Today is the second anniversary of the Sun News Network.
Canada’s small-c conservative news channel launched on April 18, 2011, days before the royal wedding of the century, a historic federal election and the surprise death of Osama bin Laden. It promised to break stories that the other media wouldn’t cover, to give a voice to those it felt had been blacklisted by the other media, and to present ideas that were politically incorrect.
Even before it launched, it was attacked by the establishment and by left-wing activists. Combined with some reporting that failed to properly explain the issues at hand, this left many Canadians with an incomplete, biased or simply incorrect picture of what the news channel was about. I was skeptical about the quality of its journalism, but also encouraged that there would be a specialty channel out there that would create all of its own programming instead of relying on rebroadcasting U.S. specialty channels, airing reruns of TV series from decades past, or reshowing the same hit shows that have already aired on the broadcast networks.
I finally gave the network a review after one year. Most of my worries turned out to be justified. Its production values are cheap, it preaches to the converted, its primetime hosts (all white men) are unrelatable mainly because of the size of their egos.
Not much has changed in the year since. Most of the personalities are the same, with the notable exception of Krista Erickson (what she’s up to now is a mystery – her website, blog and Facebook page haven’t been updated since November). The shows still look the same, still sound the same, still have the same strengths and weaknesses.
I find myself watching it less and less these days, except for the sweeps I do of all the news channels when there’s breaking or other live events happening. It doesn’t have a must-see program, and with PVRs there’s no reason to stumble on it when you’re bored during the day.
But still, in an era where specialty channels are doing their best to de-specialize and go after the cheapest and most profitable content, it’s nice that there’s one force out there that believes original programming can make a network work.
All that original programming is expensive. Thanks to the CRTC we know that it cost $14 million in 2012. Added to overhead expenses, Sun News costs $22 million a year to run. But it made only $5.7 million in subscription fees and advertising. And subscription fees, under 10 cents a month per subscriber, make up the bulk of that. The network draws only $3,750 a day in advertising revenue. Business News Network draws more than six times that.
Sun blames this low revenue on lack of subscriptions, which it in turn blames on the big cable and satellite companies not packaging it attractively. The channel has 4.9 million subscribers, which is less than half of the 11 million subscriptions to CBC News Network, but puts it on par with channels like Lifetime, OLN and Showcase Action, and well ahead of some other more niche channels, not to mention every French-language specialty channel in Quebec that isn’t forced on subscribers.
So it is coming to the CRTC, asking that it issue an order requiring all cable and satellite providers to not only carry the channel (some like Telus and MTS still don’t have it at all), but to add it to all their customers’ basic cable packages, and even force it onto analog cable as well.
Once again, there has been some spin on both sides about this application. Sun argues it wants a fair shot in this hyper-regulated environment, while its enemies say it’s grossly hypocritical for a group that advocates choice and freedom to be asking the government to force people to pay for something they don’t want.
The hearing into Sun News and all the other applications for mandatory carriage begins next week in Gatineau. I’ve written a story for J-Source outlining the case and Sun News’s chances of getting what it wants.
People ask me a lot how I think the CRTC will rule on a controversial application, and the truth is I don’t know. I can point to precedent, but applicants and intervenors find creative ways to argue why precedent shouldn’t apply. The CRTC’s decisions wouldn’t be controversial if they were easy, and the hard ones are hard to predict.
Still, we can look at a few clues that might hint at which way the commission will go. The biggest one is that it has already deregulated mainstream news channels somewhat, opening them up so they can compete directly with each other. This presupposes that the channels are similar in nature, which would seem to go against one of the main criteria for granting this status, that a service be exceptional. Similarly, granting this request would set its own precedent, encouraging every other new news network to do the same. Global and Rogers have new regional news networks, and would probably be next in line for mandatory carriage.
Sun also makes a less than solid case that it needs this status because it can’t reach subscribers. There are channels out there that would love to have 4.5 million subscribers. And the CRTC is unlikely to feel this is the proper solution to a dispute over packaging. Sun makes a good point that it’s not accessible on analog cable, but neither are CityNews, Global BC1 and every other channel that has launched in the past decade. It’s an argument to rethink policy about analog cable, but not to force Sun News on consumers.
So my instinct is that Sun News will be denied mandatory carriage, along with most of the other applicants that come in front of the CRTC in this two-week hearing. But I’ve been surprised before.
And if the CRTC does say no, how long will Quebecor keep financing it before it realizes that market forces are just not on Sun News’s side?