So it’s done. At 5am Eastern Time today, after a repeat of Byline with Brian Lilley and a promo ad featuring Pat Bolland, Sun News Network cut to black, eventually being replaced with notices from distributors that the channel has ceased operations.
At the same time, owner Quebecor Media sent out a statement:
Over the past four years, we tried everything we could to achieve sufficient market penetration to generate the profits needed to operate a national news channel. Sadly, the numerous obstacles to carriage that we encountered spelled the end of this venture.
And vice-president Kory Teneycke sent out an email to staff:
— Cindy Pom (@CindyPom) February 13, 2015
There was no chance for staff to say goodbye on air. Ezra Levant finished his show with a see-you-tomorrow, a promise he can’t fulfill. The last broadcast featured the usual Sun News programming: Levant talking about radical Muslims in Canada. Lilley on gun seizures in High River, Alta. John Robson with a “special report” that was really just an essay on artificial intelligence. And during the commercials (like Tie Domi selling phones), Beatrice Vaisman presented “hard news headlines” — none of which were about reports of the network’s impending demise.
About 150 people are now unemployed. They range from the anonymous video operators and editors working behind the scenes to high-profile hosts like David Akin. And while some people are dancing on Sun’s grave, others are defending the network (even one prominent liberal) or at least expressing sympathy with those who are out of work.
Count me among those who are disappointed. Not because I agreed with Sun News, because I thought they did good journalism or was even a fan, but because it was one of the few channels on Canadian television that produced most of its own programming.
The blame game
So who or what is at fault for Sun News’s failure? Everyone has their own theory, usually based on their personal politics and biased world view. From my similarly biased perch, I offer my own take.
It wasn’t because of the CRTC
Blame for Sun News demise: CRTC decision to refuse Cat 1 mandatory cable carriage status equal to CBC/CTV news nets
— Peter Kent, MP (@KentThornhillMP) February 13, 2015
Thornhill MP Peter Kent, a former news anchor, was among many to place the blame squarely on the broadcast regulator, incorrectly suggesting that its failure to give it “mandatory cable carriage” like CBC and CTV news channels was the culprit.
There are several problems with this argument, some of which are because of the complexities of CRTC specialty channel licenses.
The “Category 1” that Kent refers to is an outdated term for a class of licence issued by the CRTC for the first digital-only specialty channels (ones that weren’t added to analog cable systems). Channels like Cottage Life (formerly Bold), Documentary, G4, ichannel and OUTtv. Digital cable and satellite distributors were required to have these channels on their systems, though they remained discretionary for the consumer. They also benefitted from genre protection, meaning no one could start up a new channel that did the same thing as them. This differed from “Category 2” channels (BBC Canada, Discovery Science, MuchRetro and NHL Network are among many examples) where carriage was freely negotiated between the broadcaster and the distributor, and the services could compete directly with each other.
In 2011, the CRTC reclassified specialty channels. The old analog channels (like MuchMusic, YTV and Bravo) combined with the Category 1 digital channels to become “Category A” services, which maintained those carriage rights and genre protection. The Category 2 channels became “Category B” services.
And there was a third category created, Category C, which were for services that the commission decided were mature enough that they could compete directly with each other with common conditions of licence. It put two types of channels into this category: national news channels and mainstream sports channels.
CBC News Network, CTV News Channel, Sun News Network, RDI and LCN are all Category C channels. As are TSN 1-5, Sportsnet East/Ontario/West/Pacific, Sportsnet One, RDS/RDS2 and TVA Sports/TVA Sports 2.
If it wasn’t for this reclassification, Sun News Network might not have been allowed to exist in the first place because of genre protection.
All this to say that as of 2011, those news and sports channels no longer had mandatory carriage. Distributors became free to add or remove them from their systems as they wished, though no one would dare try to take away TSN.
Sun News is licensed the same as CTV News Channel and CBC News Network. They have the same conditions of licence, the same obligations, and the same rights.
With two exceptions.
First, there’s still an order in place requiring the mandatory distribution of CBC News Network in French-language markets (at $0.15 per subscriber per month) and RDI in English-language markets (at $0.10 per subscriber per month). This is done supposedly so that minority-language communities have access to news in their language (though it’s applied to everyone in those markets, regardless of their spoken language or what package they subscribe to).
