Sun News has used some unconventional methods to ensure that millions of viewers have access to its brand of right-leaning news and punditry – even if few of them actually watch it.
But the 24-hour news channel is about to abandon the strategy that gave it a preferred access to more than three million Canadian TV screens, according to documents submitted to the federal broadcast regulator.
The channel's parent company, Quebecor Media Inc. , took an unprecedented step when it launched the specialty cable service. It pushed Sun News programming to the free airwaves, using a broadcast licence it acquired in 2004. Normally, specialty cable channels are available only to those with a cable and satellite subscription, for a fee.
The move guaranteed that Sun News could be seen by prospective subscribers in major cities in Ontario after its launch. It also gave Sun News on a good placement low on the channel dial, where its broadcast network used to reside. In the meantime, Quebecor began to negotiate the carriage deals with major TV providers such as Shaw Communications Inc. and BCE Inc.
Quebecor's strategy kicked up a fuss in the television industry. BCE has argued the company is trying to have it both ways, guaranteeing universal reach to audiences while also asking for subscriber fees, as a regular specialty channel would. But now Quebecor is changing course, telling the CRTC in a letter that it will give back its over-the-air broadcasting licence.
The decision means that at the end of October, free access for Sun News will end (except in Ottawa, where this will happen at the end of August, for administrative reasons). Like other specialty stations, Sun News will then be seen only on cable, satellite and Internet TV services that have made a deal with the company to carry the channel.
A few months after Sun News's launch, the CRTC took up this issue with Quebecor. In a July 5 letter the CRTC told the company it would have to defend the practice of using an over-the-air signal to promote a specialty station.
"Commission staff notes that the programming broadcast on Sun News Network, a specialty service, and [the over-the-air network]… is identical. At the renewal of the [over-the-air network] Quebecor should expect to be asked to demonstrate why this is the best use of the radio spectrum," the CRTC wrote.
Rather than arguing for the over-the-air licence to be renewed, Quebecor replied in a letter on July 15 that it would give the licence back to the CRTC.
It also means that Sun News will no longer be able to market itself by being visible to all viewers in Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton, Ont., and London, Ont., and will appear only on TV services with whom Quebecor has reached deals to carry it. That includes western cable giant Shaw Communications Inc. and the cable service Quebecor owns, Vidéotron Ltée.
One notable absence on that list is Bell TV, the most vocal critic of the Sun News broadcast-specialty hybrid. In May, Bell yanked Sun News from its satellite service at Quebecor's demand when Bell refused to pay the subscriber fee requested for the channel.
Cogeco Cable Inc. and Rogers Communications Inc. both carry Sun News for the moment as a local broadcast signal. If it does not have a specialty agreement in place by the end of October with those two carriers, that would represent a hit to its ratings.
Ratings numbers released by the company in June indicate that in the first six weeks of the network, Sun News drew an average of 12,900 viewers, and an average of 25,400 between 5 p.m. and 11 p.m..
Quebecor executives declined to comment for this story.