It may have been the most effective marketing campaign in the history of Canadian television.
Last year, when Quebecor Media Inc. applied to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission for a license to program an all-news channel with a right-wing slant, critics reacted as if Canada itself were under attack. Petitions were signed about the intellectual dishonesty of the channel's U.S. inspiration, Fox News Network, and its Republican executives. Conspiracy-minded columnists ululated in well-meaning newspapers. Blogs were filled with acres of keening.
All of which played perfectly into Quebecor's positioning of Sun News Network as a voice that would represent those oppressed by what one of its founders, echoing Sarah Palin, dismissed as "the lamestream media."
So when it launches Monday afternoon, we can finally begin to figure out whether Canada actually wants an all-news channel that believes the formula for financial and ratings success includes a U.S.-style culture war.
While this country has a more vibrant daily newspaper culture than the United States, the range of mainstream voices in Canada is narrower, especially on radio and television. Sun Media submitted research to the CRTC during its application process showing that Americans spend 50 per cent more time watching all-news channels than the average English Canadian. If the U.S. experience is any indication, Sun News will find an impassioned audience and help create a more raucous and wide-ranging national dialogue. But it may also poison that dialogue.
Fifteen years ago, many Americans felt their appetite for all-news programming was well-served by CNN and its regional equivalents. But Fox News, which launched less than a month before the 1996 re-election of U.S. President Bill Clinton, tapped into - and, in turn, helped crystallize - an inchoate rage among those Americans who felt their government and media outlets were out of touch. Fox now regularly enjoys a prime-time audience more than twice the size of CNN's.
And MSNBC, which launched a few months before Fox, finally found its own formula for success on the other side of the political spectrum with hosts Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann, who rode anti-George W. Bush sentiment to impressive ratings.
Now, the U.S. cable-news spectrum is atomizing even further: Host Glenn Beck, who scored strong ratings for Fox but scared off advertisers with apocalyptic preaching and conspiracy theories, will leave that network later this year and find another media outlet. Meanwhile, Olbermann, who butted heads with NBC bosses after he donated to three Democratic campaigns, is about to take up a new on-air job at Al Gore's youth-oriented Current TV, which is expected to lean even more to the left than MSNBC.
Is there an appetite for that sort of TV in Canada? The audience for all-news programming is narrow to begin with: During an average minute of viewing, only about 65,000 people aged 25 to 54 in Canada tune in to one of the seven biggest channels (led by CNN, CBC News Network, CP24, and CTV News Channel).
Sun News Network is being cautious in its projections, telling the agencies who buy ad time on TV to expect only about 5,000 viewers (aged 25 to 54) during an average daytime quarter-hour, and perhaps only twice that during prime time. Even worse for Sun Media, the audience isn't expected to be those who are especially sought-after by advertisers: the highly educated or tech-savvy twentysomethings.
Which is why, for the time being, most ad buyers are sitting on the sidelines, wary of putting commercials for national brands next to programming that might be deemed controversial. The people who buy ad time on behalf of family-oriented products (food, packaged goods, clothing) operate by the dinner-party dictum: If you bring up religion or politics, you could risk offending a guest.
That, of course, would be manna for the new network. For in the topsy-turvy world that is Sun Media, perceived criticism is good news: It helps them claim that the world is out to oppress them (and, by extension, their readers and viewers).
Still, the flowering of opinion programming in the United States has had unexpected consequences. Fox News is the gift that keeps on giving to cable channel Comedy Central. Not only does The Daily Show With Jon Stewart regularly feast on the absurd comments of Fox's anchors (and those on MSNBC); Fox's marquee host, Bill O'Reilly, directly inspired The Daily Show's popular spin-off, The Colbert Report. Cable news has become the host in a parasitic politico-pop-culture ecosystem.
There may be room in the market for a smart Canadian broadcaster to step up with a homegrown version of those shows that makes hay of the Sun News offerings. For the time being, the ur- Daily Show, known in these parts as CBC's This Hour Has 22 Minutes, might even take some shots when it returns this fall. If that happens, and Sun News becomes a part of the wider conversation, it will have to figure out how it feels to be accepted, after a fashion, by the lamestream media.