Politics & Policy

Sun News Network, R.I.P.

Canada loses its equivalent of Fox News.

On the most unlucky of days, Friday the 13th, the Sun News Network went off the air last week. Launched in April 2011, SNN was Canada’s first attempt at a small-“c” conservative television network — and could very well be its last.

There are a number of television networks currently operating in my country. Some of them are publicly owned, such as CBC News Network and TVO. Others are partially or completely financed with private money, including CTV News Channel and Global. But all view the world from a position well to the left of center.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t conservatives and libertarians working for, or appearing on, Canadian television. I’ve appeared on all these networks, and have been a weekly political pundit on CTV News Channel since March 2013. I have always been treated decently and fairly.

Many on Canada’s right desired the formation of a conservative network, however. They wanted to replicate the enormous success of Fox News in your country. As well, they hoped to further cultivate the right-leaning opinions that already thrive in the National Post and Sun Media newspapers, talk radio, various provincial governments, and the federal Conservative government.

Hence, SNN was seen as a potential right-wing white knight for Canadian TV.

It was the brainchild of Kory Teneycke, a former director of communication for Prime Minister Stephen Harper. It was owned by Pierre Karl Péladeau, CEO of Quebecor Inc. and the Sun Media chain (hence the network’s name). Many of the senior staffers had either worked for the Harper Tories or had some other connection to Canadian conservatism. 

SNN’s content was feisty, folksy, and thought-provoking. A number of hosts, including Ezra Levant, Michael Coren, and Brian Lilley, were well known in Canada and abroad. There were many provocative guests, including some of the fine folks at National Review. (I appeared on some of its shows myself a few years back.)

It’s important to note, as did Jonathan Kay, editor-in-chief of The Walrus, that “the majority of Sun’s staffers were apolitical twenty- or thirty-somethings looking to eke out a career in television.” A few pundits and guests even held liberal or left-of-center views, providing some semblance of balance and diversity.

So, what went wrong? There were a few things, alas.

First, SNN never made a dime. According to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), the network lost $17 million CDN in 2012 and $14.8 million CDN in 2013. Few people were willing to pay a bit extra to watch the network In the beginning, Mr. Péladeau readily absorbed these losses. This changed when the free-market, anti-union businessman successfully ran for provincial politics under, believe it or not, the banner of the left-wing, separatist Parti Quèbècois in 2014. When he decided to seek the party leadership, where owning a media company would be a conflict of interest, he agreed to sell his papers to the Postmedia Network (the sale still has to be approved) — but was unable to find a buyer for the unprofitable TV station. This meant SNN had to close.

Second, SNN never gained respect. It was dubbed “Fox News North” by the (mostly) left-wing critics who disliked its approach to reporting and analysis. The sets and graphics were often described as amateurish or Mickey Mouse–like. Attempts at humor, including Mr. Levant’s cutting down a tree on Earth Day, didn’t impress everyone. (The Globe and Mail’s TV critic, John Doyle, wrote, “If you’ve got a devilish sense of humour, it is the most hilarious news channel you’ve ever, ever seen. You want weird comedy? You got it by the bucketful with these people.”) It was even called “Skank TV” because its female hosts originally wore sleeveless, short dresses.

Third, SNN never acquired a real foothold in the industry. Its programs had an average viewership of around 8,000, which is low by Canadian standards. Occasional attempts to increase viewership — such as a charity boxing match between Liberal-party leader Justin Trudeau and then–Tory senator Patrick Brazeau, and a TV show featuring former Toronto mayor Rob Ford and his brother, Doug, that was canceled after one episode — didn’t succeed. SNN suffered as a consequence.

In its defense, SNN argued that Canadian broadcasting rules worked against it.

Larger TV networks have received tens of millions of taxpayer dollars through a twofold arrangement: mandatory carriage by cable and satellite companies (the CBC benefited from this), and a per-subscriber fee paid by those companies to the networks. Smaller TV networks received, you guessed it, nothing. It also didn’t help that SNN was at the far end of the TV dial, a netherworld that few regularly venture into.

SNN asked the CRTC in 2013 to be afforded mandatory carriage in an attempt to level the playing field. If you think it was strange that a right-leaning business asked for a government handout, you’re not alone. In all honesty, there wasn’t another viable option. Working within Canada’s flawed system was the only solution.

The request for mandatory carriage was denied in 2014. At the same time, the CRTC ruled that all cable and satellite providers had to start offering SNN, like other Category C national news channels, either on a standalone basis or in “the best available discretionary package consistent with their genre and programming.” (Before SNN’s battle with the CRTC began, it was being offered to reportedly only 40 percent of all Canadian households.) It was a small victory for the tiny network. But it was too little, too late.

SNN is gone, for good. So, the opportunity exists for another individual or group to start up a new small-“c” conservative network, right? Yes and no. The opportunity is there, but the funding is unlikely to ever be found again.

There are wealthy, right-leaning Canadians who would invest in a TV network that had the potential to be profitable. But there is no profit to be made. You would therefore need to find another individual like Mr. Péladeau, someone who would be willing to use a network as a vanity project. Sadly, the likely participants would have plenty of elbow room in a shoebox.

The same problem exists with international investors. Would an American businessman, consortium, or gadfly take a small stake in a Canadian TV network that is destined to lose money? Not a chance. Further, Canada has long had restrictive foreign-ownership regulations, and they haven’t been relaxed under this Conservative government.

When SNN closed its doors, Canadian TV took a hit. Roughly 200 people are out of work, and there are fewer jobs in this industry than ever before. A unique voice has been silenced, meaning certain stories and opinions won’t be readily discussed. The “same old, same old” crowd has already claimed victory.

Meanwhile, Canadian conservative punditry has entered into a temporary restructuring period. I’m still around, along with fellow right-leaning pundits like Gerry Nicholls, Tasha Kheiriddin, Tim Powers, Alise Mills, Marni Soupcoff, and Keith Beardsley. Ex-SNN hosts and guests will eventually regroup and rejoin us, too.

Yet, it won’t be the same. It can’t be the same. And, like it or not, it will never be the same.

— Michael Taube is a Toronto-based columnist for the Washington Times and a former speechwriter for Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.


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