Ever since The Globe and Mail cut back on the number of comic strips in the paper, breakfast time has been a little quieter around my house. But there was lots to chuckle about this week after the Sun News Network, a rabid critic of government intervention, announced it needed the government’s help to survive.
The disclosure came in a request for what’s known as “mandatory carriage,” which meant Sun is asking the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to force every cable, satellite, and IPTV service (such as Telus’s Optik and Bell Fibe) to carry the channel, and charge each subscriber about $4 a year to do so. It’s a stark and embarrassing about-face for the network: In the fall of 2010, its vice-president, Kory Teneycke, wrote an op-ed in the Sun newspapers insisting that asking for mandatory carriage “would be tantamount to a tax on everyone with cable or satellite service.”
The humour was obvious, and manifold, and rich with schadenfreude, especially to the many enemies Sun has made with its occasionally noxious content since hitting the air in April, 2011. But the truth behind Sun’s request isn’t very funny at all. Which is why even the network’s critics should consider supporting the bid.
Sun says it needs the CRTC to step in because it is having difficulty getting its programming in front of Canadians, and is therefore losing about $17-million a year. Playing their usual victim card, many of the network’s hosts have spent long stretches of airtime this week hinting of a conspiracy to silence their voices, and saying they just want to be treated the same as CBC and CTV.
As with most utterances from Sun, that’s about 20 per cent true and 80 per cent self-serving nonsense. CBC Newsworld and CTV Newsnet did indeed benefit from mandatory carriage when they were launched (in 1989 and 1997, respectively); but the Canadian broadcasting universe is a drastically different place now, defined by a multiplicity rather than a scarcity of voices, which is one reason those other channels no longer have the special status.
In fact, most of the major cable and satellite companies, including Bell, Rogers, and Shaw, carry Sun News Network: It is already seen in 5.1 million homes, about 40 per cent of the market, which is more than the network itself projected in its original business plan. (Telus and MTS are the biggest holdouts.) Still, the network is having a lot of difficulty marketing itself to viewers, in part because its channel placement is all over the dial: Mr. Teneycke told me in an interview this week that it is carried in three different spots on Shaw lineups in British Columbia, depending on the cable package. Sun says that’s one reason only about 16,400 people are watching in an average minute.
Many people have laughed heartily over a free-market champion suffering at the hands of a free market. But Canada’s TV distribution system is nothing close to a free market. It is a government-regulated oligopoly in which independent programmers can only reach their audiences through a few large players who – to make matters worse – happen to have channels that directly compete with those indies.
“The government is the middleman in almost every commercial transaction in the country today,” said Mr. Teneycke, citing laws prohibiting foreign ownership of companies in many industries. “And we can debate, as we do on Sun News, whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. But it doesn’t change the reality that the market we’re operating in is a heavily regulated market in which the principal players that you’re having to use to distribute your product are inherently in conflict.”
He acknowledged wryly that even Sun’s owner, the media giant Quebecor Inc., is sometimes in conflict. (It owns Vidéotron Ltée, the dominant cable system in Quebec.)
“We are part of the market as it exists today, not as we would like it to exist.”
In other words, Sun is arguing that we should hate the game, not the player. (Or, it would be arguing that if its prime-time lineup weren’t exclusively middle-aged white guys.)
Still, Sun’s point is an important one that was echoed elsewhere on the ideological spectrum this week. In another application to the CRTC, the multifaith, multicultural-oriented Vision TV, which has enjoyed mandatory carriage for 25 years, says it would be in “serious jeopardy” if it lost that source of revenue. Furthermore, Vision argues that the industry’s recent consolidation and the vertical integration that has permitted companies such as Bell and Rogers to buy their own channels (CTV and City, respectively), has “placed all leverage and bargaining power within the hands of a select few.” And so, says Vision, “the ONLY way for an independent broadcaster … to remain an important alternative point of view and voice for Canada is through CRTC intervention and regulation.”
Sun News’s owners run the largest newspaper chain in the country. They hold large investments in every known media platform. And yet, even with all of that market muscle, they have not yet been able to exert enough pressure to land stable placement on some lineups, or any placement on others. Those of us who hold out hope for a true multiplicity of voices – or, say, a true left-leaning news and opinion channel, which Canada lacks – should think about supporting Sun this time around.
Even if there’s no chance Sun would ever do the same in return.