Is community TV in Canada facing its Waterloo?

by MARSHA LEDERMAN, Globe and Mail

When Steven Kerzner was 14, he put on his slightly-too-small bar mitzvah suit, grabbed a briefcase he found in his house, and took the bus over to the tiny local community television station in his Toronto neighbourhood. He walked in, pitched a show called Let's Talk, and was hired - as a volunteer - on the spot.

By the time he was 18, Kerzner was running the station. In the meantime, he had created several shows and personas - including Ed: a mouthy, cigar-toting, politically incorrect sock puppet.

Ed the Sock is now a bona fide TV star, having made the leap from community to mainstream television in 1994. Guests of Ed's Night Party (now Ed & Red's Night Party) have included Christina Aguilera, Hilary Duff and Coldplay.

The red carpet Ed now frequents seems a very long way from the threadbare studios of Newton Cable, but community TV was integral to Ed the Sock's creation. "It was a great opportunity to have all these toys there to play with, without the commercial pressures that are there now," says Kerzner, 40. "We could go and play around and have fun and see what worked and learn ... without there being [the] pressure of being graded for it."

This week, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is considering removing the requirement that community channels remain on basic cable as part of a sweeping review of broadcast distribution regulations. The public hearings began Tuesday in Gatineau.

Alarmed by the possible disappearance of community television, where he spent more than 30 years as a volunteer, Richard Ward of the Community Media Education Society has written to the CRTC, urging it not to expel community TV from basic cable.

While Ward acknowledges that the issue is just a tiny part of the CRTC's review, the overall discussion about deregulation has him worried. "We have got distinctly Canadian things to say and the community channel [has] the broadest reach of all of the parts of Canada's broadcasting system," he said from Calgary. "I think it's prudent to be on guard, even if the threat is not directed primarily at the community channel. I don't think you wait until everyone else has been destroyed before you speak up."

In probably the most documented rise from community television, Tom Green went from hosting a show on Rogers Cable 22 in Ottawa to The Comedy Network in Canada to MTV in the United States. The Tom Green Show - part talk show, part gross-out prankfest - made him a star.

Like Kerzner, Green was an early community television volunteer, starting when he was 15 at Rogers 22's predecessor, Skyline Cable, learning lighting, camera and reporting. He vividly recalls seeing himself on TV for the first time, reporting for the station's news program about an earthquake fault in Ottawa. "I remember just being completely amazed when it aired," he says. "I was sitting at home watching it on my television and I just literally couldn't believe that I was able to sort of volunteer there and then be on TV, on real TV."

Times have changed: Tiny stations like Skyline and Newton Cable have been swallowed up by conglomerates like Rogers and Shaw. And thanks to regulatory changes introduced in 1997, advertising is now allowed. Nowadays, much of what's on community television is slick, professionally produced programming. Fourteen-year-olds aren't running the show any more.

Take Reel to Real: The Rogers-produced film review program is a community-TV hybrid, the hosts are paid freelancers, a Rogers-employed staff person runs the show and volunteers do the technical work.

The show, in its 15th season, attracts A-list guests like George Clooney, Halle Berry and Jerry Seinfeld. Only once in recent memory has it been denied a big-name guest because it was a "community TV" show (the U.S. publicist's decision was reversed, and the guest, ironically Canadian music producer Daniel Lanois, did ultimately appear).

Reel to Real has made a celebrity of co-host Richard Crouse, who has parlayed the gig into other projects, including books (his sequel to The 100 Best Movies You've Never Seen, called Son of The 100 Best Movies You've Never Seen, comes out in September) and a just-launched radio show.

"We're on a low number on the dial in the biggest TV market in the country," Crouse says. "It's created a loyal following for us."

Being low on the dial is key, Ward believes, to community television's survival. "A lot of people still watch television as opposed to watching a particular show," he says. "They flip through the dial [and] when they pass the community channel, a surprising number of them stop there."

It can be surprising indeed to discover how many people have seen a particular community-TV show episode. Ed the Sock's public access tipping point came the night actor Robert Vaughan, who was in the area doing dinner theatre, was a guest. The former star of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. seemed furious at Ed's questions, and the segment created all kinds of buzz. "Nowadays it would be all over YouTube," Kerzner says. "But in those days, people just videotaped it and took it to their friend's house and it sort of spread and from there it kept going."

So in the age of YouTube, is community television still needed?

Steve Anderson, the co-ordinator for the Campaign for Democratic Media, says yes. "Most people still get a lot of their news and information from TV despite the Internet," says Anderson, who is also a graduate student in communications at Simon Fraser University. "Also, the Internet is a very global medium whereas community television ... is locally focused, locally produced and locally watched."

And for people starting out in TV, Green says, an online forum can't possibly replace a hands-on experience. "At the end of the day, if you go down and volunteer at a public access television station, there's a lot of people there who are really passionate about television and they'll teach you a lot of stuff," he says. "You wouldn't really be able to learn any of that kind of stuff on your own just sitting at home putting clips on YouTube."

Green, who this year launched a new show, Tom Green's House Tonight (The Comedy Network), says he used the skills he learned from community television to create the program. "I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now if it wasn't for that," he says. "If I hadn't picked up all that stuff on the way at Rogers Cable, I wouldn't have even known where to start."

article originally published at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080410.wcommunitytv/BNStory....

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey