Weblog / Notre blogue
(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.
CACTUS participated in both the written and oral phases of the CBC licence renewal process. Although commenting on the role of the public broadcaster would normally not fall within our mandate, we decided to participate because CACTUS' Executive Director Catherine Edwards and Karen Wirsig of the Canadian Media Guild had co-authored and presented a paper in the spring at the Journalism Strategies conference at McGill regarding models by which public and community broadcasters could collaborate to improve local media. The paper proposes models by which more quality and quantity of local content could be created in an austere financial environment. It responds to statements in the CBC's 2015 strategy document "Everyone, Everyway" in which the CBC commits to maximize its presence in the regions by entering into new partnerships and using new technologies. Examples of such partnership could include:
- sharing of transmission infrastructure (our recent campaign to salvage CBC towers and transmitters for communities)
- sharing of facilities in an affiliate relationship (e.g. local volunteer-production as well as CBC network content within a shared schedule, or two separate licences working out of a shared facility)
Despite the barrage of more than 2200 letters to the CBC and the CRTC in the summer requesting that CBC towers and transmitters slated for decommissioning be offered to communities first, the CRTC imposed no special conditions on the national broadcaster prior to shutting off free-to-air CBC and Radio-Canada service on July 31st.
Communities were told that they could apply directly to the CBC for transmitters, and to a third-party (Capital Networks) managing the sale of the CBC's tower sites. Although the dead-line for requesting towers was October 9th, only a handful of communities have yet received a reply from the CBC. Those that have have been declined except for one. Gary Hoffman of the Hay River TV Society in the NWT managed to acquire both the CBC English, CBC French, and APTN transmitters and has restored all three services to his community. The transmitters were donated by the CBC free of charge.
In the case of Maniwaki, Quebec and various rural sites in Manitoba, however, several communities have been informed that they didn't make it past the first stage in the commercial bid process. One group bid on several remote sites, offering the CBC thousands of dollars per tower, but was still declined. The group had been told that many of the towers have revenues associated with them. Space may be leased on the towers by third parties for another 5 or 10 years...
... which once again raises the question, why is the CBC getting rid of them?
More than 2000 individual Canadians, community organizations, MPs and municipalities have written to the CRTC to ask that they be consulted about what happens to CBC transmission sites in their communities.
In response to federal cuts, the CBC and Radio-Canada announced in April that they plan to switch off more than 623 analog transmitters on July 31, 2012. Canadians outside major cities and provincial and territorial capitals will lose free access to the CBC and Radio-Canada over the air using bunny ears or rooftop antennae.
Getting the CBC and Radio-Canada’s signals to all Canadians living in communities of at least 500 people was a major policy goal in the 1970s to link the country coast to coast. This transmission infrastructure is worth millions and has already been paid for by Canadian taxpayers. Rather than being scrapped, it could be maintained by communities themselves. The transmitters and towers can be used not just to continue free TV service, but also to set up local wireless Internet or mobile service, or a community TV or radio service.
The CRTC Consultation: 2012-0509-7
The CRTC has begun a public consultation on the CBC’s plan. CACTUS urged town and band councils, community colleges, community media groups and concerned citizens to ask the CRTC and CBC before the June 18th dead line to make the transmission equipment available for local use.
Of the more than 2200 individuals and groups that responded, 1549 live in or near large urban centres where CBC service will continue. They empathized with their rural countrymates and urged that CBC infrastructure be offered to communities slated to lose service.
From April 19-23, McGill hosted a "Journalism Strategies" conference. The goal was stated as follows:
"We think something important is at stake: the health of Canadian democracy. We believe the more ways we can find for more Canadians to be involved in public discourses and questions of governance, the better off we will all be. We believe journalism can and should play an important role...
We are bringing together established academics, graduate students, journalists, activists, policy-makers and others interested in journalism policies. Our goals:
1) help mobilize a broad network that will recommend public policies for ensuring spaces in the Canadian media ecology for journalism that places public deliberation and citizen participation at the core of its mission.
