02.25.2015 06:06 AM

In this week’s Hill Times: who killed Sun News Network?

TORONTO—The reasons why the Sun News Network failed are, by now, more or less well known. 

What’s less known is why it was allowed to fail. 

Full disclosure, as I join The Hill Times on a weekly basis: I was the House Bolshevik at the network. Alone among the conservatives, at the start, I endeavoured to provide a progressive point of view. It was never dull.  

I’d been ask to contribute to the fledgling venture in the summer of 2010 by Kory Tenecyke. Kory, with whom I’d worked on an environmental project a few years before, promised I would be allowed to say whatever I wanted to say, on-air and in the column I’d be writing for the Sun papers.  

He kept his word. From the start—and, later, when other progressives became regular contributors—Sun News Network was, indeed, a proponent of unfettered free speech.

But therein lay one of its problems. 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. And broadcast regulators—in particular the CRTC—started to see Sun News as more of an irritant than anything else. 

That was one of its big problems. Others: its ultimate owner, Pierre Karl Peladeau, jumped into politics after solemnly promising that he wouldn’t. Another problem: an unfair requirement that 80 per cent of its programming be original—something that neither CBC nor CTV had to do. Also, lousy terms dictated by cable providers. And—most of all—a distant perch on the TV dial, so that too many would say what my mother too often said: “Dear, I can’t watch you when I can’t find you.”

But all of that is ancient history. Sun News Network is gone, and it won’t be back. The reasons for its demise have been canvassed ad nauseum in the past 10 days. It died because it never had a chance. It died because not enough people could watch it, even if they wanted to. 

That’s what is known. What is less known is this: why would a Conservative Prime Minister let it die?

That, more than anything else, is what made me laugh the loudest, when conspiracy theorists would hiss that Sun News Network was an adjunct of the Prime Minister’s Office. “Oh, really? If Sun is so important to PMO, why would PMO let it die?”

And let it die it did. Canada’s Conservative (and conservative) government did nothing—zero, zippo, zilch—to help Sun News Network survive. 

That, to me, was puzzling. As a former special assistant to Jean Chrétien, I cannot tell you that my boss would have ever written a personal cheque to keep afloat The Toronto Star, were that Liberal-friendly newspaper ever to get into big financial trouble. But he (and Messrs. Pearson, Trudeau and Turner) would have done more—a lot more—than Stephen Harper and his colleagues ever did for Sun News Network. Which is, in sum, nothing. 

I would raise this with the conservative folks in the Sun News green room (which was really just a hallway). “Hey,” I’d say. “No Liberal politician would ever be dumb enough to let a pro-Liberal TV network fail just before an election campaign. Ever. What’s up with your Prime Minister?”

They’d shake their heads and gnash their teeth and rend their argyle garments. “You don’t understand Harper,” they’d say.

“You got that right,” I’d say.

It’s to the mutual credit of Sun News Network and Stephen Harper, I suppose: the former didn’t go, cap in hand, begging for help. And the latter didn’t ever provide any help.

But, as I say, it was weird. In political life, you don’t often get the chance to own your own printing press. But Stephen Harper did, and he didn’t care. Gave a Trudeau-esque shrug, and let Sun News die.

If Harper was ahead in successive polls by many percentage points, it might—might—be understandable. But he’s not. The polls show Harper and Justin Trudeau neck-and neck. In many circumstances, Ezra Levant may not be useful. But in a close election campaign, he probably could have been. 

Like I say: weird.  

It could be that Stephen Harper has some top-secret polls, showing him way, way ahead. Or his security/terror narrative is working really well (and it likely is), and he thinks he’s going to win big with it. 

But, when you are heading into the ring with an experienced boxer like Justin Trudeau, wouldn’t you want some extra help in your corner? I sure would. 

Stephen Harper didn’t. And, so, he let Sun News Network die. 

And the most-conservative Prime Minister—ironically enough—bears most of the blame for the failure of the most-conservative TV network. 

41 Comments

  1. Shakemyhead says:

    And here we go. The lefties know it all, are masters of everything and Harper is weird. Haven’t we heard this for years and yet he’s still around? The problem Kinsella is that free speech is the same for everyone, not more for lefties. And voting is the ultimate expression of free speech and for 10 years the voters have excercised their free speech option and given Harper a mandate and they probably will continue to do so. He doesn’t need the media, unlike JT Trudeau.