Second, CBC News Network and CTV News Channel are still carried on analog cable, which is still how about 15% of cable subscribers get their TV.
Neither of these things would have saved Sun News, though. The channel had 5 million subscribers in 2013, according to the CRTC (data for 2014 hasn’t been released yet), which puts it on par with many other popular channels.
Plus, Sun News actually does have mandatory carriage. A year ago, the commission ordered distributors to add the channel to their systems, and make it available in their news packages and on an individual basis. As of last March, any digital cable, satellite or IPTV subscriber with a major company can get the channel if they want it (and in many cases even if they don’t).
It wasn’t because of the evil cable company competition
Sun News had more than its share of carriage disputes. It got yanked from Bell when it launched because Sun demanded subscription fees while Bell argued it was simply distributing the free-to-air channel CKXT (formerly Toronto 1). Telus didn’t carry it for a while either. Even when the mandatory order came down, Sun had difficulty closing distribution deals because they couldn’t agree with providers on a price. Rogers and Telus both had to settle their disputes with the CRTC.
Sun News never had any carriage issues with Videotron, of course, since they’re owned by the same company. Unfortunately Videotron serves a mainly liberal francophone audience who has no interest in Sun News.
Sun also took issue with its placement on the dial, “up in the boonies” of high channel numbers. This is a common problem with new TV channels, but one that doesn’t seem to stop people from finding the sports channels that carry their hockey game broadcasts, even when providers move those channels around.
Besides, CityNews Channel had great channel placement on Rogers in southern Ontario (since City is owned by Rogers). It failed anyway.
The fact is that most of the country had Sun News available to them, but simply chose not to watch.
It’s not because it was conservative, or because the country isn’t
Liberals hail this failure as an indication of the failure of conservatism in this country. Which makes sense only if you ignore that in the last federal election, 40%
of the country of people who cast ballots voted for a conservative party (the Conservatives or Christian Heritage Party). Plenty of the country still identifies itself as conservative or right of centre, and if 40% of the country watched Sun News regularly, it would have had no problem staying afloat.
It’s not because of Pierre Karl Péladeau
Another conspiracy theory is that because Péladeau is a separatist running for the leadership of the Parti Québécois, Sun News had to be shut down because it differs politically. This, of course, makes no sense. Péladeau was in charge when Sun News launched.
The real culprits
So who can we blame? Here are my top picks:
News doesn’t pay
Sun News prided itself on the fact that its programming was 100% Canadian, and except for the hunting program Canada In The Rough, which it picked up partly for political reasons after Global dropped the show, all its programming was 100% self-produced.
But making your own programming, even as cheaply as Sun News did, is still very expensive. At its peak, Sun News produced 16 hours a day of programming, most of it live. Recently, that number dropped as the early morning show was replaced with more primetime repeats.
Other channels survive because they have much fewer staff, relying on imported programs and reruns to fill their schedule. Unfortunately, Sun News is a warning to others who might try to create their own programming.
Sun News had no supporting network
The biggest difference between Sun News and its competitors at CBC and CTV isn’t about distribution, or regulations, or government handouts or even politics. It’s that CBC and CTV have a network of local television stations across the country that share their news reports, equipment and journalists with their news network. Primetime on CBC and CTV news channels mainly involves simulcasting the national newscast as it gets broadcast in the country’s various time zones.
Sun News has none of that. It needed its own trucks, its own journalists, its own resources. It could rely on the Sun chain of newspapers and the QMI Agency wire service, but those resources aren’t nearly as useful for a television news network. And it made a channel that ran cheaply seem even cheaper. Most interviews — even with their own journalists — were done via Skype, featuring compressed images of people holding phones to their ears.
Quebecor does have a French newsgathering operation with TVA and LCN, but there was rarely any sharing of resources between the two sides of the language divide. TVA just about ignores the country west of Ottawa, and Sun News didn’t seem to care much what happened east of Ottawa.
It preferred argument over information
My biggest beef with Sun News wasn’t that it spoke truth to power, or that it talked about the things the “mainstream” media wouldn’t, or that it dared offer a different perspective. I was all for those things. But watching it, and especially the primetime “straight talk” shows, I didn’t really feel like I was learning anything. Information was presented not so much to give a different perspective, but as the pretext to an argument or rant. I couldn’t trust what was being presented because I knew that any information that didn’t support the argument wouldn’t be part of that opening monologue or would be presented as a straw man for the host to quickly tear down, usually in a mocking tone.
