Since the introduction of cable television in the early 1970s, the CRTC has expected cable companies to contribute to the creation of Canadian content, to balance the influx of American programming that they enable to Canadian homes. This effective tax was justified by policymakers because cable uses public rights of way, were given monopoly licenses in their service areas, and since cable redistribution does not require the cable operator to shoulder any of the risks of production, (unlike a broadcaster).
In the early years of this policy, the entire contribution to Canadian culture was in spending on a community channel, and was recommended at 10% of gross revenues. By the 1990s, this amount had been reduced to 5%.
In 1997, with the introduction of satellite competition for cable and with the creation of the Canadian Television Fund (the CTF) for professional production, the community channel was partly deregulated. Cable companies were given the option of giving their whole 5% contribution to Canadian culture to the CTF and not having a community channel, or retaining 2% for the operation of a community channel, and giving 3% to the CTF. In markets under 20,000 subscribers, cable operators were allowed to retain the whole 5% for community programming, if they opted to have a channel. For the full text of this policy, see http://www.crtc.gc.ca/eng/archive/1997/PB97-25.HTM, section IV.
Almost all cable companies did continue to operate a community channel, rather than give up control of that extra 2%. Since competitor satellite companies could not offer a community channel (because the technology had not yet been developed to spot-cast to small areas by satellite, although it does now), cable companies increasingly began to look to their community channels as a competitive advantage. Production was increasingly professionalized (staff took over control of program content) and regionalized. To enable this professionalization, staff were also redistributed from smaller centres to larger ones, and the programming produced was distributed over an ever-widening area.
Although the access expectations were still on the books, the CRTC simultaneously reduced its reporting requirements and did not appear to be monitoring closely.
The situation in Quebec was different. Unlike in English Canada, where community channels were typically operated inside the cable office itself (the studio might be down the hall from where you paid your cable bill), independent community corporations often ran the community channel on behalf of a cable operator in Quebec. Some of these suddenly found themselves off the air after the introduction of 1997-25. Others did not.
Significant public complaints in small pockets of the country (notably in Quebec by the Federation and on the West Coast by the Independent CommunityTV and the Community Media Education Society) led to CRTC policy 2002-61, upon which the current policy review is based.
2002-61 had good features and bad features, from the point of view of facilitating access by citizens:
a) It reiterated the responsibility of cable BDUs to air access programming (a minimum of 30% of air-time per week), but this was a far cry from the earlier expectation that the whole channel was meant to be for citizens. Individuals trying to get access, such as ICTV members in Vancouver, found themselves locked in a hostile relationship with Shaw programming staff. In effect, the channel had become a hybrid, with two very different goals.
b) It was not explicit that the cable operator should continue to provide equipment and training for the public to produce this access programming. In fact, it inadvertently reinforced the idea that groups might have to go elsewhere to actually produce the programming, by guaranteeing that such incorporated groups could have up to four hours per week of air-time on the channel. Certain tough-minded individuals like Sid Tan in Vancouver have continued to bang on the cable company doors for access to edit suites and other support.
c) It was also not a requirement that the cable operator should contribute any of the cable levy money to assist independent groups to produce programming, if they were doing so outside the cable company facilities. Groups in English Canada have had no success making this case. St. Andrews Community TV in NB, for example, has never received any cable levy money, nor has ICTV in Vancouver. Groups in Quebec, on the other hand, have had mixed success with Videotron and Cogeco.
d) 2002-61 introduced a class of low-power over-the-air community license. Groups in rural communities prior to 2002 had had similar licenses, but they had been granted on an ad hoc basis over time and were not the result of official policy; for example, the Valemont Entertainment Society in B.C. The intent and definition of this license class was left open. It was not specified whether the licenses were for profit or not-for-profit, and no requirement for access was stipulated. As a result, some of the few license applicants were churches wishing to broadcast their services for shut-ins, or other specialized applications. Only a handful sought to offer general community access of the kind that had been available through cable community channels.
The good thing about this new license class, however, was that it seeded the idea that community channels could become independent of cable companies, but still be available on the cable platform as part of the basic tier, as with all local OTA channels.