Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Death of Channel Ten

When cable TV was introduced into Canada, at the same time that the CRTC came into being, it was determined that it should include community access. That meant that community groups, individuals, etc. would have free access to cable broadcasting to meet its 'community' objectives that it state made it an alternative to mainstream TV broadcasters.

The 1968 reform of the Broadcasting Act replaced the BBG with the Canadian Radio-Television Commission, or CRTC (which became the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission in 1976). The CRTC spent most of the 1970s developing a regulatory framework for the rapidly expanding cable industry, which had emerged in the 1950s as community antenna television serving remote areas. By retransmitting signals picked out of the air from U.S. border-town transmitters (for which they paid no license fees until 1989), the Canadian cable industry built an attractive product for the Canadian television audience, which quickly developed a taste for the best of both worlds. To paraphrase the 1929 royal commission on broadcasting, Canadians wanted Canadian programming, but they wanted U.S. programming too.

Aware that the increasingly widespread cable model was undermining its policy to support and promote Canadian content, the CRTC moved to ensure that cable, as well, contributed to the overriding policy objective of delivering Canadian television to Canadians. Must-carry provisions ensure that every available Canadian over-the-air signal in any area is offered as basic service, along with a local community channel. But in exchange, cable companies were authorised to distribute the three American commercial networks plus PBS. This was, for many years, the basic cable package available to Canadian cable subscribers, and on this basis, cable penetration grew to 76% of Canadian homes by 1992.

The cable companies provided a public access channel to meet the CRTC requirements for community access. That channel in most communities in Alberta was Channel 10. It allowed for individuals, non-profit groups, religious, multicultural, social, political interests to have a free voice. Cable companies in the begining relied upon these groups to boost their volunteer base for staffing and content.

As they became more corporate, such as Shaw and its successful production of the comedy SCTV, the role of the community became more and more a drag on the corporate model that cable was becoming. Today cable companies have eliminated all community access, and have transformed Channel 10 into an internal news community announcement channel operated by the cable company and its staff. Thus the short life and death of authentic autonomous community televsion we had been promised when Cable was first licensed.

In Alberta the provincial government created its own public access TV channel, ACCESS, which was part of its radio network, CKUA. This channel slowly evolved from an educational and community access channel to an Eductational TV station linked to Athabasca university for distance learning, modeled on Ontario's Educational Channel. With the coming of the Klein privateers both ACESS and CKUA were privatized. ACCESS is now part of CHUMS Educational TV network. And again the death of community access to the airwaves.

Cable access in the United States still allows for individual and community access. Ironically thanks to Canadian media activists.

According to Ralph Engelman's Origins of Public Access Cable Television 1966-1972, New York's public access began in 1968 by Fred Friendly, a television advisor to the Ford Foundation and chairman of Mayor John Lindsay's advisory task force on CATV and Telecommunications, when he wrote a report recommending that cable companies set aside two channels the public could lease for a minor fee. The fee was opposed by others, and was later dropped. In July 1971 public access started.

From 1968 to 1970, Canadian filmmaker Red Burns, who'd served on the National Film Board of Canada (NFB)'s Challenge For Change and George C. Stoney, who'd likewise served a guest role, co-founded the Alternative Media Center (AMC) at NYU in 1971. AMC started the National Federation of Local Cable Programmers, which is a public access advocacy organization, with interns that help establish access centers throughout America. In 1972 Burns and Stoney worked with FCC commissioner Nicholas Johnson to make the FCC cable access requirements.

The FCC issued its Third Report and Order in 1972, which required all cable systems in the top 100 U.S. television markets to provide three access channels, one each for educational, local government and public use, where if there was insufficient demand for three in a particular market, the cable companies could offer fewer channels, but at least one, and any group or individual wishing to use the channels was guaranteed at least five minutes free. Also required was for cable companies to provide facilities and equipment with which people could produce shows.

We need a return to public access on cable and in any decisions the CRTC makes, fo any forms of broadcasting, TV, radio and new media.

The CRTC mandate changed under the Mulroney Tories to become the voice of capitalist competition in the media marketplace. Public access and the defense of the public interest in licensing our public airwaves, be it TV, radio, phone or the internet has been sacrificed by the CRTC. Instead they view their role as another Competition Bureau to enforce competition between competing oligopolies the Telcos and Cable companies.


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