2) undertake a process of policy-making that is itself participatory (within the limitations of time and resources available.)"
This sounded like a perfect venue to discuss the important contributions played by community media in the Canadian "media ecology", so Karen Wirsig of the Canadian Media Guild and Catherine Edwards of CACTUS co-submitted a paper the explored ways that public and community broadcasters could work together for mutual benefit and to the benefit of Canadians.
The paper is available here:
You can also see our presentation at the conference (as well as the other conference presenters) here:
CACTUS Presentation at Journalism Strategies (starting at minute 43).
The Local Programming Improvement Fund (LPIF) was created by the CRTC in 2008 to stimulate more local TV programming in 'markets' having fewer than 1 million people.
As far back as the 2002 Lincoln Report, "Our Cultural Sovereignty" (initiated by the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage), a fund had been recommended that would stimulate more TV AND radio content, at the "community, local, and regional levels". However, when the CRTC asked the Canadian Association of Broadcasters to design eligibility criteria for the fund in 2008, community broadcasters were not invited to the consultation (and are not members of the CAB). Eligibility criteria were subsequently defined that stated that the fund was only available for "conventional broadcasters" (i.e. those in the public and private sectors) and that a qualifying station must establish "local presence" by producing at least 5 hours of "local news" per week and by the employment of local professional journalists.
The CRTC is currently reviewing the LPIF. CACTUS spokesperson Cathy Edwards appeared before the CRTC last week, making the case that community broadcasters have in fact the most true "local presence" (almost 100% of what they produce is typically made for the local market) and that funding community broadcasters would stimulate content at a rate six times greater than funding 'conventional broadcasters', since a community production on average costs just one sixth what it costs a public or private broadcaster to produce, thanks to the multiplier effect of volunteer labour.
We went to some length to describe how community broadcasters--while they typically don't produce a daily 'newscast' consisting of short segments--in fact produce more in depth content in all the same genres typically produced by a conventional broadcaster: politics, local affairs, arts and culture, sports, health, and so on.
CACTUS just completed its review of cable company logs submitted by Rogers, Shaw, Eastlink, Cogeco and Videotron as part of the most comprehensive audit ever conducted by the CRTC of cable community channels. The logs detail all the programming aired on cable community channels in selected licence areas for March 6-12, 2011.
The findings? The same widespread abuse of this community resource as was revealed by the CRTC's previous audits, conducted in 2002-2005. As in 2002-2005, many cable companies failed to meet the 60% local programming minimum that is a standard condition of their licences, and almost all failed to meet the 30% minimum for programming produced by community members (as opposed to programming produced by cable company staff).
Also as in 2002-2005, programs are frequently claimed as "access" (produced by someone in the community) when in fact the companies' web sites suggest they are driven by cable staff. Some cable companies are charging community groups for access; others employ network templates for programs, which are used over a large area.
For us at CACTUS, these findings are no surprise. As we have stated in several public proceedings, the time when it made sense for small mom-and-pop locally based cable companies to administer community channels and media resources is long past. Canada's big five cable companies have no place in the "community media" universe; Canada continues to be the only country in the world in which "community media" is not administered by communities... duh!
Since the audit week occurred just six months into the CRTC's new community TV policy (issued in August of 2010), we are sceptical that the targets of the new policy can be met. If cable companies cannot meet the 30% access programming minimum currently in force, we fail to see how they will be able to ramp up to the 50% access expectation that the CRTC has announced by 2014.
For a full copy of our findings, click here:
As we enter a new year, we face several challenges and opportunities:
- We have a new community TV policy that recognizes past problems with access to cable-administered community channels (CRTC 2010-622).
- We are part of an on-going process with the cable companies and the CRTC to see how this new policy can be applied. Will it lead to more genuine access to cable community channels? Can it be used to generate funding for non-profit, community-owned TV channels?
