Thank you for the opportunity to speak to these hearings.
I'm here on behalf of the Campaign for Democratic Media, a national non-profit and non-partisan media advocacy group. We're a network of individual Canadians, civil society organizations, consumer organizations, labour groups, media advocacy groups, academics, grassroots media activists, and others interested in helping to create a diverse, accountable, and quality Canadian media system.
These hearings have been constituted in response to a perceived crisis in Canadian broadcasting--a perfect storm, some have called it--of new media challenges to traditional business models and economic contraction of historic proportions. The Canadian television sector is undergoing what many commentators suggest will be permanent and structural transformation.
One of the things we would like the committee to think about today is the possibility that what we are experiencing as a crisis in local broadcasting reflects in fact some of the inherent tensions between the cultural industries and democratic accountability. What I mean is that the critical importance of local programming in Canada is, in all likelihood, better understood in terms of what makes cultures democratic than it is in terms of sorting out the conflicts of local versus regional and national advertising markets.
When we talk about broadcasting in Canada, we are talking about part of the connective tissue the holds us together culturally, politically, and economically. Finding solutions that do not sacrifice one for the other of these equally important aspects of Canadian society, we believe, should be at the heart of these proceedings.
To begin, we'd like to challenge certain assumptions about what is happening in Canadian broadcasting. Broad economic factors at work as well as changes in consumption patterns in connection with new media technologies have helped precipitate the crisis. But there are also structural factors that go to the core of the current crisis, which are at risk of being overlooked. We think these problems point towards creative and long-term solutions.
For instance, local markets may not be failing so much as they are being ignored. The network affiliates threatened with closure who broadcast in these small markets have increasingly been forced to serve the needs of national networks, networks whose accumulated corporate debts and revenue strategies make small market sustainability impossible without doing away with much of local programming. Small markets can be and in fact are profitable; the problem is that they are not profitable enough to serve non-local needs. Canwest Global, for instance, is struggling to make decisions about local broadcasting while trying to service almost $4 billion of corporate debt.
To put it bluntly, the citizens of many smaller communities are facing drastic losses of local programming, one, because of corporate decisions that have absolutely nothing to do with their community, and two, because there are so few alternatives in our broadcasting system.
We have one of the least diverse broadcast systems in the world and the highest concentrations of media ownership. Canadians lack meaningful local broadcasting choices, and their ability to be informed about their own communities is being held hostage by corporate debt and corporate demands for rates of return that are unachievable. Part of the problem is that local affiliated stations function within national networks primarily as a means for national advertisers to access local eyeballs. Revenue streams depend on national advertising markets, not local markets. Advertising rates in local settings reflect national markets for national advertisers. As such, they end up prohibitively high and in fact exclude local businesses from the market. We are suggesting that the current model of affiliated local broadcasters is failing Canadians not only in terms of local programming but in terms of local advertising opportunities.
These markets may not be big enough to achieve network goals for debt, but they are big enough to sustain alternative models for the production of local television. The large affiliated centralized model for delivering local programming doesn't work, and arguably it never has. As long as there have been licence renewal hearings, there have been desperate cries to reduce local programming obligations. We need to rethink the ways in which local programs can be produced and delivered in local settings.
Perhaps the most important point we want to make today is that there is a largely unrecognized and emergent element in the Canadian broadcasting system that we believe offers the most realistic long-term solution to the crisis in local programming. The Broadcasting Act, in section 3, identifies three elements that make up the Canadian broadcasting system: public, private, and community. The community sector is rarely addressed, and yet it is here that we find new media programming strategies and hybrid models of organization that point the way forward to long-term sustainable local programming solutions. These hybrid models of organization, which are sometimes called mandate-driven media or civil society media, combine market responsiveness with professional journalistic practices and a strong ethical mandate to fulfill democratic roles, such as ensuring that public and private institutions remain accountable to the public and that the public has access to accurate, reliable, diverse, and independent sources of news and information about the communities where they live.
To be clear, these are not volunteer media organizations. They are media that work on multiple bottom lines--ethical and economic. Because they are mandate-driven, small profit margins don't equal failure but rather an opportunity.
