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Unmasking Vidéotron

Taking the corporation out of community TV

On October 8, the comment period closed on a licence application by Vidéotron (Quebec’s largest cable provider) for a new community television channel serving Montreal’s anglophone population. Many of the respondents raised alarm at Vidéotron’s move to fund a second community TV station using money that would otherwise flow to the Community Media Fund (CMF), a fund that independent producers across Canada tap into to create shows like Murdoch Mysteries and Rookie Blue.

Groups including the Association québécoise de la production médiatique, the Director’s Guild of Canada, and ACTRA (Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists, a union for industry workers) oppose Vidéotron’s plan to draw an additional $6 million to $10 million earmarked for the CMF to fund MYtv. MYtv is a proposed English clone of MAtv, the already-existing network of francophone community channels operated by Vidéotron across Quebec.

One letter on file at the Communication Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) not only rejects Vidéotron’s proposal for a new anglophone channel, but challenges Vidéotron’s right to manage any community channel in Montreal, on the grounds that Vidéotron does not live up to the CRTC’s expectations for community channels.

The Independent Community TV (ICTV) Steering Committee announced its intention to file an application to offer bilingual community-access television for the region of Montreal coordinated by a non-profit community media organization, and volunteer-operated well within Vidéotron’s existing MAtv budget.

Vidéotron has yet to demonstrate that a for-profit media corporation can facilitate community access.

As anyone who watches MAtv (formerly Vox) knows, there are few volunteers or ordinary citizens behind or in front of the camera. Vidéotron’s 2012 report to the CRTC revealed that its 36 MAtv community channels engaged 535 volunteers – fewer than 15 volunteers per station, per year.

The Canadian Association of Community Television Users and Stations (CACTUS) questions whether Vidéotron has met the CRTC’s expectation that at least 45 per cent of air time and the programming budget be directed toward “access” programming, meaning it must be made by citizens, community members, and volunteers. There is also an absence of content representing Indigenous or ethnic communities on MAtv – specific requirements of Vidéotron’s licence. CACTUS has recommended that the CRTC audit MAtv to confirm whether Vidéotron is in compliance with its license.

Montrealers and McGill students are familiar with the community radio powerhouse CKUT 90.3FM, a non-profit, campus-based community broadcaster. For over 25 years, CKUT has offered the kind of community-access programming that Vidéotron has yet to achieve on MAtv. Broadcasting 24 hours a day, over 300 CKUT volunteers produce 100 per cent of the content and participate in the collective management of the station. CKUT represents news and views from the disability, Indigenous, queer, and ethnic communities, alternative music and arts groups, and many others. It provides access to a mass media platform for marginalized groups and voices, which is supposed to be the point of community media.

Montrealers may also remember the television coverage offered by Concordia University Television (CUTV) nightly, livestreamed during the 2012 student strike. As many as 100,000 viewers per night followed CUTV’s community news team and the movement in the streets, with live in-depth interviews and unfiltered commentary. Volunteers and staff provided bilingual coverage on a shoestring budget of about $250,000, raised from student fee levies and viewer donations.

Approving Vidéotron’s application for a second community TV licence would effectively reward MAtv for failing to serve Montreal’s diverse communities to date.

Vidéotron has yet to demonstrate that a for-profit media corporation can facilitate community access. Over the years, Vidéotron has ignored repeated requests by groups like CUTV and the English Language Arts Network to broadcast English content under its community TV license for MAtv or Vox. Approving Vidéotron’s application for a second community TV licence would effectively reward MAtv for failing to serve Montreal’s diverse communities to date, and leave those communities without a common platform for exchange.

The Steering Committee of ICTV believes that platform should engage the diverse groups of the Montreal area by providing bilingual community access. Vidéotron’s current application and follow-up correspondence with the CRTC is available only in French, even though Vidéotron is applying for a licence to serve the English community. It would seem Vidéotron has little interest in truly involving the anglophone community at this stage, or in creating a common space for the coexistence of Montreal’s English and French communities.

The current debate around Quebec’s proposed Charter of Values reinforces the need to provide outlets for diverse viewpoints, and corporate media coverage simply is not providing it. Giant media conglomerates like Quebecor, Vidéotron’s parent company, already have well-established outlets. We all lose if they dominate so-called community media as well.

For more information on supporting Independent Community TV’s licence application, email Gretchen King is a PhD candidate in Communication Studies and is a member of the ICTV Steering Committee.