Cable programs like Nite Dreems helped form Vancouver's alternative culture – photo: Alex Waterhouse-Hayward
Why should we care about community access television?
I'm sure many of us in Metro Vancouver have no idea what "community access" television is. In today's digital satellite, 1000-channel universe, does anyone really care about a TV channel located so low on the dial it would still show up on an analogue 13-channel black and white set built in the 1960s?
It's possible that there is no point to having a TV channel dedicated to airing programming produced by amateurs who live in your community. I admit that it might only be a by-product of my forty-something nostalgia that I even bring it up for discussion. But I believe there still is a place for vital, properly-funded community access programming on our basic cable channels.
There are still true believers out there who are fighting with the CRTC and the cable companies to restore real community access TV in Metro Vancouver. And now, the board of Metro Vancouver itself is weighing into the debate.
The demise of community television
The loss of community access TV in Metro Vancouver has been steady and deliberate. In 2000, the long-rumoured merger & swap of operations between Rogers Cable and their local competitor Shaw Cablesystems took place. In an almost unprecedented move, the two Canadian cable giants decided that each could serve their respective markets better by becoming virtual monopolies in southern Ontario (Rogers) and Metro Vancouver (Shaw) respectively.
In the years leading up to the swap, Rogers Cable had ended its commitment to community-based TV by closing offices set up throughout their coverage territory. In Metro Vancouver community TV offices were closed on Commercial Drive, the West End, Kitsilano. The series of events are described in detail by dogged community activist Sid Tan:
Thousands of volunteers and dozens of staff worked in this and another sixteen or so community television studios and offices throughout Metro Vancouver. In Vancouver alone, there was a full studio along with four neighbourhood community television offices – two in Kitsilano, one in the West End and the Commercial Drive location. Volunteer community-based productions such as Complaint Department, Production Parade, Metro Magazine, Chinatown Today, Global Justice, Pressure Point and East Side Story dominated the then Rogers cable community channel. The programming opportunities, production training in local offices, mentorship and extensive volunteer networks are all but gone from Shaw, now the dominant cable operator in the region through a swap of assets with Rogers...
Sid is an old colleague of mine when we both produced community TV for years out of the Commercial Drive office. Sid's politics are never suspect – for years he championed for redress for those affected by the Chinese head tax, and he recently ran as a board member for COPE, Vancouver's famous ultra-left political party. On the matter of Shaw Cable's declining commitment to community TV Tan has been a lone voice.
The fight to bring community TV back
There is little doubt that Tan's fringe politics probably worked against him in his struggle against Shaw. But Tan's campaign has been given a significant boost by the Metro Vancouver board, who submitted a letter to the CRTC citing a "decade of deterioration" of community TV under Shaw's watch. Their argument (and Sid Tan's) is that cable subscribers should be getting a lot more for the $5 million collected annually from them to pay for "community" programming.
By "deterioration" they would have to be referring to the slick productions Shaw currently produces. While it's possible these programs have their devoted fans, with the exception of Vaughn Palmer's Voice of BC where we get to listen to mainstream commentators on provincial politics, the current affairs programming that rounds out the schedule is neither innovative nor inspired.
Skeptics feel that today's CRTC board of directors would be unlikely to press for open access to a TV channel that would possibly allow for more dissenting viewpoints. Much of the programming produced by the community TV true-believers since 2000 has been for the most part labour-sponsored propaganda, or about the plight of BC's downtrodden masses. Shaw only airs this kind programming, usually late on weekend evenings, after it displays a wordy disclaimer that the programming is not theirs.
Community TV is made richer by the involvement of those who are committed to political causes, but the programming needn't always represent the rabble. Rogers community TV produced some fine programming, and gave several of our finest producers, directors and TV technicians their start. In my day I was able to produce some colourful programming that you didn't see on local mainstream channels.
Then there were the real innovative programs that caught the zeitgeist like Rogers' Nite Dreems program (some of the cast including the legendary J.B. Shayne pictured above) of the late 1970s & early 1980s, and Shaw Cable's Soundproof program (see this YouTube clip for a fun collage from that show). What gave this kind of programming more impact is how it inspired young viewers. Some of the biggest fans were bored teens stuck home watching late night TV. These non-conforming cable programs inspire the muse in the artists and thinkers of tomorrow.
The view from Seattle
During a stay in Seattle last summer I always had a little time at the end of the day encamped in our hotel room where I would channel surf. As I moved up the dial I was struck by the number of individual stations devoted to raw coverage of public meetings. I counted at least three channels where I could watch the proceedings of a public meeting with elected officials.
Indeed, look at this daily programming schedule from the SCAN Seattle cable access channel. It's a wide spectrum that includes political broadcasts, and programs aimed at several different audiences including youth. SCAN receives the majority of its funding, 88% through a contract with the City of Seattle. The City receives this funding directly from the cable companies, as franchise fees that are paid by cable subscribers on their cable bills.
As licenses for broadcast & cable services are issued by our federal government, Metro Vancouver governments are less influential than US cities when it comes to community programming. Hence the letter from Metro Vancouver protesting the lack of community television – local politicians have little real influence over the cable giants.
But the fact that Metro Vancouver has aligned themselves with someone like Sid Tan is a hopeful sign. There is no question in my mind that community television has a place in our million-channel universe. I'm also persuaded that these channels serve a greater need by helping to establish local talent that may be ill-suited to mainstream broadcasters resistant to change.
It's clear that the broadcast paradigm is shifting with the influence of internet, satellite and downloadable media, and that there is a lot of money at stake. But as long as cable companies bill us for millions in legislated surcharges to support adding "community" to your TV dial, somebody better remind them what that word really means. Let's hope that the CRTC takes the challenge seriously of restoring relevant, accessible and volunteer-driven community TV.
- post by Mike