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  • Volume Eight, Number Five: July 2003

    Community Television Movement Gaining Momentum:

    Media Activists Petition House of Commons for Resource Sharing

    Sid Chow Tan

    The end of Shaw controlling community television in Vancouver is near if Community Media Education Society has its way.

    The local not-for-profit is petitioning the Commons to give community-based television groups at least fifty percent of the over $75-million cable companies receive yearly from subscribers to run community television.

    In the Lower Mainland, Shaw Cable annually receives an estimated $5 million community channel levy to showcase its Shaw TV brand of community television with corporate imperative - the marketing of its goods and services.

    "The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has called for licensing community television independently to broadly representative community groups," says Richard Ward, CMES executive director who tallies close to three decades of community television experience. "In Vancouver that community channel should be on cable four and be supported by the community channel levy."

    With a history of taking on local cable companies in the regulatory and legislative arena, the CMES mission to involve citizens and community groups to increase public participation in and production of media is taking root. The British Columbia registered society began November 1996 when Rogers Cable closed most of its neighbourhood television (NTV) production facilities in the Lower Mainland.

    The volunteers in the east Vancouver office on Commercial Drive responded by constituting the society to continue community-based programming. Soon after, CMES constituted ICTV Independent Community Television Co-operative for program production and distribution. CMES and ICTV have open membership and are governed by elected boards of volunteers. In July, ICTV moved into the former Co-op Radio location at Hastings and Carrall now owned by the Portland Hotel Society.

    "What we need is a lawyer. Shaw Cable gets about $500,000 a month taxed from cable subscribers to spend on community television," explains Michael Lithgow, a full-time student and freelance writer who is paid $500 a month to be ICTV executive director. "That money is a public trust and we say Shaw is abusing that trust. The way it stands now, Vancouver citizens subsidize a private channel for Shaw Cable."

    The petition builds on comments from a House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage report about cable companies and community television. At 872 pages and released in June 2003, Our Cultural Sovereignty: The Second Century of Canadian Broadcasting is instructive to Parliament, the legislator, and the CRTC, the regulator.

     The powerful committee was very frustrated by the absence of data on community television and is dismayed that virtually no information exists on what happens as a result of cable company expenditures in support of community television each year.

    The petition also builds on the regulatory access granted by CRTC Broadcasting Public Notice 2002-61 titled "Policy Framework for Community-based Media." The policy, which has ICTV's imprint all over it, still leaves cable companies in control the funds regulated to community television.

    It creates a new type of community television license available to community groups but no access to the community channel levy. Ironically, community groups would be eligible for the funds should cable companies like Shaw choose to give up the community channel. The policy sets seemingly unenforceable requirements and unfulfilled expectations for cable companies who continue to get the community channel levy while community groups fundraise to survive. Without stable funding, ICTV seems unprepared to apply for a television license though it has completed a $25,000 business plan.

    "ICTV's four hours of access programming per week is a substantial contribution to community television in Vancouver. It is our view there is a certain unjust enrichment taking place by allowing Shaw to retain the full cable levy while being relieved of significant access programming obligations," says Lithgow on the unfairness of the policy. "Like Shaw, ICTV must have an office, pay rent and undertake the work required in the administration of volunteers, training and television production. Like Shaw, ICTV should have the community channel levy pay staff too."

    Over the years, the petition, subsequent interventions by Libby Davies, member of parliament for Vancouver East where ICTV facilities are located, BC MLA Jenny Kwan and Vancouver city councillors Tim Louis and Fred Bass have promoted community television as being similar to a public library in the education, entertainment and building of communities.

    The Standing Committee said it is gravely concerned that the CRTC's post-1997 community television policy has significantly altered the way community cable stations are operated. However, it believes that citizen access should remain a fundamental objective of the Canadian broadcasting system noting it is only through access that a diversity of voices, views and representations can be ensured. The Committee observed a clear consensus that the status quo is unsatisfactory and the federal government must take action.

    "Community television encourages people to seek out events affecting their neighbourhoods. Community organizers are surprised and delighted to be noticed," states Ward, preparing for a visit from nine Japanese media researchers and a presentation for the upcoming Media Democracy Day. "When their neighbours see the event, interest snowballs. That is how mass media are suppose to work."

    The petition calls on Parliament to ensure community channels are publicly run by non-profit community organisations and financial support for them be found. It also calls on the Prime Minister and Parliament to enable the CRTC to immediately transfer 50 per cent of the community channel levy cable companies already collect, along with an appropriate amount from satellite companies, into a fund which community television corporations with a history of performance can access.

    View and sign the petition on-line at www.vcn.bc.ca/cmes and phone ICTV at 604-254-5844 to volunteer. Go to www.vcn.bc.ca/ictv for ICTV program schedule and summary.

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