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Winnipeg Free Press Article #1:  “Take Back the Airwaves”

Channel 9 : Take Back the Airwaves!

Do you remember Wayne’s World? How about the original Tom Green Show? Do you remember when you could tune in to VPW 13 and see interactive programs made by volunteers… shows that recruited cult followings in their time, like Math with Marty, What’s New Pussycat? or the Pollack and Pollack Gossip Show?

If your memory is hazy, it’s because those days are gone. In 1997, the CRTC stopped mandating community access to “community TV channels”. The response by most cable companies, including Shaw, was to kick the public off its channels, and see whether they could be turned to a competitive advantage. Shaw hired professional reporters and came up with their now-familiar newswheel, with a weather strip along the bottom and the same one hour of local news repeated all day. Before the format change, Videon and Shaw aired more than 30 hours a week of volunteer-produced local programming in every imaginable genre, including kids’ shows, pet shows, multicultural shows, music shows (Alternative Rockstand, The Cosmopolitans), sports, variety, and even drama, often showcasing works from the Winnipeg Film Group (Survival, Apocalypse Now).

The other thing that has changed about so-called “community TV” is the ads. Prior to 1997, you could sponsor a program and the community channel and your sponsorship could be acknowledged with a verbal thank you or text credit. You couldn’t show moving video. If you’ve watched channel 10 lately, you’ll know it’s rife with ads and product placement, making it indistinguishable from commercial TV.

So what was the deal with public access to the community channel before 1997? How come you could call the cable company back then and make your own program and now you can’t? Ever since cable was introduced to Canada in the 1970s, the cable industry has been considered a license to print money. All you had to do was lay down cable and retransmit channels (mostly American) and charge for it. You assumed none of the risks of program production. Not only that, your license was a monopoly, since cities couldn’t have multiple cable companies ripping up the streets in response to service calls. So, to ensure that cable companies “gave something back” to their communities to a) balance the flood of foreign programming to Canadian homes and b) compensate cities for their use of public rights of way and of the public airwaves, the CRTC used to require cable companies to spend 5% of their gross revenues on a local channel that would be programmed by members of the community… a soapbox forum for freedom of speech on the most dominant medium of our times: television. Canada led the world in media literacy training and thinking, and this model was copied in the United States, Europe, Israel and Australia….and is still spreading, now into the developing world. The idea that democracies can only call themselves such if the average person can express themselves on mass media has been enshrined in the famous 2003 Geneva Declaration of Principles for the Information Society (http://www.itu.int/wsis/docs/geneva/official/dop.html).

So what happened in 1997? Telephone and satellite companies entered the market, cable companies were gobbling one another up (there are just 3 big cable companies left in Canada, where once there were over 50) and the CRTC lost control. By 2002, because of public outcry about cable company takeover of what had previously been true community-access channels, the CRTC reinstated its requirement that the cable operator should provide training to the public, and that at least 30-50% of the programming ought to be produced by people in the community. Few of the old volunteer contributors to the channel are aware of the regulations now, however, and Shawalthough they are required by CRTC directive 2002-61 to advise the public of their rights and to invite them to make program proposals in their billing inserts at least once a yearhas been blithely ignoring the regulations. (In a recent interview, Alex Park, Shaw’s VP or Programming,said that Shaw is meeting the requirement to provide “access” to the community by sending professional reporters out to cover your event. Er…not exactly freedom of speech or the “high level of citizen participationand expression” envisioned in the regulations, and nothing to distinguish them as a license-holder from any private broadcaster…) Shaw’s disdain of production by the community was perhaps most evident in their recent decision to throw out their entire pre-1997 archives, a priceless record of Winnipeg cultural and social history.

So what can you do? Do you have an idea for a program? You can call the program manager, Allan Sayegh at 480-3408 and ask for training, facilities and assistance to produce it. If you don’t get anywhere on a first visit, you can download and print policy 2002-61 from the CRTC web site at www.crtc.gc.ca, go back for a second visit and poke your finger at the regulation. Failing that, you can lodge a complaint with the Winnipeg CRTC office at 983-6306. (In the old days, the Canadian Cable Television Association used to field such complaints, but since its dissolution, consumers have no recourse but to go directly to the CRTC.) Failing that, if enough complaints are received by the CRTC about a given cable operator’s “community channel”, 2002-61 introduced the radical idea that an alternative group within the community could apply to operate the channel and receive the cable levy in the cable company’s stead (which amounts to several hundered thousand dollars a year in a market the size of Winnipeg). A successful challenge under the new policy has not yet been won in Canada (two concerned organizations are currently making the attempt), but it’s food for thought. Perhaps it’s time for an outside organization that could truly represent grassroots voiceslike Video Poolto be given the chance.

Catherine Edwards is a freelance television producer, and has recently produced a six-part series about community-access television around the globe. My TV, Your TV, Our TV will appear on Access Alberta and Creative Learning Television next year. For more info, see www.timescape.ca.

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