It was like watching Mr. Dressup walk into someone’s house, wreck a child’s crafts and become really impatient with the family dog.
We all enjoy Republic of Doyle, but what, if one day, Allan Hawco were suddenly to turn ugly and move to Vancouver? I bet you’d watch.
What the Sun News Network offered us this week while making its case to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission was the equivalent of an episode of The Littlest Hobo in which the German shepherd suddenly stopped helping people and started eating them.
It was like watching Hinterland Who’s Who and, 15 seconds into the spot, having the beaver start dismantling its lodge and planting trees.
Sun News is fighting for its survival. The two-year-old network, currently available to 5.1 million households (40 per cent of all Canadian homes), is drawing an average of merely 7,900 viewers at any given time, is projected to lose $19.5-million next year and is in the midst of asking the CRTC to grant it a lifeline in the form of mandatory carriage.
This means an ideologically right-wing news organization is asking a governmental regulatory body to force private businesses, in the form of television providers, to carry it in their basic packages – thus demanding that cable subscribers pay for a channel whether they want to watch it or not.
“And why does Sun News Network believe the CRTC should do this?” you might ask.
“Is this not the same Sun News Network whose vice-president, Kory Teneycke, complained in a 2010 commentary in the Sun chain’s newspapers that mandatory carriage was ‘tantamount to a tax on everyone’ with cable or satellite service?” You wonder, because you are very well read.
“Is it not a bit surreal that we should be forced to pay for a television station that devotes much of its airtime to complaining that we are forced to pay for another television channel, the CBC, which we watch in far greater numbers?” You demand to know, because you spend a lot of time thinking about Canadian broadcasting regulation.
Well, the Sun News representatives explained, the CRTC should grant them increasingly difficult-to-obtain mandatory carriage status because, without this government assistance, the network cannot survive as a business, and also because Canadian content is inherently good for us.
Just as there are no atheists in a foxhole, there are apparently no free-market capitalists in a financial black hole, and the people at Sun News cannot spread the blame for their poor ratings thin enough. They are confident that their inability to capture more of an increasingly fractured market has nothing to with their product.
They seem convinced that their poor ratings do not stem from the reality that theirs is a news channel that has very limited capability to do remotes, or that CTV and CBC, their competitors, have broadcast affiliates that can bring them local video, or that a customer will visit a news channel and find no news there only a few times before he instinctively goes elsewhere when news breaks.
Yet it blames its low ratings in large part on the fact that it has frequently, though not always, found itself high on the dial, with the likes of HBO.
Possibly the secret to HBO’s success has been that it targets a demographic capable of remembering three consecutive numbers.
Until this week, I would have said Sun News’s most compelling contribution to Canadian TV came when Ezra Levant, host of The Source, apologized, tardily, for a diatribe against the Roma, whom he had called “gypsies, a culture synonymous with swindlers,” who “come here to gyp us again and rob us blind, as they have done in Europe for centuries.”
When making its case to the CRTC, his network stopped short of claiming that “gypsies” had spirited away its audience. There was no pure fantasy in the presentation, just a complete betrayal of almost everything for which Sun News has ever claimed to stand.
It was riveting. The plea for mandatory carriage was some of the most gripping, if occasionally hilarious, Canadian programing ever aired.
As it turns out, the total abandonment of core principles makes for great television.
In the next episode, we find out whether the tactic has worked!
Clarification: A Saturday Focus column said that when it was announced that Osama bin Laden had been shot, Sun News did not break away from its recorded coverage of the royal wedding. The Sun network began broadcasting on the subject at 11:30 pm well past other news networks and five minutes before U.S. President Obama's news conference and the official announcement.