(reprinted from PRLOG of Jan. 6, 2013)
Do America's struggling families deserve free TV for life?
A group of small-market broadcasters think so.
Octave Network Television has entered the media marketplace as a no-fee hdtv service provider, offering dozens of public, government and community access channels free of charge to every U.S, citizen.
8ctave's network combines the strength of hundreds of small-market, noncommercial, student-run, government, public-sourced and community access broadcast stations from across the country. Many of these 'tiny towers' are grossly underfunded, underpowered or unavailable without digital 'rabbit ear' antennas.
Public broadcasters are a vital part of national media, connecting communities, serving the public trust and acting as key components to national security through use of the FCC's Emergency Alert System, which informs and instructs the public during a crisis.
Now enters Octave, a startup bent on 'Powering Public Access' with streaming TV technology, broadcasting to millions of Americans via Roku and other internet TV receivers.
Roku is the largest streaming TV box in America, credited with creating the popular Netflix video on-demand service. Devices like Roku contain the nuts and bolts that enable Octave's free HD offerings, with units costing less than $50.
In addition to on-demand content delivery, Octave channels broadcast in TV's traditional linear format. Octave looks like 'regular' TV because it is, combining the strength and character of America's Public Access broadcasters into a nationwide network with more potential carriers than ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX combined.
According to Octave founder Edward Balboa, you need "a lot of Davids" to take on a Goliath, a role relished by the unknown recently dubbed 'The Rocky Balboa of Broadcasting.' He says folks often mistake Octave for a music channel, but that an Octave's true description isn't so do-ray-mi.
Hagensborg, BC is the second community that CACTUS is aware of that has salvaged CBC equipment in order to maintain CBC TV free to air. “The story of television in the Bella Coola Valley is one of community perserverence and ingenuity” says John Morton of the Hagensborg TV Society. “We rebroadcast 6 television signals and 3 radio channels using a community-owned transmission tower” he says. “The CRTC at first refused to licence our system back in the 1970s, because the CBC had reported that it was technically impossible to have TV reception in the Bella Coola Valley. This was a surprise to those of us who had witnessed--among other events--the moon landing in 1969!”
Hagensborg is one of over 600 communities that was slated to lose free over-the-air CBC and Radio Canada service on July 31st of last year, the date the CBC turned off its analog over-the-air transmission network, and began retiring equipment. The Hagensborg TV Society offered the CBC a nominal amount for the analog transmitter, receivers, modulators and amplifiers, which would likely have been scrapped. “The community is really delighted to have been able to re-establish over-the-air service. Many in our community can't afford satellite TV. Although there are some costs to maintain the tower and pay downlink fees for the channels we want, it works out to only about 60$ per household per year, which is really affordable."
Neepawa Community TV can now be seen across on Manitoba on MTS Ultimate TV, in addition to its prior distribution over the air within the town of Neepawa, and on the Westman Cable network.
The MTS Ultimate TV service is growing thanks to the expansion of MTS’s fibre-to-the-home network, the MTS FiON Network. Since 2010, MTS has launched the MTS FiON Network in Selkirk, Steinbach, Dauphin, Thompson, The Pas, Neepawa, Carberry, Minnedosa, Killarney, and select areas of Winnipeg. More communities are being added as we write, which will bring NACTV to an even wider audience.
“MTS is proud to provide Neepawa Access TV to subscribers throughout Manitoba,” said Greg McLaren, Manager of MTS TV Content.
Ivan Traill, the manager of the Neepawa community channel, is delighted. "Many ex-Neepawa residents that have moved to Winnipeg can now see us, and they're thrilled that they can see our sporting and other events. They're even getting together to watch them!"
CACTUS is delighted too. "It's essential that community TV channels be available on whatever platform residents obtain TV service, so that the whole community can share the content."
As many of you know, CRTC staff elected to audit selected cable community channels for a week in March of 2011, in response to data provided by CACTUS that suggested that many cable licence areas fail to meet both the access and local programming thresholds specified in regulations. Shaw, Rogers, Videotron, Cogeco and Eastlink were asked to provide their programming logs to the CRTC for a week and to answer a series of questions about their programming.
Their responses were forwarded to CACTUS in the summer of 2011 for our comment. After a six-week review, we filed a 70-page analysis of the logs to the CRTC at the end of 2011.
In June of 2012, CRTC staff sent CACTUS a letter that acknowledged some issues with cable community channels, but offered a differing interpretation of what constitutes an "access program", which led staff to different conclusions regarding cable company compliance with the 2010 community channel policy.
CACTUS filed a request with the Commission today for clarification, and for a formal Commission decision regarding the 2011 audit. We will keep you updated in the new year.
For more information about the issues that require clarification, and to see our letter, click here.
As you may be aware, the new community TV policy announced by the CRTC in September of 2010 (CRTC 2010-622) announced that an "industry working group" would be established to create of Code of Access Best Practices to guide cable operators in the administration of cable community channels.
CACTUS objected (as did the Fédération des télévisions communautaires autonomes du Québec--the Fédétvc) that the "industry working group" included five representatives of cable companies, and none from the general public these channels are meant to serve. In response to our complaint, the "working group" was told it must "consult" both the Fédétvc and CACTUS regarding the contents of the Code. The extent of this consultation was that the working group sent us a copy of their draft code. We and the Fédétvc submitted separate but similar comments to the effect that the Code gives cable companies too broad a scope to reject particular programming ideas on grounds such as "community values" and "public taste" (as determined by who?)
The working group ignored our comments, and submitted its draft Code to the CRTC. The CRTC posted the document for public comment in September of 2011. Since our comments had been ignored, both CACTUS and the Fédétvc resubmitted our comments as part of this public process. Finally, another year later, the Code of Best Practices was announced on September 7, 2012. Although the Code is largely the document proposed by the cable industry working group, it does include two new sections about dispute resolution and copyright (the latter echoing almost verbatim CACTUS' suggestions):
- If disputes arise about access between producers and any broadcast distribution undertaking (BDU) and it cannot be resolved by the parties, a third-party arbitrator agreeable to both parties is to be appointed. Any expenses related to the arbitration are to be borne by the BDU.