  2. hollinm says:

    An experience boxer like Trudeau. Give me a break. You and I both know he is not fit to be Prime Minister of this great country. He will be opposition leader after the next election.
    Perhaps and this is just a perhaps maybe Stephen Harper has more integrity than this Liberal or any other Liberal would give him credit for.

    • Ronald O'Dowd says:

      hollinm,

      First of all, welcome. I look forward to sparring with you courtesy of our host.

      Surely you would concede that is for the voters to render judgment on Justin’s fitness to be PM. Ditto as regards his personal integrity as opposed to that of the PM.

      They called Joe Clark a joke. He showed them — he got in even if only with a minority.

    • MississaugaPeter says:

      Integrity. Please, oh please, do not put Harper and that word in the same sentence unless you have also included the word NOT somewhere.

      Think Triple E Senate for starters.

      IMO Harper let it shutdown because of 1 of 3 or a combination of 3 reasons:

      1. PIERRE KARL PELADEAU. WK, you referred to it. I see it as much more severe. For many folks, supporting The Sun was equivalent to supporting a separatist. The moment PKP started flirting with the PQ I thought it was over. Harper was fearful that he would be tied with supporting a separatist.

      2. UNCONTROLLABLE. As FOX is a punchline in the United States, Sun News was a punchline in Canada. Harper knows that 60% is Centre-Left. Being associated with a punchline that 60% of the country despises and often made the right look bad, could actually hurt in an election. See Redford. A couple of crackpots in the Wildrose Party in the last week of a campaign changed the election result. A couple of Sun crackpots (not really, but they could say something crackpottery) could alter the next election’s result. Harper weighed the positives that all of us believe The Sun would provide and felt that they did not outweigh the possible negatives (at the end of an election campaign).

      3. BEING CALLED OUT. Along with uncontrollable, a right wing television station could call out Harper for not being Conservative enough. Sun News made Harper beholden to someone. By not being there anymore, he is not beholden to anyone and can refer to all media as a left-wing conspiracy. See The Star. When The Sun criticizes Trudeau, I am sure he just shrugs it off, however when Goer and The Star criticize him, it becomes a serious concern.

    • terence quinn says:

      The leading Tory troll seen in many many newspaper blogs and posts is here to tell us that Harper is really God and Trudeau is a devil. Same old same old, right Mervin Hollinsworth. Many of us do use our real names here as we are not ashamed of whom we support or who we are.

  3. Zing says:

    Why didn’t Harper intervene? Because nobody watched Sun News…those who did were already in his camp. So the only impact it could have on an election campaign was negative, with uncontrollable yahoos like Ezra Levant taking up a news cycle with bad press for Conservatives.

    • iceman says:

      Sun TV was basically only watched by the rabid right, a small voter segment that will always vote Conservative. This vote was not at risk when the Conservatives decided to not come to Sun TV’s rescue.

      The downside was that PM Harper has regularly stated (but not necessarily acted in accordance therewith) that the government should stay out of the way of private enterprise, and only intervene in the most extreme of cases. Had PM Harper stepped in, or even appeared to intervene, to save Sun TV, then opposing political opportunists could have, and would have, made his hypocrisy an issue. At risk for the Conservatives are the ~5%-8% of the voters that the Conservatives need the support of in the next election.

      Finally, your comments regarding the series of Liberal PM’s that would have no problem directing tax dollars for partisan (some might say fraudulent, given the context of using other people’s money for personal gain) purposes come as no surprise.

    • Africon says:

      Bingo.

      And to iceman’s point, there was more to lose than to gain by overtly supporting Sun not to mention that it never had a chance.
      Harper to his credit did very little that I could discern to destroy CBC despite the tendency of many to blame him for practically everything. They do not appear to need any help on that score.

      Frankly, on the few occasions that I did watch, I could not watch for long as the quality just was not there – nothing like BBC for example.