- We are also part of a broad-based industry and civil-society coalition asking for a national education campaign in advance of the digital TV transition. We see it as an opportunity to educate municipalities about their potential role as broadcasters and rebroadcasters.
- We are engaged in the spectrum auction design process for the former TV channels 62 to 69, to ensure that some of that spectrum is set aside for public uses, such as distribution of community content.
- And last but not least, we celebrate the CRTC's decision that will require Bell to offer independent community TV channels as part of its basic service! This decision was a direct result of CACTUS' intervention, and an endorsement of the importance of our fledgling sector.
To enable us to continue to grow, we need your help. Up until now, we have been a web site and an e-mail list of interested supporters. In 2010, we incorporated as a non-profit, with the following board of directors:
Cathy Edwards - national co-ordinator
Patrick Watt - representative of the Maritimes and over-the-air TV community licence holders
Ivan Traill - representative of the Prairies, over-the-air licence holder and cable co-operative community TV channel
As a result of the new community TV policy announced on Aug. 28th, the CRTC has asked cable companies to draft a code of access "best practices", and have sent to CACTUS and to the Fédération des télévisions communautaires autonomes du Québec a draft for review by Jan. 20th.
While neither CACTUS nor the Fédération was initially invited to participate in the "industry working group" to generate the code, CACTUS drew attention to the oversight at the Shaw cable license renewal in September. The CRTC responded by requesting cable companies in the working group to consult us.
CACTUS is discussing the draft code within its membership and with interested parties. If you would like to be included in this process, please e-mail Cathy Edwards at cedwards at timescape dot ca.
CACTUS is delighted that the CRTC has acknowledged that the public should be included in decisions about governance of community channels.
Once the working group submits its final draft code to the CRTC at the end of February, it will be offered to the public for comment, at which time any member of the public can intervene directly.
In the wake of the CRTC's new community TV policy, announced August 28th, CACTUS has participated in three CRTC hearing processes related to Shaw Communications, and presented a brief before the Standing Committee Heritage regarding the role of small broadcasters in an increasingly consolidated media environment:
1) CACTUS intervened in the Shaw purchase of Canwest to support Shaw's offer to share transmission facilities with local and community broadcasters. This offer could considerably reduce the costs for community over-the-air broadcasters to launch in any market where Global is present.
2) CACTUS intervened in the Shaw license renewals to point out that of the 22 license areas in which Shaw was seeking a renewal, CACTUS could only confirm that 11 access studios exist. CACTUS asked that studios be reopened in the license areas that currently have no access facilities. This request was denied by the CRTC.
3) CACTUS intervened in the license application by Corus for a network of pseudo-weather community information channels called Local1, which would be located in the same communities where there is currently a Shaw community channel facility. Since Shaw's community channels already offer a Local1-like combo of weather and community news, CACTUS was concerned that the license being sought would repurpose existing community channel content, without addressing the access problems on those community channels.
The way TV signals were delivered over the air changed in Canada beginning in August 2011. If you have a cable or satellite subscription, your service was unaffected. If you watch TV using an antenna ("bunny ears") mounted on the TV or on your roof, one of the following situations applies:
- In most major towns and cities, broadcasters upgraded their signals to digital. You needed either a digital TV or a digital-to-analog converter box to continue watching over-the-air TV with an antenna.
- In smaller communities, some of your local broadcasters may have upgraded or may yet upgrade their signals to digital (and you'll need a digital TV or converter box). Others may continue broadcasting in analog. In both cases, you can continue watching free TV, for now.
When the analog transmitters reach the end of their useful life, however, local broadcasters may elect not to replace them. At that time, you and your neighbours would have to subscribe to cable or satellite to continue to watch TV. For example, on July 31st, 2012, TVO and the CBC will cease all analog broadcasts (everywhere outside the major cities where signals were upgraded to digital last year).