Would mandatory carriage of Sun News Network be a victory for intolerance or for media diversity?
Sun News Network has applied to the CRTC for mandatory carriage on basic cable and announced it expects to run a $17-million loss in 2012. Critics have spoken against it and supporters have spoken for it. Does the network still have some growing up to do? Yes. But Justin Ling says it can't do that unless we give it a chance.
Ezra Levant is getting excited. He's going to take you through some information that the liberal media elite doesn't want you to see.
Blurry spreadsheets are being flashed on the screen, and Levant -- giddy -- is running down the items.
"$4,433 went to breakfast. That's awesome! No documentation! That's a lot of champagne and orange juice!"
We're looking at the Attawapiskat audit that was leaked during the rancorous Idle No More national debate. The conservative editorial line at Sun News lapped up the leak, using it as a smoking gun that the rest of the media was complicit in a conspiracy to shield Chief Theresa Spence from accountability.
You might be seeing a lot more of Sun's brand of anti-"media party" editorializing in the near future.
And, to borrow a phrase: that's awesome!
News came out Monday that Sun News Network, which lauds Levant as one of its poster children, is gunning for every TV set in the country that subscribes to basic cable, having applied to the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission for mandatory distribution.
The CRTC will decide its fate at hearings on April 23.
At present, Sun is available only to certain digital cable and satellite subscribers. An application filed to the CRTC in May would, if approved, force all television providers to carry Sun. That means both satellite and basic cable. What's more, they would be required to pay Sun a carriage fee of 18 cents per month, per subscriber. That, they say, is only about half the average fee and a quarter of what CBC News Network costs. (CBC News Network—then known as Newsworld—was given mandatory distribution in 2007 in French markets, and RDI in English markets at $0.15 and $0.10 per month, per subscriber, respectively. In their respective majority markets, where, due to changes in the CRTC license that came into effect in 2008, they nominally lost their must-carry status, the CRTC noted the costs as $0.63 and $1.00.)
Sun admits that it could use the money. It is currently getting about 6 cents per subscriber and facing $17 million in losses per year. As Sun News' Vice President Kory Teneycke tells J-Source, "that's unsustainable."
“We're not going to do another $17 million-a-year loss," he says.
Sun News has a compelling argument to make. They point out that they meet all CRTC criteria for a Canadian news network to be carried on basic cable packages -- they're all-Canadian, all-news and offer a marginalized viewpoint in the national media dialog.
If they do get mandatory carriage on basic cable and get their carriage fees approved, they will join only a handful of channels that have been given that privilege—parliamentary channel CPAC, the Aboriginal People's Television Network, and the Weather Network, to name a few. But the regulations under which they're applying for carriage put them in league with just two other channels—Bell's CTV News Network and, their arch-rival, CBC News Network, which each received the status when they launched.
"Sun News is not looking for something unique or strange," Teneycke says. "We just want the same thing."
Sun's application points out that their current subscription package -- one that makes them an optional part of some digital cable and satellite packages -- has actually declined since their launch, and points the finger at the conglomerate cable companies, who they say are trying to muscle out competition. They single out Rogers' replacement of the Toronto-area broadcast of Sun News with its own City News Network. They note, with some acidity, that City TV's ratings are much lower.
Sun News is currently only available in four out of 10 households, they contest, and that reality is hurting their viewership, their bottom line, and Canada's media landscape.
The wry application notes that currently, "Sun News is distributed like a third-rate foreign news service."
Media blogger Steve Faguy, in an email to JSource, says that Sun's reach is extending its grasp.
"It's highly unlikely Sun News will succeed in getting a must-carry status," he says. "Their best bet would be the CRTC reviewing the licensing system as a whole, and maybe removing privileges for channels like CTV News Channel and CBC News Network."
Yet the must-carry status for those two news networks were given the highly-coveted must-carry status straight out of the gate, the Sun application notes, though neither hold it today (except for CBC News Network in French-language markets, as previously noted). The requirements now stipulate, as Faguy puts it on his blog, for the prospective network to be "exceptional, and it has to be exceptionally Canadian." Sun says it meets that standard, and ought to have the chance to be put on even footing with Bell and the public broadcaster.
Sun's parent company, Quebecor, is covering its bases and calling in reinforcements. It hired Ensight lobbyist Michelle Mackenzie to push the government to step in and ask the CRTC for "mandatory distribution on analog and digital basic service," according to Canada's lobbyist registry. Teneycke says Mackenzie was hired on a consultation-basis, and that he doesn't expect the federal government to get involved in a CRTC decision.
"For better or for worse, our fate is in the hands of the CRTC," says Teneycke.
But he says they will be encouraging their supporters to get involved in the consultation process, and he expects their detractors to do the same.
In a rather blunt admission of their goals, the Sun application quotes American journalist Walter Lippmann on one of the first pages of the report:
"The theory of the free press is not that the truth will be presented completely in any one instance, but that the truth will emerge from free discussion."
Teneycke, citing the quote as one of his favourites, synthesizes it: "Balance comes from diversity."
I agree with Lippmann and Teneycke.
Sun News has oft found itself a whipping boy for the self-righteous, self-styled moderate, mushy middle of the Canadian journalist community—one this journalist has no qualms being a part of—but what has become evident in recent weeks is that sometimes you need the young, starry-eyed firebrand to shake things up.
When they first burst on the scene, there was—understandable—trepidation. The optics of Teneycke, the Prime Minister's former director of communications, launching a 24/7 news channel, admittedly, didn't inspire confidence.