  4. Good points Warren, except for this. A true “conservative” believes in the free-market economy. While the government regulation of that economy left an uneven playing field between SNN and it’s compatriots, government intervention by Harper would be anti-conservative. That plus *some* members of the left would have howled over Harper doing something to save SNN. PKP has gone separatist, Quebecor is shedding it’s RoC properties and Harper doing something to help save the network, proclaimed by some, as a party “mouthpiece” for the Conservative Party. That would have given the left some fodder for headlines and maybe cost a point or two in a tight race between Harper and Trudeau. A point or two can mean government or opposition status.

    So in the tenants of the conservative free-market belief, there was nothing Harper could/should/would do.

    • Bill says:

      Buying a stake in GM and preventing Potash from being taken over showed long ago, that “free market” mantra means nothing to these “conservatives”

  5. Bill says:

    Business model was built on a faulty premise, that there were enough far right conservatives to keep that albatross afloat.

    Seems Ezra is getting as many views on YouTube so there will always be a venue for rants…interesting to see how/if he monetizes it.

  6. doconnor says:

    Its ratings where so low its values as a propaganda outlet wasn’t worth the financial or political costs to keep it running.

  7. edward nuff says:

    even Harper can take only so much free screech.

  8. Johnny B. Liberal says:

    Mr. Kinsella,

    PM Harper heads the Conservative Party of Canada, but he only calls himself ‘conservative’ when talking to his base.

    To other audiences, he calls himself ‘common-sense’ or ‘helper of the middle class’, those people “who work hard, play by the rules and pay their taxes”.

    But is he conservative?

    Like, when he shuts down debate on the definition of when life begins, which in Canadian law is completely nonsensical and Medieval, defined some 400 years ago as being when the infant’s last pinkie is fully extracted from her mother?

    Like, when he swears allegiance to conservative economic principles as espoused by Friedrich Hayek, then turns around and throws the government into over 100 billion of new debt through deficit spending courtesy of his Keynesian economic stimulus project, which funded everything from snowmobile trails to grants to the ever-needy mooch-class, who he once swore would be cut off from the government pork barrel once he became Prime Minister?

    Harper may have once been a conservative, but today, his only philosophy is to stay in power.

  9. Karl says:

    I have to agree with Zing. While I don’t have a profile of the viewership of Sun TV, I find it hard to believe that there was anyone watching it who was not already a committed voter. There may have been a few “progressives” watching for amusement, or to see how the other side thinks but they would be as unlikely to change their voting intentions as the overwhelming majority of committed Conservative viewers. The potential for an Ezra or similar to have a bozo eruption that could spilled mainstream media and bring the Conservative cause into disrepute was their most likely impact.

    The Sun newspaper chain has an influence that the TV network never had. First, they know a thing or two about loud, pointed headlines on the front page. That way they reached people passing by the boxes who would never buy the paper. More importantly, they are a source of sports and car info and bikini shots for the marginally literate and in the course of flipping to their pages of choice, these readers will see the headline, or the cartoon or pause on a column.

  10. James Smith says:

    The real prob?
    Boring TV.

  11. CanadianKate says:

    I agree with Zing. There was no upside to the PM ‘favouring’ Sun News and a lot of downside. And I’m surprised, Warren, that you’d advocate for the government to support the media to use as their mouth pieces. That should feed conservative trolls and the call to gut the CBC for a long time.

    I guess I’m progressive conservative. My leaning is to the right but I believe in a hand up, not leaving people behind and I believe in conserving (so logical ‘green’ endeavors that save me money, I’ll participate in, ones that encourage me to spend more in order to ‘save’ I don’t.)

    I stopped clicking on Sun TV links because it of the right-wing crazies on Sun. For the same reason, I don’t listen to talk radio. But I do try and find right of centre news sources to balance out the constant left of centre news I get from the big networks here in Canada.

    Since conserving money (and time) is important to me, I had no access to Sun TV on the tv since I only use OTA. For me, I’ll pocket the money and avoid wasting time watching mindless crap on TV. I do suspect their location on the dial probably led to their demise (given that they seem to be talk radio with pictures, and that seems to be doing well.) And given, for example Bell owns CTV, moving Sun to a spot where they may pick up more viewers was a risk to Bell’s economic well-being. I thought the CRTC was to balance such market power.

    So I do feel Sun didn’t have the opportunity to fail on a level playing field. It might have failed anyway (perhaps right wing madness doesn’t translate to TV, just as left-wing talk radio fails), but it never had a fair chance.

