Independent Community TV Montreal has filed a class action suit against Videotron for failing to respect its community broadcasting requirements.

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Community TV — hardly synonymous with “profitable”— may end up enriching many Montrealers.

Last April, the Quebec Court of Appeals granted a media reform advocacy group group, Independent Community TV Montreal, the right to file a class action suit against Videotron. Its parent company, Quebecor, is Quebec’s largest media owner.

ICTV Montreal first filed a complaint over the programming of Videotron’s MAtv in 2013 with the CRTC. The group accused the broadcaster of failing to respect its community programming requirements. The Commission agreed with ICTV Montreal in a 2015 decision.

André Desrochers, the case’s designated plaintiff, boasts over 30 years of experience in community television. He said CRTC’s decision is historic.

One passage from the decision, about the lack of shows from everyday citizens, noted the following:

“(O)nly 30.2 per cent of MAtv’s programming … was devoted to access programming.” The number “is far removed both from the 45% threshold required by the Regulations at the time, and the 59 per cent level of access programming Videotron claims to have broadcast.”

The Commission released “a full-fledged answer,” which is unusual. Unlike in previous instances, it didn’t defer the matter until the next licence renewal hearing. Also, it provided specific numbers in its response.

Videotron did not return J-Source’s phone calls concerning the class action suit.

The CRTC gave the broadcaster nine months to form a citizen advisory board to help it make better choices with its programming. Laith Marouf, from ICTV Montreal, did not think the decision went far enough.

“We were waiting for the CRTC to verify compliance by the end of the nine months and that didn’t happen (so) we launched a class action lawsuit on behalf of the consumers of Videotron.”

The plaintiffs are suing Videotron for $3.6M, prorated to the hours of incorrect programming, in addition to $2M for moral and punitive damages and damages for the breach of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Both Marouf and Desrochers tell J-Source they feel fairly confident in their chances of winning a class action suit. But, in the event of the suit’s successful outcome, the potential repercussions of the decision are unclear.

Certain regulations have either been elaborated or changed since ICTV Montreal’s 2013 complaint. For example, ICTV Montreal initially requested a licence to replace Videotron, as allowed per CRTC regulation:

“In situations where the terrestrial BDU does not … operate a community channel in accordance with the provisions of this policy, community groups may apply for a community programming undertaking licence.”

But the CRTC has a “wide tool-kit to treat non-compliance,” said Jean-Pierre Lefebvre, distribution compliance manager at the CRTC. Removing a broadcaster’s licence after one non-compliance case would be unnecessary.

“We don’t choose the nuclear weapon … for someone to come back into compliance,” said Lefebvre.

“I can’t necessarily blame how people interpreted that wording,” he said of the ambiguous rule.

Since 2016, the CRTC has relaxed the required amount broadcasters must invest in a community channel of big markets like Montreal. The remaining portion of the funds earmarked to community TV may now be shifted to news content for the broadcasters’ commercial local stations.

This new shift, part of the CRTC’s Let’s Talk TV approach, is problematic in at least two ways, said David Skinner, associate professor at York University. For one, while citizens’ access to community channels is unchanged, the reduced amounts “mak(e) it more difficult for those groups to finance the programming that they would show there.”

Secondly, the CRTC doesn’t “operate with a heavy hand.” Describing the CRTC as “a mystery,” due to the vagueness of its decisions, he tempers the unprecedented nature of CRTC’s MAtv decision. He said the lack of “punitive measures” is indicative of the CRTC’s relationship to the broadcasters.

“The CRTC is dependent upon those companies to maintain the system. It has to play into their interests to some extent in order to make sure that those companies are viable. Because, if they’re not viable, the whole system collapses,” Skinner said.

Lefebvre, who said “I will not qualify if it’s heavy handed or not,” explains the CRTC’s approach applies to all licensees.

“The Commission’s approach is if there’s non-compliance, we’ll try to rectify the non-compliance. We’ll ask the licensee to rectify the non-compliance first, give us tools to monitor and give them expectations or requirements to fix the non-compliance. We do the same for larger licensees (and) smaller licensees.”

But the CRTC admits it “realized we could do a better job at monitoring,” said Lefebvre.

Until 2016, the government did not monitor broadcasters’ programming regularly, unless a complaint had been filed.

Going forward the CRTC will look into programming more frequently than only at licence renewals, though he could not confirm to J-Source yet how often this will happen.

“If we have a more systematic approach to monitoring, (…) it’ll give the Commission a better understanding of what’s going on out there.”

In the early 2000s, initiatives of Desrochers  brought changes at the CRTC. As a representative for the Fédération des télévisions communautaires autonomes du Québec, he spoke before the CRTC and successfully pushed for access and local programming thresholds.

This time, he decided to take on Videotron with ICTV Montreal to bring awareness “not (just) to the initiated.”

“Thanks to the class action suit, (citizens) may become more involved in their community channel. It may end up being one way to help the Canadian system by having more people take part of it. (The plaintiffs) can shine a light on the inner-workings of community TV.”