Not to mention the questionable roster of on-air personalities, such as Michael Coren, former anchor for a Christian news channel, who has some history of arguably homophobic comments.
As Faguy wrote in a look at the network's inaugural year, Sun tended towards outrageous.
"Rather than trying to calmly and respectfully explain to me their position and defend it in a serious debate, [the commentators] shout their opinions out in the form of rants and ridicule, as if anyone who disagrees with their position is an evil, infantile moron who has no sense of reality."
Yet it seems difficult to fault the entire network for the occasionally objectionable statement from some of their highly opinionated hosts. Those hosts attract Sun’s—at times, considerable—audience. While CBC and CTV can brag high viewership perhaps thanks to the plethora of bank lobbies and dentists’ offices that turn to the basic cable news as white noise, Sun needs to work so much harder for its audience.
Yes, that sometimes comes in the form of a veritable clown car of eccentric talking heads that take a right or center-right viewpoint and explode it into political theatre. But that's what brings viewers to channel 506.
Even that theatre has proven its value.
"It's not simply lobbyists talking heads and MPs with stale talking points," says Teneycke. While the hosts might be conservative, he says, "the people that they're bringing on, like all good debates, are not of the same view."
Even Levant, who kicks off the primetime programming for the network, has professionalized a modicum from his burqa-wearing days. (He's using numbers now. Take it as a victory.)
Just like some of the other over-the-top voices on the network, Levant has moved towards reporting more on the news, and less towards creating it. When his show began, shouting and outlandish stunts were the mainstay of the program. Many of his shows now feature informative interviews, reasoned opinions and only the occasional buffonary—all, of course, in his own uniquely eccentric style. He's learned the hardest lesson for communications people who try to enter the media world: show, don't tell.
And that's what Levant has begun doing in his coverage of Idle No More. He frequently hits points and opinions being raised nowhere else in the media. You might not agree, but what else is the point of a free and open media if not to raise contrarian positions?
It seems like a newfound problem in Canada, where merely letting your ideological opponent speak is tantamount to conceding your point. Surely a debate is a good thing?
Alberta Diary and Rabble blogger David Climenhaga, riffing on the left's myriad of problems with Sun, argues that the "subsidy" the network is requesting would "directly subsidize hate and propaganda."
Climenhaga is, like many accuse Sun of doing, playing with facts and letting ideology cloud reason. The CRTC's mandatory carriage fees are industry regulations, not government subsidies -- as is implied.
And the idea that Sun is this cavern of racism and sloppy journalism just isn't supported by fact. It has had only four complaints investigated by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, which ruled against the broadcaster only once (due to a rather offensive Spanish-language slur by a gleeful Levant.) No on-air personality has been found guilty of infracting any hate speech laws during their tenure at Sun (though a Levant broadcast on the Roma people in September prompted an apology from the network and an investigation).
The other prominent argument that critics have put forward is that giving Sun carriage is a slippery slope. First Sun, some have hypothesized, soon: Nazis!
That's absurd, of course. As far as this journalist can tell, Sun News is only the third application for this type of mandatory carriage to ever meet the all-Canadian, all-news requirements. If some neo-nazis can amass the millions in capital to produce up-to-date news every 120 minutes, maintain 100 per cent Canadian content, prove a demand for their product, and meet the CBSC guidelines, then we can cross that bridge when we come to it.
Critics also challenge that Sun is too much commentary, not enough news. Looking at their financial statements, that's no surprise. The network expects to spend $2.6 million on its opinion shows this year. Compare that to the $8.3 million that their news division costs.
Broadcasting on basic cable brings with it advertising revenue. That advertising revenue leads to more professional shows, more researchers, more investigative reporting, and—ideally—less talking head commentary. If CBC News were relegated to the fringes of the satellite networks, no doubt many more hours of their programming would involve Kevin O'Leary yelling at poor people.
Nevermind the priceless power of public scrutiny that comes along with a larger audience that is sure to join Sun if they make it on basic cable.
The opposition appears to want to inject politics and ideology in a regulatory process, the same one that gave the Aboriginal People's Television Network their place of deserved privilege. That's unfortunate.
And critics seem too transfixed with Levant's show -- worse yet, only the especially-controversial 2-minute clip they see posted on Facebook every couple of weeks. So much so that they ignore the real journalism going on at Sun.
Sun has made the effort to cover events—such as the Saskatchewan and Manitoba elections—that nobody else wants to. They have brought on insightful and educated guests that the other networks don't make use of. They have made real broadcast reporters from their previously green-horn print journalists. They have made good use of their intrepid journalists like the maddeningly-competent David Akin and fantastically-professional Kristy Kirkup. Overall, they've shown their commitment to journalism—even if it is bookended by some, at times, bombastic rhetoric.
Yet now that Sun has begun to get past some expected growing pains, they're still finding themselves in the Rodney Dangerfield conundrum -- they can't get any respect.
Does Sun News still have some growing up to do? Yes. But they can't do that unless we give them a chance.
Levant once granted me an interview—an email exchange, given, but written during a flight where he could have otherwise been sleeping. Levant offered a well thought-out, lengthy responses to my contrarian-styled questions, and even sent back two rounds of follow-up answers. Sure, he was slightly rude. (After learning I was freelance: "Get a confirmed gig or stop wasting my time.") But, at the end of the day, he was willing to engage.
And engage, we should.
Sun News Network's application