The future of Sun News Network is in jeopardy after the CRTC refused to grant the channel mandatory carriage status, though the regulator is offering a few concessions.
The decision on mandatory carriage isn’t much of a surprise. Sun News, which debuted in 2011 and is owned by Quebecor Inc., previously applied for the status along with more than a dozen other stations. Had it been successful, broadcast distributors would be required to include Sun News in basic cable subscriptions—whether or not customers wanted to pay for the conservative-leaning network.
As I wrote earlier this year, the prospects were dim from the start. The CRTC is moving toward a consumer-friendly approach, especially under current chairman Jean-Pierre Blais. The regulator is reluctant to reduce choice and impose additional fees on consumers (even if, in the case of Sun News, that fee would amount to just 18 cents monthly per subscriber). Mandatory carriage, meanwhile, is reserved for channels that make an “exceptional contribution to Canadian expression” and reflect “Canadian attitudes, opinions, ideas, values and artistic creativity.” Blais reiterated this point before the review hearings in April, saying he would set a “high bar” for those seeking the hallowed status.
Still, Sun News vice-president Kory Teneycke (a former communications director for Stephen Harper) did his best to convince Blais the station was worthy. He emphasized the 96 hours of original programming on Sun News, and pointed out that the channel expressed viewpoints not seen elsewhere in mainstream media. (There’s a good reason why you don’t ordinarily come across some of those views, by the way.) Teneycke also groused that broadcast distributors weren’t playing fair, relegating Sun News to a lousy spot on the dial or refusing to carry it at all, thereby preventing the fledgling channel from finding a wider audience.
It’s that last point that’s caught the interest of the CRTC. The regulator announced it will review how news services are carried, and recognized that some channels are at a disadvantage. “We are concerned that, under existing rules, Canadian news services are not being given a pride of place in our broadcasting system,” said Blais.
The CRTC noted that “there is merit to the arguments raised by Sun News regarding the barriers to entry when launching a national news service and that these barriers constitute a significant obstacle to the exchange of ideas.” The regulator also agreed that the distribution Sun News enjoys is less favourable than that of some foreign news outlets, and wrote that distributors “should give priority to the carriage of Canadian programming services.”
What this suggests is Sun News may yet get some help from the CRTC. The regulator is seeking public feedback on whether distributors must, at the very least, offer all Canadian national news channels to their subscribers. Telus and Manitoba Telecom Services, for instance, do not carry Sun News at all. Under the proposed framework, every broadcaster would be compelled to offer subscribers a choice. It’s not as good as mandatory carriage as far as Sun News is concerned, but the change would address one of its complaints. The CRTC is also suggesting news services be bunched together on the dial, so that distributors can’t kick channels belonging to competitors into the stratosphere. Sun News accused Rogers Communications, owner of Canadian Business, of doing exactly that.
While the ultimate outcome of the review is uncertain, the CRTC is at least promising to move relatively quickly. Sun News can’t afford much delay. Teneycke emphasized repeatedly during the hearings that anything other than mandatory carriage would be a “death sentence” for Sun News. The channel disclosed in its application an operating loss of $17 million in 2012, and projected further losses for years to come. Quebecor’s other media properties certainly aren’t faring well, either. Quebecor has axed hundreds of jobs and shut down numerous papers in its Sun Media print division as advertising revenue tumbles. The company is unlikely to pump money into an unprofitable television station indefinitely.
Even under the CRTC’s new proposal, Canadians would still have to choose to subscribe to Sun News, and it’s also worth asking just how many more viewers are waiting in the wings. As Carleton University’s Christopher Waddell told me previously, Sun News is “largely a network of people talking, rather than people showing you things, and there’s limited appeal for that in an environment that’s already flooded with people talking.”
Pierre Karl Péladeau, now vice-chairman at Quebecor, claimed in 2010 that Sun News represented the “dawn of a new era for Canadian news media.” There were concerns at the time that Sun News was some kind of nefarious attempt by Péladeau to push Canadian political opinion farther to the right, especially because of Teneycke’s involvement, which earned the channel the nickname Fox News North. But the cold, calculating eye Péladeau appears to be taking with the channel suggests that’s not the case, and he won’t keep it afloat for any kind of personal reason. For Péladeau, the launch of Sun News would seem to be primarily a business decision—and it’s looking like a regrettable one, at that.