The guests were a part of this problem. More often than not, guests were brought on to simply agree with the host. Warren Kinsella aside, it felt more like an echo chamber than a discussion forum. And while red-meat conservatives might prefer it that way, I get very little out of it.
Debate would have been a great thing to see on Sun News, but instead I got Ezra Levant chuckling as he mocked people who disagreed with him, or Brian Lilley pretending that some court decision he disagreed with would result in the downfall of western society.
What bugs me most about how Sun presented the news is that they did exactly what they accused CBC and CTV of doing: being biased and ignoring the other side. They could have been the place for balanced reporting, for skepticism, for smart discussion and presenting unpopular opinions. Instead, they seemed to be a cross between a conspiracy theory website and a Conservative Party fundraising email.
Levant, Lilley and others at Sun are smart people. And they have ideas and opinions I’d like to see in the public sphere. But if anything, the Sun News Network seemed to isolate them on a channel no one watched.
It got boring
When Sun News launched, I watched it obsessively. I had the PVR running constantly recording programs that I would then skim through. For the first few weeks I watched everything that was broadcast. For the following months I would check in regularly as I prepared a review of the channel.
But in the past year or two, I’ve barely tuned it in at all. It’s the same arguments about the same issues being repeated on a regular basis. Ezra Levant arguing against radical Islam and for unfettered freedom of speech. Brian Lilley bashing the CBC and the nanny state. Michael Coren defending Christians. After a few months, these arguments start to get old and repetitive, even if they are important to make.
The fact that Sun News had such poor ratings despite decent subscription numbers should be enough to explain that people didn’t want to watch. Many because they didn’t like the politics, but I suspect more because there was just nothing entertaining to grasp our attention. And because Sun didn’t have the journalistic resources to break big stories or provide good live coverage of events, it needed to be entertaining to have any hope of working.
It’s not that conservative views were unwelcome on Canadian airwaves. After all, Don Cherry is still very popular, and Bell poached Kevin O’Leary from the CBC to use him as much as possible. But Sun News’s low budget meant most of its programming consisted of talking heads. It was talk radio on television, which was about as exciting as those actual talk-radio-on-TV shows you see on TSN and Sportsnet.
It was a one-trick pony
Sun News means politics. That message was omnipresent in their promotional spots, and it was true. But unfortunately Sun News was just politics. There were no sports highlights, no arts and entertainment, no fashion or food. The only thing you’d see regularly that wasn’t political was the occasional viral YouTube video to lighten the mood.
I don’t know if being more broad would have helped or hurt Sun News, especially with the resources it had. But its singular focus limited its potential appeal. It was a channel for Conservative Party activists, religious conservatives and people who hate the government. Unfortunately, as loyal as that group might be, it’s not large enough to sustain a 24/7 television channel.
It was an answer to something rather than being something on its own
Sun News is telling you what the other media won’t. Sun News is the only network that will stand up to the CBC. So often, it seemed that Sun’s raison d’être was to be a critic of another channel. And don’t get me wrong, I love media criticism and think there should be more of it. But who wants to watch a channel that spends so much of its time obsessing over another channel?
It wasn’t just media criticism. Political criticism came across as similarly reactionary. It felt like that uncle you sit with at the family Christmas party who spends the whole time complaining about the government. Even if you agree with many of his points, eventually you just want to get up and ask him what he has to offer society.
Lessons from Sun News
It’s unfortunate that so many people are losing their jobs, and that they didn’t get any warning or a chance to say goodbye. It’s also unfortunate that so many people are taking a good-riddance view, because there are some things we should be learning from this experiment to improve the way TV news is presented in this country.
Give right-wing pundits a voice
An hour a day of Ezra Levant is a bit much, even though I was always impressed how he could fill an entire hour each day, including a lengthy monologue. But nothing is too little. Like him or not, he has a perspective to offer and, when used properly, keeps people on their toes. We should be hearing from him on those mainstream channels he likes to complain about so much. We should be seeing him debating the limits of free speech in a respectful manner with someone who matches his intellect.
