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Provincial broadcaster is twisting in the wind

I’m not quite sure if I should be worried or relieved that TVOntario is nowhere on the radar of the provincial election.

After all, the spectre of privatization has haunted virtually every election campaign since 1995. The Conservatives put TVOntario on the list of provincial agencies that would be privatized during their “Common Sense Revolution.” The Harris and Eves governments never made their sale, so some prominent Liberal MPPs also mused about the idea around the 2003 election.

But I can’t help but be concerned about the silence this time around. Ten years of neglect and recurring threats of a sell-off have left the provincial broadcaster looking worse for wear. There are fewer original shows on TV, less coverage of the province in current affairs shows, more repeats, more imports. And did I mention more repeats?

TVO is the most visible service paid for by taxpayers, reaching virtually everyone in the province, no matter who they are and where they live. That’s why TVO matters, and should matter more to whatever government is elected.

TVOntario’s base allocation from the provincial government, which is just over $40 million, hasn’t grown in ten years. In real terms, it has actually gone down if you take inflation into account. During the period the budget has been frozen, the provincial broadcaster has tried to stay with the times, producing material and programming for the web.

In the meantime, original shows have been cancelled and, in too many cases, not been replaced. Here is a partial list of the shows that have disappeared from TVO since 2005: Studio 2, Person to Person with Paula Todd, Imprint, More to Life, and Second Opinion.

Tfo, for its part, was hived off this year and has become a separate organization. It is getting some extra money from the government to move into new digs and beef up its technical and administrative ranks, given that it will no longer share these functions with TVO. Tfo has a fan base of folks who know they can’t get enough of this local, French-language programming anywhere else. It appears Tfo is off to a fresh, and optimistic, start.

No so for TVO.

The Liberal government shifted the responsibility for its orphaned English-language broadcaster to the Ministry of Education, whose attention has understandably been monopolized by the challenge of relieving the crisis in public education manufactured by the previous Conservative governments. TVOntario has been told that its mandate is strictly educational programming, what ever that means. It’s not as if the government, or TVOntario, has brought the question to Ontarians to think about and answer.

So at a time when more and more Ontarians complain about how homogenous their TV offerings are, TVOntario is doing less to give them something different, something unique, something they couldn’t find anywhere else.

The rationale for non-commercial TV has never been stronger. And the necessity of public funding for it is as clear as ever. Without it, you get pale imitiations, such as PBS south of the border. Or you get a scramble for ad revenue and the inevitable results that plague CBC-TV, which looks and sounds increasingly like all of the other channels on the dial.

TVO may well be headed in that direction. Lamenting the broadcaster’s unsustainable “financial model,” CEO Lisa de Wilde recently told staff that she is looking into “monetizing” (selling?) the station’s public archives, selling video on demand, selling programs to cell phones and other “mobile platforms” and entering into “more robust corporate partnerships.”

What’s clear is that TVO is contemplating a more commercial future. The only thing that can ensure that the station remains truly public is some form of increased, stable public funding.

Given the deep concern about the health of the TV and film production sector in Toronto and across the province, what better time to inject some money into TVO to create some more made-in-Ontario shows? It wouldn’t take much to make a real difference to those viewers who rely on TVO to tell them what is going on in their province.

Hear that, provincial parties? Why not make a pledge on the long-term health of our broadcaster? Do it today. Do it loud and clear.

Oh, and if you’re a voter like me, why not ask your local candidates if their government would honour a pledge to increase funding for TVO?

Lise Lareau is president of the Canadian Media Guild, which represents production employees at TVO and Tfo.

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