    Still the PM did the correct thing by staying out of the fray. I can point to that as an example of his principled behaviour and this post as an example of why the Liberals shouldn’t be allowed back into power. The goal for them is always access to the public purse to not only help others but to help themselves and often the latter is the primary outcome.

    • ben burd says:

      ” balance out the constant left of centre news I get from the big networks here in Canada.”

      Please qualify this statement, otherwise you are just an ideologue rather then reasoned.

      • CanadianKate says:

        It is impressions.

        My best example is how shocked people were that GW Bush won his second term. Everything I had been reading online led me to believe it might happen. Everything I read in the main stream media led me to believe he was going to lose big time.

        I have the same reaction to elections in Canada. My online communities indicate people are voting for the Cons. The main stream media normally indicates the Cons have no chance.

        In a more recent story, in the case of the Loon Lake fire, this is the quote I read in the first report, from talk radio (which I’ll assume is right wing, but don’t know this station for sure – source is Newstalk 650)

        “Band councillor Dean Mitsuing lives just a few hundred feet away from where the blaze happened. When he woke up that morning, his heart sank.

        “I was overwhelmed with worry and everything else because they are our neighbours. They live probably 300 feet from my house,” Mitsuing said.

        “My dogs were barking last night in the house — and they kept barking around 1 a.m. and I put them outside and I didn’t think anything about it until this morning. I looked over and saw the house was burnt and I contacted the chief and we went over and consoled the family.”

        A house burns 300 feet away and he was unaware despite being responsible for the community. I never saw this referred to in CTV or CBC. Plenty of blame for the smaller village’s decision to withdraw services weeks ago over unpaid bills and coverage of a call for a ‘Good Samaritan’ bill requiring them to respond. But little news at all about the huge amount of money paid to the elected band members, especially compared to the amount paid to the Loon Lake Mayor and council.

        That slant makes it look like Loon Lake is at fault or worse, racist. The federal government is being criticized for not providing funding, despite providing a lot of money. The band had a fire engine but claims they didn’t know how to use it because they bought it but weren’t taught how to use it. I have yet to see a CBC article seriously questioning the band and their management of money, but have seen many with the focus on how everyone else let the First Nations down and now two babies are dead.

  12. h holmes says:

    This is interesting.

    I have wondered the same about the courts.
    The supreme court is his now. (Appointed most judges).
    Yet the courts have become a libertarian dream. From the senate, to prostitution to the right to die, to unions ability to strike.

    His tax and medicare policies and dealings with the CRTC also fit into that same narrative.

    He has remade Canada in many ways in the last 8 years, I don’t think many have caught on.

    From what I see he always errs on the side of libertarian values.

    I think that is his secret weapon and what he hopes will win him another majority.

  13. graham watt says:

    “This Prime Minister resembles the character Ian Holm plays in Stanley
    Tucchi’s film Big Night, saying to Tucchi; “You can give them what they
    want. Then later you can give them what you want”. Later he says; “I can be
    anyone I need to be”.

    I think this is the great strength of Harper. He is a values chameleon, unhampered by any ethical or moral certainties and thus free to be anyone he wants. Of
    course in doing this he has in effect cancelled out any idea of himself because he is in effect no one at all but our own cravings and fears.

  14. Étienne says:

    Harper likes to say that the media in general are against him, despite the fact that they largely endorsed him in the last two campaigns. That’s quite a useful narrative for him. Especially as his party has apparently developed very efficient direct-to-supporter communications tools. Could it be that the death of Sun News helps him with that angle?

  15. Tiger says:

    The PM has been flexible in applying his principles, but saving Sun News would have been a bridge too far.

    Mandatory carriage is an affront to freedom of commerce, and the Sun’s campaign for it became ridiculous.

    Subsidies are anathema.

    They had to be allowed to fail, even though it was painful to see.

    • GFMD says:

      If by “painful”, you mean satisfying and extremely amusing, then I agree 100%

      • Tiger says:

        Oh, I don’t know.

        I didn’t like their product much (and that’s part of their problem — I should’ve been a customer!), but I certainly didn’t enjoy seeing people — some friends — lose their jobs in this economy.

