Video has long been an ideal medium for enhancing the transparency of public sector entities and bolstering engagement with their constituents. By enabling citizens to remotely watch live broadcasts or recordings of council, board and committee meetings, allows wider public participation while enabling the open accountability stakeholders increasingly demand.
For decades, local governments and school districts in Canada were able to rely on cable television providers to produce and deliver this transparency-empowering content, with live broadcasts or recorded sessions distributed through their community TV channel. Cable system operators recognized such meeting coverage as not only a valuable service to their community, but also a cost-effective means of satisfying their obligations for locally-produced content (“contributions to local expression”) as regulated by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).
Impact of Policy Change
However, policy changes made by the CRTC in 2016 and implemented in 2017 significantly reduced the motivation for cable companies to continue providing such meeting coverage, while also allowing them to divert funding to other activities. The repercussions of these regulatory updates have already been significant for many municipalities and educational boards, leaving them scrambling to find alternatives, while yet-unaffected organizations are very much at risk of similar challenges in the future.
The Changing Media Landscape
While the CRTC changes brought public organizations’ dependency on cable operators for meeting coverage to the forefront, the reality is that the traditional television approach had already become outdated. The same shifts in public media consumption that have created financial pressure on community TV stations and factored into the CRTC updates have also changed citizens’ expectations for the availability of such video and its related materials.
As a broadcast service, meeting coverage was available only at the times that the TV station chose to schedule it, not when viewers necessarily wanted to see it. Today’s busy citizens are accustomed to watching content on their own schedule, whenever and wherever they want. Many households are even “cutting the cord”, cancelling their cable television subscriptions and turning exclusively to video streaming services and online platforms.
Interactivity and Integration
Cable television coverage also lacks the interactivity and integration capabilities users enjoy with websites and online video resources. Whereas sophisticated online portals can link meeting videos to specific agenda items and minutes, allowing viewers to jump directly to topics of interest, the classic TV model required them to watch or fast-forward through everything preceding that point. Similarly, online platforms can provide visitors with instant links to supporting documents and resources that are being discussed in the video, a convenience not available through cable TV.
As such, while the coverage provided by cable TV stations provided municipalities and boards an essentially cost-free outlet for their transparency mandates, it was increasingly out of sync with what the public considered to be truly transparent and accessible. Even in countries other than Canada that are unaffected by the CRTC updates, this fact alone is driving public sector organizations to augment or replace their cable television efforts with video streaming.
For many Canadian boards and councils, a key turning point in their transparency initiatives came in June 2016, with the release of Broadcasting Regulatory Policy CRTC 2016-224 for local and community television. This update reduced the proportion of cable companies’ Canadian programming obligation that they could fulfill with content such as council meeting coverage by one quarter, cutting their “allowable maximum contribution to local expression” from 2% of their gross broadcast revenues down to 1.5% starting in September 2017.
This alone would likely have resulted in a reduction of the number of meetings covered by community TV stations, but it was compounded by other changes in the same CRTC decision. Of even greater impact, policy changes allow the cable companies (“broadcast distribution undertakings”, or “BDUs”) to shift funding away from local community TV programming, using it instead in other markets or for local news production such as nightly newscasts on other stations.
While this new flexibility may help cable operators stay relevant and competitive in today’s hyper-connected, Internet-centric age, the resulting impact on many community TV stations was swift. Stations and/or production facilities in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and other cities closed completely, leaving councils and boards in those regions with no television coverage of their proceedings.
The Streaming Solution
Given the shifts in consumer viewing habits outlined above, many municipalities and boards had already begun or at least started considering augmenting their cable companies’ meeting coverage with live streaming or on-demand clips of their proceedings. In fact, in some regions, the cable companies themselves offered online streaming of their community TV channels, but those services too will vanish as stations close.
The changes by the CRTC are accelerating this movement towards streaming, serving as a wake-up call to public sector organizations who still depend on cable companies to facilitate public transparency. Those whose local community TV stations have already shut down need to begin streaming immediately, while those who continue to enjoy cable coverage still need to act quickly to avoid scrambling in the future.
Aim for True Transparency
When undertaking a streaming initiative to replace or supplement your television coverage, keep in mind that providing your audience a basic video feed isn’t enough to meet their expectations. Video streaming is a fantastic tool for raising transparency, but true transparency occurs when videos are easily accessible and integrated with meeting information. Providing an easy-to-navigate viewer experience through your webs