Note: This is a brief introduction to NL community television. An up-to-date survey is needed. The threads here are the historical view; grassroots participatory community television; change of ownership and policy of cable companies, and the current national struggle to refocus on community participation.
We worked in community television from 1986 (journalism students) until 2003 (Sharing Our Future conference). The industry has changed from a multiplicity of owners supporting local groups to two (or one) extra-provincial companies only interested in imitating network television.
In the early 80s people in rural Canadian communities began to download mainstream television programs from satellites and redistribute by cable to local people. This was legal (Cancom/CRTC) and usually controlled by local entrepreneurs.
In Burgeo the process was community owned and by the mid-80s included local programming. When the federal government took control of the cable companies' re-distribution of satellite programming (a licence to make money) they recommended (an in some cases, mandated) local television programming.
Equipment was often installed to enable television Bingo which became a source of funds for owners and local service groups alike.
In the early 90s MUN extension saw the potential of community television for local discussion and planning so they began to organize groups to make television. SCAN-TV in Clarenville and BAY-TV in Placentia are still on air 20 years later.
Community Television as Participatory Communication in Support of Development
In 1979 the Extension Service (and its media unit) began to experiment with a television transmitter in rural communities. The experiments evolved to become phone-in community forums on local issues and needs. Typically the projects began with discussions between field workers and community representatives, which resulted in the media unit bringing in a producer and technicians to pre-tape programming and produce live television in a community hall. There was delivery of information to the community and an opportunity for residents to dialogue and plan the future. Local people appeared on-camera, operated cameras and provided cultural input.
Between 1983 and 1989, there were 11 transmitter projects focusing on public discussion of particular issues facing rural communities. But by the end of the 80s, there was a shift from media technology to popular education - the people took control of the technology.
The reasons were financial - the media unit had been eliminated and extension could no longer afford professional technicians; technological - the proliferation of local cable systems meant the technology was already in the community and could be tapped, and philosophical - popular education methodology meant "we have no media experts but rather co-participants sharing in a communication/education experience. We don't teach but rather create learning situations and popular education resource materials."
We are all conditioned by our life-long experience as passive recipients of information from media and educational institutions. Therefore it requires a major effort to understand why it is futile to expect communication or education to effect a positive change unless the people themselves perceive the process as meeting community needs and being "from here."
By 1989 MUN extension workers perceived that a danger of using, for example, video in a community is the technology is often wielded by outsiders. Such experiments, however well intentioned the motive, can provide a focus which runs contrary to the needs of the community. Furthermore, they can be "one-shot deals" with no positive sustainable effects.
It is essential that people do their own media. This not only ensures ownership of the process, but in itself develops self-confidence, self-reliance and pride. Using the tools of technology, the communities take control of their own learning process. Then, from a position of self confidence and control, the community can meet with external agencies and facilitators to design programs which meet its needs and coincide with its aspirations.
The community must take ownership over its own communication process. In order to ensure community ownership, we are careful not to overwhelm people with professional standards and try to identify technical resources in the community (VCRs, camcorders, TVs, microphones). Also when a 12 year old boy takes a camcorder home to interview his grandmother about changes in the community - it's quite obvious that her participation is quite different than when faced by a group of technicians that she doesn't know.
We are talking of communities which have cable systems by which they receive American and Canadian channels. Community television is "broadcast" from a public room in the community.
In 2003 we switched from community television to radio to avoid negotiation with the cable companies and because microphones seemed to be less threatening than video cameras.
But there are only two cable company owners left in NL - Rogers and Eastlink (some people say Rogers controls Eastlink). They don't appear to encourage local community groups but rather produce programming which imitates specialty channels and is often intended for provincial or regional distribution.
In August, 2010, CRTC released a new community TV policy that, according to the Canadian Association of Community Television Users and Stations (CACTUS), leaves all spending, programming, and training decisions firmly in the hands of cable companies. However, a change in funding requirements for community channels means a surplus of $30 million. (CACTUS says the cable companies have disappeared more than 200 community channels since the 90s.)
The majority of interveners reiterated the support shown by more than 3000 Canadians at the main community TV policy hearing in April for the proposal by CACTUS that the money be used to fund non-profit community-based multi- media centres that would be become centres of new technology training and excellence nation-wide.
Telecommunities Canada (I'm a director), an association representing 3,000 free public Internet portals or "CAP" sites, wrote "There are many CAP sites who would be ready to serve as the nuclei of the new channels proposed by CACTUS to fill the widening gaps in the cable community channel system."
Telecommunities Canada is interested in community IPTV (a word with many definitions but basically meaning television over the internet.)
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