  16. Louis says:

    Something that is not mentioned in this column: some (dare I say many?) Conservative supporters (at least the more level-headed ones) probably cringed when they saw some of the content on Sun News.
    I mean you can be a Harper supporter and not like the stunts Ezra was pulling. Let’s give credit to Conservatives: they are not all Sun News supporters.

  17. Lance says:

    One of two things, sort of related –

    1) Harper believes in a free market, so much so that even a right leaning media company giving him favorable coverage should go under if it cannot survive on it’s own merits. I find it curious though that constant bleating from the C(c)onservative base to privatize the CBC or sell it off in order to “level the playing field”, he has instead left the CBC pretty much alone, despite making cuts to it.

    Or……….

    2) Having a right wing media glut allows him to pander to the C(c)onservative base by lamenting that “now, more than ever, we need more of YOUR money to help carry our message forward”.

    • Darren says:

      Direct attacks against the CBC don’t play well in urbanized Quebec and Ontario so they’d have to go about it another way – shift CBC funding to a subscriber model (HBO, netflix, cravetv, etc), eliminate must-carry and require service providers to provide per-channel subscriptions. They can call it customer choice – which plays well everywhere. Make it so that the consumer only pays for what they want and if that means other networks suffer, well that’s how it goes. By letting SNN go under, the Conservatives insulate themselves against criticism if other channels suffer “Hey, we’re not targeting the CBC, after all, we let our own SNN die, remember?”
      I don’t think Harper could have done anything politically to save SNN that wouldn’t have ended up blowing up in his face. He can, however, use the death of SNN to advance other priorities.

  18. davie says:

    Who knows, maybe the PMO kept the effort going longer than it should have lasted. Certainly the petroleum producers chipped in their share of ad revenues. I think ,though, that sneer tv has limited appeal.
    Anyway, the political message is still carried on televangical programmes on other channels.
    I watched these Sun guys from time to time, to see what the PMO wanted us to fear and loathe
    In this era of remotes, I am not sure what channel number a network has is very important. I would often pop from rt (505) to CBCNews(70) to CNN(17) to Sun (177) without even putting down my hot chocolate.
    I thought the crtc decision pretty important.
    They did a fair job on talking heads opinion pieces, although, they sure found a lot of bitter people to talk to. I didn’t like all that white man’s burden stuff, but they were clear about it. Some of Suntv docs were okay…completely biased in favour of affluence and power, but they were clear, and I thought it was okay to get that point of view.

    Somehow, I don’t think this ‘voice’ is done yet. I think we are in a time of the powerful maintaining a healthy level of hatred, fear and anger among the proles, so propagation of what SUNTV propagated ain’t done yet.

  19. wsam says:

    The problem with presenting Sun News as the ideological flip side of the CBC is that the analogy is ridiculous. A more proper analogy would be to compare an apple to a small worm parasitically burrowing itself into that apple.

    The CBC at its core is an old-fashioned public service broadcaster with a Canada-wide mandate. Sun News produced entertainment. It was more akin to Bravo or The National Geographic Channel. Worse for Sun News, it depended on the CBC for its product. It was reactionary in the word’s most literal sense. Sun News was as if Rick Mercer was a millionaire’s son and launched a network to attack the perceived enemies of inherited privilege. The CBC never depended on Sun News.

    The CBC’s journalism is a product. Like the BBC which inspired it, its journalism products are expected to be truthful and objective, however often they fall short of that ideal. It is an older, slightly outdated journalistic ideal which favours facts over opinions and investigation over slander. Sun News (as with Fox News in the US) existed to attack that objectivity, undermining it in favour of its own world-view. A world-view that is deeply subjective and dominated by private interest.

    Sun News real problem was not that it failed as a news broadcaster. It is that it failed as an entertainer. It was boring. Fox News may be vulgar, but it amuses. Sun News failed in this first and most important task. It was boring. And by not amusing, by not being memorable, for proving itself unable to insert itself into the national conversation, it had no practical use. For the Conservative Party it was an embarrassing failure because it failed in its primary goal: being relevant. They had to let it die.

  20. Elisabeth Lindsay says:

    Karl P. has plenty of cash of his own to support SNN. Guess he didn`t have much faith in it succeeding either.

