Against a backdrop of intense pressure on the finances of local television, Canada's broadcast regulator is holding a public hearing on the future of local news and asking for input on new ways to funnel funding to the industry.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) carved the issues of local and community television out of its broader "Let's Talk TV" review of the television system, which it concluded last year.
"It was during this process that the CRTC identified a number of issues faced by local and community television in a media environment that is increasingly shattered," CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais said in opening remarks delivered at an eight-day hearing that began Monday in Gatineau.
As the "pick-and-pay" rules from the Let's Talk TV proceeding begin to roll out this year, the future of niche specialty television channels that rely heavily on subscriber fees is uncertain. Meanwhile, television advertising revenue has also fallen sharply in recent years, threatening the financial viability of conventional TV stations that deliver local news and community programming.
Also on Monday, Rogers Media announced plans to lay off 200 employees across its television, radio and publishing divisions. Those job losses follow a wave of cuts across the Canadian broadcasting industry last year, when Rogers cut 110 jobs at its Omni television stations, Shaw Media eliminated 30 jobs as it consolidated news production functions across the country and Bell Media said it planned to lay off 380 workers in Toronto and Montreal, with further cuts in other newsrooms across the country.
The industry is feeling the sting of the loss of the Local Programming Improvement Fund (LPIF), which was established following the 2008 recession to help local stations and was paid for through a levy on cable and satellite subscribers. The LPIF paid out about $100-million annually to private broadcasters and local CBC stations, but the CRTC decided to phase it out in 2012. The fund paid out about $75-million in 2013 and $40-million in 2014 before it was ended on Aug. 31, 2014.
The CRTC expects to hear from almost 70 companies, groups and individuals throughout the local-TV hearing, and is asking for proposals on how to "rebalance" available resources and whether to create a new fund to support local news.
"The commission remains convinced that there is sufficient funding within the broadcasting system to ensure the creation of quality local programming, including local news coverage tailored to the particular characteristics of each market," the CRTC said in a working document outlining the agenda for the hearing.
Executives from Bell Media owner BCE Inc. appeared Monday to present the company's proposal to create a local news fund by reallocating contributions currently earmarked for community programming.
BCE's formula would see local television stations that produce a certain amount of weekly news content – with different hourly requirements, depending on the size of the market – receive about $67-million annually. It is proposing that the fund be established for an initial three-year period and reviewed after that point.
BCE is responsible for about 40 per cent of local news spending by private conventional broadcasters in Canada, the company said. Its own stations would receive the biggest chunk of funding – about $23.5-million – under its proposed formula.
Under the terms of their licences with the CRTC, Canadian television providers must contribute 5 per cent of their revenues to funds that support Canadian programming. BCE would like to see one of those percentage points diverted to its proposed local news fund and an existing fund for small market local programming. That would leave one percentage point for community TV.
BCE acknowledged the important role of community television but argued that "the rise of YouTube and user-generated content" has "alleviated some of the need for access programming," adding it is "no longer the only forum available for community members to see locally reflective programming."
Executives from Channel Zero Inc., the owner of CHCH-TV Hamilton, also appeared Monday. They said the BCE proposal had "real merit," but argued the fund "should be focused on independent services providing news programming." Channel Zero's position is that stations owned by vertically integrated players such as BCE, which own both content creation and distribution arms, should not be eligible for assistance from the fund.
Channel 11 LP filed for bankruptcy in December and the network laid off 129 full-time and 38 part-time staff members. It then offered to hire back 71 people to similar roles under a new numbered company contracted to create daily news.
Representatives from the Community Media Advocacy Centre also appeared before the CRTC on Monday. The public interest group urged the commission not to cut the funds available to community access programming. The group noted that using the Internet to share such content is not a blanket solution when many communities served by such programming lack reliable and affordable broadband access.