At 5 a.m. yesterday, the screen went dark for Sun News Network.
There was not one on-air announcement before the Sun TV logo appeared on the screen, eventually being replaced with notices from distributors that the channel has ceased operation.
News of the closure leaked online before the formal letter was sent to the 150 full-time employees and 50 contributors Friday. In the letter, Sun Media Corporation President Julie Tremblay insisted that “every possible effort was made…to generate the profits needed to operate a national news channel.”
Now, the future of these 200 employees is trending on social media, and not many comments are supportive.
“Sun News was not ‘centre right,’ or ‘provocative.’ It was histrionic garbage, with a dash of daily racism,” tweets journalist Denise Balkissoon. To pile on the shame, a Canadaland headline read, “Everyone at Sun News Deserved to be Fired.” In the article Omar Mouallem writes, “It doesn’t matter how many people lost their jobs or how many young and talented journalists Sun News Network took a chance on. Everyone who accepted a cheque from the network was complicit in spewing its hatred.”
Was Sun News a highly combative television network? Yes. Were its “fact-based” reports laden in opinion on contentious issues (like the home-grown extremism and misspending on Aboriginal reserves)? Yes. But is it fair to say that 200 hard working journalists deserved to lose their jobs on Friday? Absolutely not.
Quebecor launched Sun News network on April 18, 2011, and billed it as a patriotic alternative to existing Canadian TV news. But the network had a tumultuous run, quickly dubbed “Fox News North” by critics. The channel soon became known for its small audience and opinionated far-right personalities such as Ezra Levant, then host of The Source, and Brian Lilley, then host of Byline. The Ford brothers even had a brief cameo on the network with Ford Nation (the show reportedly lasted less than 24 hours because it took more than five hours to film one episode).
“These days, I don’t know what my numbers are,” admitted Levant in a January interview with Canadaland’s Jesse Brown. “You don’t know what your numbers are?” asked Brown, clearly taken aback. For a network that was known for its thin audience, shouldn’t there be a concern about numbers? But Levant insisted he didn’t watch his ratings. “I want to get more viewers,” said Levant. “But I also know that when you aren’t on 60 percent of cable channels, and when the ones you’re on, you’re on channel one million, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to compare yourself to channels that have mandatory carriage.”
“Mandatory carriage” status from The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) would have ensured that the network would be carried on all basic cable packages. In 2013, the Sun News Network vice-president Kory Teneycke attempted to persuade Canada’s broadcast regulator, arguing that anything less would be a “death sentence” for the network. CBC reported that at the time of the application, data showed that the network was available to 5.1 million households, but only attracting an average of 8,000 viewers on any given day. The request was denied. But later that year, the CRTC gave the network some relief, introducing new rules that force television distributors to carry all five national news channels, including Sun News, bundled in a package of discretionary channels.
Another blow to the network came in late 2014 when Postmedia bought the English language Sun Media newspapers and digital news sites from Quebecor for $316 million, but left the television arm out of the deal. In recent months, Quebecor tried to broker a sale of the station to ZoomerMedia Ltd., led by TV veteran Moses Znaimer, but the talks reportedly failed.
Dwindling audience numbers and financial troubles are partly to blame for the Sun News Network demise. But the bigger question is, did the far right views expressed on the show and the controversial on-air personalities play a role in the unpopularity factor? Well, in April 2014 reporter and commentator, Faith Goldy, demanded Liberal leader Justin Trudeau be excommunicated from the Catholic church for his “extremist” views on abortion. Gender-inclusive school washrooms was another topic in which Goldy and then-host Michael Coren’s uneducated opinion on transgendered people really shine through. “It’s not that I lack sympathy, I’ve interviewed people who think that they are in another gender’s body; invariably I think that they need a lot of psychiatric help,” Coren says, while quickly adding the words love, sympathy and understanding, of course. The most recent example of prejudice is from February of this year, when Brian Lilley demanded an apology from Muslim leaders because they themselves wanted an apology from Stephen Harper. The hosts were biased, and as a result, the content came across as racist, homophobic and elitist.
But I can also argue, that today, the reason is not important. Or at least not as important as this question: What will happen to the journalists who are now out of work? To discredit the work of any journalist is to say that you are somehow better than they are. In the face of increased cutbacks and buyouts across the industry, who is to say that any of us are safe?
National Post journalist Matt Gurney added some sense into the tweet storm taking place on the evening of February 12: “The people who’ll be most hurt are young journalists trying to get some experience working as producers and camera ops, etc. Remember them.” He adds that the reason many critics are gloating is because they dislike the high profile, on-air personalities. But, the sad truth is: Ezra Levant will likely find another job, but the dozens of others employees may not.