Sun News was right about one thing: It often brought up issues and perspectives that we didn’t see in mainstream TV news. We should do something about that, because being stuck in a left-wing echo chamber is no more healthy for our minds or society than being stuck in a right-wing echo chamber.
Give us more regional political coverage
Too often, Sun News would be the only source for political news at the province level for people outside of those provinces, whether it was during debates or election nights or just the day-to-day news. I might not be as interested in the Saskatchewan leaders’ debate, but I’d like to be able to get access to it somewhere on TV.
Respect the opinions of others
Sun News, for all its mockery and apparent disdain for the left, never shied away from debate. As Kinsella points out, only once did the network censor him, and it apologized afterward. We should have more respectful debate in our media between people with different perspectives. I want to keep the sharp minds of Sun while getting rid of their egos and bitterness.
Don’t be afraid of holding unpopular opinions
Sun had limits. They may have been too lenient for some on the left, but the network tried to stay within the law at all times. It also liked to push unpopular and unconventional ideas by smart people. Sun News was labelled racist, sexist, and rude, some of which was deserved and some less so. But it didn’t refuse to talk about issues for fear of those labels. It didn’t worry about who it might offend. And some opinions that offend our sense of what’s proper and polite are necessary in this world.
We need more media criticism
It’s no secret that Sun News personalities want the CBC shut down or privatized. And that prejudice tainted a lot of Sun’s criticism of the public broadcaster (starting with their insistence on calling it a “state broadcaster”). But with Canada’s broadcast media increasingly coming under a few roofs, we need people who can engage in fearless criticism of that media. With the loss of Sun News, we’ve lost one of those voices.
Other media pick up on CBC scandals like the Jian Ghomeshi case, but for more minor stuff, there isn’t much out there keeping watch, especially to note those times when CBC lets its left-leaning tendencies show.
RIP Sun News
I mourn the loss of Sun News, not just because of the jobs lost, but because it was a Canadian channel that broadcast original Canadian programming and tried to be something different on the air.
It had its problems, and I don’t think anyone should try to repeat the experiment directly, but I would like to see a little bit of what Sun News had to offer reflected in other media.
If we can learn one thing from it, it’s that no one should be afraid of hearing differing opinions with an open mind.
- Scott Gilmore: “As individuals, we are worse off by ignoring our critics or those whose views aggravate us.”
- Linden MacIntyre: “The problem viewers had with Ezra and most of Sun TV wasn’t the performance but the content. There was nothing there but style. And it was a style that was embarrassing to people who might have had some thoughtful things to say.”
- Jonathan Kay: “Sun News’s fundamental problem wasn’t the cheap production values—that could have been fixed with more money, as viewership grew. The real issue was that Canada just doesn’t have enough ‘regular-white-guy resentment’ to support a mass-viewership news channel catering to pissed off ordinary Joes.”
- Bill Brioux: “Quebecor deserves all the blame for turning an interesting idea—creative an alternative, conservative news voice—into something most Canadians wouldn’t touch with a Dr. Ho foot pad.”
- Christopher Waddell: “Sun TV was really only ever about one thing: gaming the system. Had the scheme worked, it would have made some people a lot of money even if nobody watched the channel at all.”
- Heather Mallick: “The great defect of Sun News was that it wasn’t a news channel: it was constant opinionating on the cheap, as opposed to news reporting, which is expensive.”
- Vinay Menon: “Sun News always had a cable access feel. The production values were Al Qaeda grim. The Source, hosted by Ezra Levant, looked like it was shot inside a stock room of an actual Source store”
- Toronto Star editorial: “It was brash. It was provocative. Its values were sharply at odds with those of this newspaper. But it made its viewers think, challenged other TV outlets to be bolder and contributed to the diversity of perspectives that keeps journalism healthy.”
- Jay Currie: “Sun TV was an attempt to change the channel. It failed. The need remains but it has to be smart, slickly produced and Internet aware. Sun TV, whatever its ideological virtue, was ham handed, as slick as Brian’s do, and Internet poison. These are people from the dying newspaper business trying to revive the dying television business and it showed.”
- Stephen Lautens: “I think their problem was truly their limited appeal because of the ideological ground they had staked out.”