These hybrid models of media combine entrepreneurial ingenuity with NGO commitment to public objectives and resourcefulness. In the United Kingdom, they operate under the name of community interest companies, or CICs. They are for-profit companies whose rates of return are capped and whose purpose for incorporation includes community service. In addition, and importantly, the assets of the company are locked and cannot be sold, except to another CIC. There are thousands of CICs incorporated in the U.K. that carry out a range of services: affordable housing, the arts, education and training, preschools, home support services, recycling, and media services.
A similar approach has been taken in the U.S. with the creation of low-profit limited liability companies, or what are called L3Cs. They guarantee the public nature of their work and limit dividends to investors through operating agreements. To quote Richard Bridge and Stacey Corriveau from a recent report, the primary goal of L3Cs and CICs is to introduce market solutions to community needs by providing “access to the vast pools of market driven wealth to make socially responsible investments”. Local broadcasting is an excellent opportunity for socially responsible investment, a way for the tension between democratic and industrial needs, which has so far stifled local programming, to be addressed.
In Canada, one example of a hybrid solution is the community broadcast licence. These are television stations, locally owned, either for-profit or not-for-profit, that exist to service local audience information and advertising needs. These community broadcasters are not owned by cable companies, although their signals must be carried on local cable systems. These are independently owned and operated television stations that exist specifically to provide local programming within their broadcast footprints. There are currently 10 in Canada, including CIMC-TV, or Telile Community Television, in Cape Breton; CHCT-TV, or St. Andrews Community Television, in New Brunswick; CHET-TV in Chetwynd, British Columbia; and CHMG-TV in the city of Quebec, to name just a few.
The local programming improvement fund should be made available for use by these organizations and to assist new mandate-driven community broadcasters to fill the vacuum in local programming. Towards this end, in addition to LPIF funds being made available for community broadcast programming, a portion of the fund should be allocated to one-time grants that assist in the start-up of new community media outlets.
There are also possibilities for hybrid new media strategies, online contributions by mandate-driven media production groups that focus on local programs for local audiences. As many commentators have noted in recent months, more and more Canadians source programming through the Internet. Resources should be made available through tools like the local programming improvement fund to support locally oriented media production groups that distribute primarily online. This is, in fact, the way our broadcast system is growing and where entrepreneurial innovation is leading the way in transforming structural changes into opportunities. These groups can provide locally driven creative solutions to local programming deficiencies.
A key role the federal government can play in response to these opportunities is to initiate legislative reform that would allow the incorporation of limited liability for-profit corporations, the L3Cs, as has been done in Vermont and is being considered in Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon, and Wyoming as well as at the federal level. We also recommend that the local programming improvement fund be increased in size through matching federal government funds. This would make more resources available to address the crisis in local programming and would give Canadians, through our representative system, more say in how these resources are spent.
The local programming improvement fund should also be made expressly accessible not only to the affiliated networks but to community broadcasters, independent program producers, and online local media groups. This is an opportunity for Canadians to expand capacity and diversity in the Canadian broadcasting system for the production and distribution of local programs. The model of broadcasting, dominated by a few networks with strings of affiliated stations, has failed Canadians. New models with greater local accountability and diversity should be encouraged.
Further, we recommend that management of the local programming improvement fund be as diverse as the Canadian broadcast system, including representation from the public, private, and community elements, and representation from independent producers and community broadcasters. Control of the fund must reflect broadcast system diversity, especially representation from sectors where the most innovation can be found.
We recommend, as we did in the CRTC's new media broadcasting hearings, that the federal government create an Internet broadcast fund to support the production of Canadian content.
We further recommend that the federal government conduct an audit of community channel funds. Community television in Canada last year received $115 million, almost double the size of the proposed local programming improvement fund. This money is required, by regulation, to be spent on the production and distribution of local reflection television. However, communities across Canada have been complaining that cable companies misuse these resources by restricting or disallowing community access. If the federal government is proposing to fix the crisis in local programming with a fund of $60 million, we must ask what has been happening with the $115 million that cable companies collect from Canadians.
On the matter of funding for broadcasters in general, on the one hand--