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The Globe and Mail

Sun News warns regulator its survival at stake

Sun News Network's survival depends on being included in every Canadian television subscription, and its executives warned Tuesday that anything short of that would be the end of its "hard news by day, straight talk by night" news network.

The two-year-old network's executives appeared before the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to make its case for mandatory carriage, which comes with guaranteed subscription fees and higher advertising revenues that could help the channel recover from $17-million of losses a year.

The channel wants to be in every home – whether the occupants want it or not – and said nothing less would save it from its losses. This is called mandatory carriage, and is a rarely used designation intended to get channels that offer unique programming into homes.

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Normally, channels negotiate with television providers to include their channel to subscribers. The commission could force those providers to offer it to their subscribers, in a compromise that would guarantee Canadians could find the channel if they wanted it but wouldn't force them to subscribe.

But vice-president Kory Teneycke said that wouldn't be enough to save the network, because many of the television companies have news channels of their own and don't treat Sun fairly when it comes to placement on the dial and when it comes to paying for the signal.

"They'll pay us only a small fraction of what they are paying themselves for their own news channels of similar nature," he said. "We have to be able to put our product in front of Canadians, and competitors have no interest in seeing that happen."

The channel said rival news networks from CBC and CTV were given mandatory carriage when they were launched, but chairman Jean-Pierre Blais warned its executives that the broadcast world has changed considerably since those licences were issued.

"The rules more and more over the last 20 years are market driven," he said.

Canada's broadcast regulator received 6,963 complaints about Sun News, but the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council found it only acted inappropriately in two cases (both findings centred on marquee host Ezra Levant). And 6,676 of those complaints were about an interview between former host Krista Erickson and choreographer Margie Gillis that didn't lead to a finding of fault.

The news channel's bid for mandatory carriage drew a great deal of interest in the public comment phase (Mr. Blais said the application was "good for the CRTC's ratings"), but Mr. Blais warned the commission wasn't interested in weighing in on the channel's editorial policies.

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He couldn't resist, however, and asked if the channel actually considered itself a producer of news. He also asked if the channel's problems had less to do with its struggle with distributors and more to do with a lack of interest from viewers.

"You consider yourself to be a news and public affairs service, right?" he asked. "Even though, in your own words, you are edgy and opinion driven. Perhaps you'd like to talk about that."

Mr. Teneycke said the channel's programming is "similar to what you'd find on Fox or CNN Headline News," as he defended the channel's approach.

"We're hard news by day, straight talk at night," he said. "It's in a manner in which cable television is evolving around the world and Canadian audiences are responding strongly to that format."

The channel said it is attracting about 14,000 viewers during prime time, and is in about 40 per cent of Canadian homes. Mr. Teneycke said that number would increase if it received mandatory carriage, adding that it would also like its channel to be placed lower on the dial than any non-Canadian news channels.

"They are putting channels like ours in nether regions and moving it with some regularity, whereas other channels are given very preferential treatment," he said. "We'd like to be lower than 33, cause that's where CNN is. That's where we think it is appropriate to be."

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The hearing continues till the end of next week, and intervenors will speak for and against the bid. Sun News gets to respond at the end of next week, and there is no deadline set for a decision from the commission.

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