- J.J. McCullough: “More than anything else, Sun was simply the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time? … a badly under-funded, late entrant into the increasingly irrelevant, cash-hemorrhaging, archaically over-regulated world of television news.”
- Tim Harper: “They often had no one to yell at. If they were trying to appeal to the hardcore Conservative voter, the pool was small, about 30 per cent of the country.”
- John Doyle: “Sun News was never very good at doing what it set out to do. It was boring TV. Mostly, it was cheap, cheesy, terrible television.”
- Jordan Green: “Sun News Network was a sinking ship, simply because the executives continued to spend money they weren’t earning back in revenues, because they didn’t have enough eyeballs watching the channel. And the real reason they didn’t have those eyeballs, was because they didn’t talk to those eyeballs. They kept dishing out the same crap, instead of taking advantage of their newness on the Canadian television landscape, and doing some good old-fashioned research.”
- Antonia Zerbisias: “The first rule of journalism is maintaining credibility. Sun News mocked the very idea of it, appealing to those who would believe anything wrapped in lowest common denominator paper and tied up with an outrage bow.”
- Justin Ling: “What they did succeed in, at times, was keeping the media honest. In the same way that Jesse Brown’s Canadaland has forced TV anchors to think twice about taking speaking fees, or gossip rag Frank Magazine has pushed high-profile journalists to fear for their personal lives, Sun grabbed a hold of right-wing issues and clobbered the big guys over the head with them. For good or for bad, potshots from the underdogs make us self-examine and adjust.”
- Colby Cosh: “In Conservative-run Canada, Sun News often seemed to be whipping the underdog.”
- James Bradshaw: “The straight talk about Sun News Network is that its failure traces back to the math.”
- Bradshaw, again: “The network had launched believing, perhaps naively, that it could negotiate its way to wide distribution and profitability in the open market. But it wasn’t to be.”
From the horses’ mouths
- Ezra Levant (host): “Our ratings were low. All news channels have low ratings. … I don’t regard this as a failure of our ideas nor as a failure of the free market.”
- David Akin (host): “Sun News reporters and cameras were on each of the main campaign buses for the duration of the federal and all nine provincial elections. I anchored at least a dozen results shows, where we stayed on-air across the country from polls closing until the final speech.”
- John Robson (columnist): “With unfriendly government rulings on licences and fees we couldn’t survive no matter what viewers thought. With friendly ones we would have been rolling in clover regardless.”
- Kris Sims (reporter): “Lots of us at Sun News Network are journalists, damn hard-working journalists.” (at 16:00)
- Rikki Ratliff (Ezra Levant’s former producer): “At the end of the day, I would shake my head still trembling at the wonder of how we got a show to air with so few resources. Grit and a desire to prove the naysayers wrong fuelled us.”
- Casey Bennett (chase producer): “most critics admit to almost never watching the network, instead basing their view on a few soundbites someone plastered up on their blog in an anti-Sun smear campaign.”
- Joe Warmington (columnist): “While the “Media Party” fawns all over a Justin Trudeau or Kathleen Wynne, Sun News was not afraid to poke Liberalism in the eye.”
- Warren Kinsella (columnist): “Some of the network’s regulars seemed to prefer shouting to debating, and their speech—while free—was not always smart. The network got into trouble, too often.”
- CBC’s As It Happens interviews David Akin and Ezra Levant
— Alexandra Gunn (@alexandragunn) February 14, 2015
Sun News paid for me to file from Cairo, Jerusalem, Paris, Yokohama, St Petersburg.. Tx! pic.twitter.com/TP7vy7CKH6
— David Akin (@davidakin) February 13, 2015
Canada Eh, That's Why. pic.twitter.com/4AYe2nr0tU
— Faith Goldy ? (@FaithGoldy) February 13, 2015
It didn’t take long for new hopes to rise. Mysterious websites promising new projects have popped up. Levant points readers to this one. Faith Goldy and others point to this one. Neither gives any details of what they’re about, other than being a new voice in media.
Lilley, meanwhile, has started a podcast.
UPDATE (Feb. 18): The Financial Post reports Leonard Asper made a failed bid to buy the network just before it went dark. Meanwhile, the Globe reports Sun News is providing less severance to employees outside Ontario.