What is the Local Programming Improvement Fund—and should we care?

5 mins read

If you subscribe to cable or satellite, then like 90% of all Canadians, your provider (if they’re sufficiently large enough), mailed you a notice in the midfunk of a very unfunky summer, informing you that your fees will be increasing by 1.5% of your regular service. The larger your service, the larger your absolute dollar increase. WTF?

I summarize from their notice:

The CRTC has established a new fund to which cable TV and satellite companies are required to contribute. The Local Programming Improvement Fund (LPIF) will subsidize TV stations in markets of less than 1 million people. The new line on your invoice for your fees is called the ‘CRTC LPIF fee.’ […] The 1.5% fee collected […] goes directly to the Fund. Rogers Cable receives no financial benefit from the LPIF fee. If you would like more information on the Fund please visit www.crtc.gc.ca.

Peel away the formal language and you’ll arrive at this rough translation: We don’t want this new fund and we certainly don’t want our shareholders subsidizing it; therefore, you the subscriber will have to pay for it and if you don’t like it, too bad, don’t bug us, bug the CRTC …Here’s their website —go and waste two hours of your time and read through their policy notice, if you can find and understand it … , etc., ad nauseum.

It’s tough and time-consuming work trying to be an informed citizen, but I think power precisely counts on this hassle in order for them to remain … well, powerful.

Approved originally in 2008, the Fund was finally unveiled on July 6, 2009, in CRTC Policy Notice 2009-406. (The Notice set out something else rather important by the way—it slapped those broadcasters down who brayed to be relieved of Canadian content priority programming in prime time, thereby averting, for the time being, a dire situation for independent producers.)

The Improvement Fund is designed to provide sufficient support to ensure the ongoing viability of non-metropolitan-based stations, including French-language stations in English dominated markets, many of whom were hit hard during the 2008 downturn. It’s merely a stop-gap measure in an era of vast transition from conventional ’casting to digital and beyond, and during a time in which, not coincidentally, conventional advertising revenues have likely plummeted forever. Regardless of whether those city stations are owned by larger consolidated media groups like well-heeled CTVglobemedia Inc., or TVA Media Group, or even Rogers Broadcasting Ltd itself (!), they are encouraged to submit applications to have costs covered for the production and independent production of local news, current affairs, magazine-type fare, ambulance chasing, etc.

Nowhere, nowhere can I find any language that sanctions the use of what essentially is a tax directly on subscribers. (Why don’t they just come clean, have Revenue Canada administer it, and call it a day?) The Notice: With respect to the LFIP, the Commission determines […] the appropriate contribution level by Broadcasting Distribution Undertakings (BDUs) to the fund should be 1.5% of their gross revenues.

It doesn’t get plainer than that, even in a turgid document. The Commission is correct to ask for this 1.5% directly of BDUs, if ask they must, given that their own data reveals BDUs’ pricing to be going up twice the rate of inflation. Still, the historical pattern of letting cableco’s and other BDUs skimp on the cultural kitty continues. The result is that the BDUs get to blatantly protect profits without consequence because fee-setting is relatively unregulated.

If one looks to the CRTC to make sound policy that accounts for the future, then Notice 406 is a real head-scratcher on this front too. Remember, conventional ’casters find themselves in financial trouble because the entire communications industry is shifting to new media forms and end-user driven revenue models. Then why are neither cross-platform uses nor new media forms considered eligible production expenses under this new Improvement Fund? The Commission talks about keeping local programming alive and local stations solvent. But taxing us to plug the dyke not only infuriates for the cynical grab that it is, but insults us as well for the waste of money it will become.

Barri Cohen is an award-winning producer, writer, and director. She co-produced Phyllis Ellis’ Toxic Beauty (2019) and is currently completing a feature documentary for the Documentary Channel.

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