    What, exactly, would you have wanted Harper to do?

  21. John Matheson says:

    Harper can’t be seen to support any kind of network over any kind of other. Even one which might be obsequious. Perhaps, he cannot be seen to support a Conservative network. Harper kind of has an ideology about non-interference in the market. It is TOTALLY Harper’s style to hang you out to dry.

    Let’s say the Fox Angle of conservative Political Blowhards debating is from the 85th percentile to the 95th percentile of the right wing. We can put the fascists and nazis from 95 to 100. The problem is that from the 85th to the 95th is a tiny number. Distribution of political attitudes is more or less along a bell curve. The fat part is in the middle. The highest number will say they are 50. In politics we all war over the 50s for votes. So from 85 to 95 would be a pretty small slice, which turned out to be say 8000 at any given time in the Canadian market. This was not enough to interest advertisers.

    As America’s political bell curve is skewed even further right, you will get a heavier distribution from 85 to 95. (look at the line from 0 (extreme left) to 100 (extreme right) as the X axis and the number of people at each position on the Y axis) The 8000 in Canada might translate to 120,000 US viewers for FOX (or even more) during a bad time, which is enough to keep the lights on. Even so, to stay alive, FOX has to play hard-ball with cable providers. Even they are not finding it easy.

    What Sun TV failed to do was be more of Sun TV and less of just Sun News. There are many things of interest to the conservative TV viewer, and politics is just one of them. If you look at the share of politics in the Sun newspaper compared to all the other stuff which is of more importance (sports, cars, comics, crosswords, classifieds) it is tiny.

    They tried to make a TV channel out of the least interesting part of the paper. News? We have all kinds of News networks, and we can only take an hour or two of those at maximum, if that.

    They could have made all kinds of interesting shows about what conservatives do as well as what they think. Fishing. Outdoor life in general. Sports vehicles. Sports in general. Cottage life. The video-casting could have taken a Moses Znaimer-style which would not have been expensive. Shows may even have attracted non-conservatives. They had an $18 million annual budget. They were not sufficiently imaginative.

    Also, they could have been more imaginative about working with corporations in terms of [gladly] providing settings and content. They had some brilliant advertising opportunities no one had the imagination to sell.

    With corporate adult supervision such as this there would not have been the eruptions, which, not being dealt with properly, caused a complete loss of face for the network.

    What Sun TV should have done was try to appeal from 50% to 95% on the right wing. It would have appealed to more people, who would have clamoured for favourable CRTC changes.

    • Louise Chartrand says:

      SunNN was essentially a pro-Conservative propaganda organ and a huge opponent of Islam. You can only take so much smearmongering you can tolerate before you turn it off and that’s why I turned SunNN off. It was to depressing to listen to all the non-stop political and religious ballyhoo!

  22. Louise Chartrand says:

    Warren opines:

    “… As a former special assistant to Jean Chrétien, I cannot tell you that my boss would have ever written a personal cheque to keep afloat The Toronto Star, were that Liberal-friendly newspaper ever to get into big financial trouble. But he (and Messrs. Pearson, Trudeau and Turner) would have done more—a lot more—than Stephen Harper and his colleagues ever did for Sun News Network. Which is, in sum, nothing.”

    “And the most-conservative Prime Minister—ironically enough—bears most of the blame for the failure of the most-conservative TV network.”
    ———————————————————————————

    Okay, now please tell us what Harper should have, could have, done to save SunNN?

    Should he have personally gone before the CRTC to ask for better treatment on the dial, or should he have offered them a government bailout with taxpayer’s dollars? What would Chrétien have done –“a lot more”– of if he were in Harper’s shoes?

    Please don’t leave us NNW viewers hanging in limbo, and thanks in advance for your insightful comments.

    • Warren says:

      Don’t be snotty.

      The government sets broadcast policy. CRTC implements it.

      Set, and implement, a policy that makes for more voices, not less.

      • Louise Chartand says:

        Okay, so tell us what Harper should have done to save SunNN?

        What “broadcast policy” should have been “set” to have avoided “the failure of the most-conservative TV network”?

        I’m not being “snotty”, just asking you to expand on your opinion.

  23. wsam says:

    No point is saving something which was failing to hit its marks.

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