Community TV channel may fade to black

CRTC mulls redirecting two per cent local cable TV levy to private stations

NDP leader John Horgan on a recent appearance on Voice of B.C.

A federal review of community access TV could lead to the shut down of Shaw Cable’s channel 4 and end televised broadcasts of city council meetings and other local niche programming.

A two per cent levy on all cable TV bills now goes to community TV program development and one option for reform the CRTC is considering is to reallocate that money to local commercial television stations to help them produce more local news.

That scenario could eliminate the community channel altogether, according to Metro Vancouver regional district officials who intend to speak against it at a CRTC hearing Feb. 2.

“Our concern is that in its desire to assist the private sector in dealing with the challenges of a changing marketplace, the CRTC will rob Peter to pay Paul,” Metro states in a draft response to the CRTC.

“The community channel is a vital element of the broadcast system and should remain so.”

City council meetings in the region are often streamed online but the demise of a community channel on cable would end televised access.

Metro produces its own regional issues show for community cable called The Sustainable Region as well as Metro Vancouver Close-up, which shows how municipalities and community groups are promoting sustainability and regional goals.

Other local programs that might lose their place on cable TV include the provincial politics show Voice of B.C. and The Animal Show, which promotes dogs and cats up for adoption at local shelters, as well as live coverage of elections, parades and telethons.

Redirecting the two per cent community access levy to commercial stations would amount to a $60 million cash injection nationally for private broadcasters. Within Metro Vancouver, it would be worth about $5 million.

Metro has been critical of Shaw Cable in the past, accusing it of gradually cutting away local community-driven access to the channel in favour of its own productions, while the CRTC did nothing to stop that.

“Where we once had thousands of volunteers engaged in community expression we now have less than a hundred,” the Metro paper says.

Metro officials have also been irked that their Sustainable Region show usually airs in the middle of the night.

The explosion of online video and the ease at which anyone can produce and post a YouTube video is part of the CRTC’s rationale for redeploying the community access levy to private news outlets.

But Metro argues they are unlikely to use commercial TV time on the sort of dialogue- and discussion-intensive shows now found on community cable.

It also says community programs posted online are unlikely to get as many viewers as on television, and not everyone has online access.

A second option contained in a CRTC discussion paper is to provide incentives to broadcast professional local news on community channels in markets where there is no over-the-air television.

That could effectively convert community channels in rural areas to commercial channels with much more advertising and less community access, according to Metro.

It wouldn’t affect the Metro Vancouver area directly but the regional district sees it as a potential future precedent in urban areas.

Instead, Metro will push the CRTC to mandate stronger community channels, with greater accountability for where money goes.

Shaw Communications is seeking looser rules on how community channels operate and the freedom to explore alternate delivery systems, such as video-on-demand. It opposes redirection of the cable levy.