assume that Rogers, Shaw, Cogeco and the other big cable operators provide these studios because they want to contribute to the communities from whom they reap enormous profits. But it's not a strictly philanthropic initiative.  Few people realize that they're mandated by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission to provide production facilities and a community channel as a condition of license.

The vast majority of cable community TV channels do not meet the minimum criteria for operating a community TV channel under CRTC policy, according to Deepak Sahasrabudhe of Newwest.tv in B.C. and a member of the Canadian Association of Community Television Users and Stations (CACTUS).

Catherine Edwards, spokesperson for CACTUS, said, "Deepak wanted to find out whether they air at least 60 per cent local content and at least 50 per cent 'access' content -- created by ordinary community members, not cable company staff."

Sahasrabudhe elaborated, "I discovered that New Westminster cable TV subscribers pay about $400,000 per year for community television services, yet Shaw airs almost nothing from New Westminster. Everything we see is piped out from downtown Vancouver. I wanted to find out whether the same situation is happening across Canada. Are subscribers getting the services they pay for?"

The answer, says CACTUS, is a definitive No. Edwards commented, "It hasn't made sense for a long time for cable companies to offer community TV services. It's broken. It's a long time since they've had a presence in small communities. Communities need to take over."

CACTUS believes the money that the cable companies are mandated to spend on community production could then be put to better use if the CRTC were to direct that funds for community cable be given directly to communities through non-profit media production organizations.

And the concept of community media could be expanded to include community radio, and also new media including web design and gaming. Communities could operate multimedia training and production centres, that would teach and distribute traditional media such as TV and radio, but

Edwards elaborated "... whatever the community needs to know to function. It's a digital economy. You won't even be able to fill out your tax return soon if you don't have digital media skills. Ploughing all this money into a cable-only platform that fewer and fewer Canadians subscribe to makes no sense."

Canadians can find out whether a complaint has been filed against the cable access channel in their community at http://www.comtv.org/all-canada-report.

Canadians who would like to contribute their experiences of their local cable-access channel to the CRTC's review of these complaints are encouraged to call CACTUS at (604) 521-0200 or email [email protected].

Photo: flickr/ abuchanterrell

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