More than 25,000 Canadians have urged the CRTC to reject Sun News’ application to be a mandatory part of basic cable, according to activist group Avaaz.
The group said in a statement that it took them only three days to collect the “personalized comments” from Canadians opposed to Sun News’ application, which they then submitted as part of the CRTC’s public commenting process.
Sun News, dubbed “Fox News North” by its detractors, submitted an application last fall to the CRTC to be granted “mandatory carriage” status, meaning all cable and satellite providers would have to offer it as part of their basic service, and the network would collect a fee off every TV subscriber.
The network, which launched in the spring of 2011, has been trying to stem multimillion-dollar losses. It has projected a $17 million loss for 2012, and argues its business model is “unsustainable” without greater access to viewers.
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Pictured: Sun News host Ezra Levant
Controversy surrounding the Sun News Network began even before the network went on the air in April, 2011. The Globe and Mail reported in the summer of 2010 that CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein was under pressure from the Prime Minister's Office to resign, in order to pave a smooth path for Sun News to be granted a licence by the regulator. Finckenstein denied the allegations.
With concerns swirling about the possibility of a PMO-driven political agenda at Sun News, the activist site Avaaz launched "Stop Fox News North," a campaign to pressure the CRTC to deny a licence to the news network. The network responded by citing Avaaz's U.S. roots and noting that left-wing billionaire George Soros has contributed to the group, in an apparent effort to discredit the petition as a "U.S. import."
Future Sun News personality Ezra Levant went further than most in his criticism of Avaaz and its links to George Soros (pictured above). Levant suggested in a column that Soros, who is Jewish, aided the Germans in the Holocaust as a teenager. After receiving a letter from Soros' lawyers threatening to sue, the Sun newspapers ran a retraction.
Sun News was on the air for only about six weeks when its first major controversy erupted. The CRTC received a record 6,676 complaints from viewers after host Krista Erickson aggressively challenged dancer Margie Gillis over the issue of whether artists should receive taxpayers' money in the form of grants. The Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council eventually ruled Erickson was within her rights to express her opinions during the interview.
Sun News has made the CBC's public funding a signature issue, repeatedly attacking the network for taking $1 billion per year in taxpayers' money while competing against private-sector broadcasters. But the CBC is fighting back. It put out a press release noting that Quebecor, Sun's parent company, enjoyed $500 million in subsidies over five years, and argued that -- unlike the CBC -- it is not publicly accountable to taxpayers.
Ezra Levant got himself in trouble again in December, 2011, when he responded to Chiquita Bananas' declaration it wanted to avoid oil from the oil sands. "Chinga tu madre," Levant said to Chiquita -- a phrase that translates as "f--k your mother." The Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council declared Levant's outburst a violation of ethics standards.
Canadian journalism reached an embarrassing nadir in the spring of 2012 when it emerged that a citizenship reaffirmation ceremony broadcast on Sun News had been partially staged. Six federal bureaucrats had posed as newly-sworn Canadians during the event that had been reportedly requested by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney. Kenney's office apologized to Sun News. Government officials later alleged Sun News was aware of the bureaucrats posing as new Canadians.
Sun News applied for a "mandatory carriage" licence in the fall of 2012 that would require cable and satellite operators to carry the network as part of their basic cable package. Though neither CBC News Network nor CTV News Channel currently enjoy mandatory carriage, they did when they first started out, as Sun News has pointed out.
Sun News reported in January, 2013, that it lost $17 million in 2012, due to weak revenue because the channel is only carried in 40 per cent of Canadian homes. Parent company Quebecor is saying the network will continue to lose money unless its request to the CRTC for mandatory carriage on basic cable is granted. Pictured: Quebecor CEO Pierre-Karl Peladeau
Sun News personality and well-known right-wing pundit Ezra Levant issued a formal, on-air apology after a September, 2012, segment in which he declared that the Roma were not a race, and were rather "a shiftless group of hobos" who "rob people blind" and whose "chief economy is theft and begging." The Toronto police reportedly even launched a hate-crimes investigation into the segment, at the request of a local Roma group.
In August 2013, the CRTC, Canada's telecom regulator, rejected Sun News' application for mandatory carriage. The network had asked the CRTC to make them a mandatory part of all basic cable services, arguing it would not survive financially without it. Though the CRTC rejected the Sun News application, it also launched a review of the rules surrounding cable news networks. Among the possible outcomes are a realignment of channels so all news channels are grouped together on the dial, and the possibility of a "must-carry" order for Sun News, which would mean that all TV service providers would have to at least offer the network. Pictured: CRTC Chair Jean-Pierre Blais
Opponents, such as those behind the Avaaz petition, argue the controversy-seeking, right-leaning network fails to meet the CRTC’s standards for a must-carry channel, which requires programming to “safeguard, enrich and strengthen the cultural, political, social and economic fabric of Canada.”
They also argue that the audience for Sun News is too small -- the network garnered only a 0.1 per cent audience share in the year ending March, 2012.
But Sun News spokespeople point out that the channel has only managed to gain access to 40 per cent of households, and they argue that even though neither CBC News Network nor CTV News Channel are currently must-carry channels, they both were when they first launched.
"When Newsworld launched in ’87 and when CTV Newsnet launched in ’97 they both received mandatory distribution rights from the CRTC – preferential treatment they both enjoyed for 21 and 13 years respectively. It goes without saying this helped them get established in the marketplace," Sun News marketing director Dennis Matthews told The Huffington Post Canada by email last fall.
“Canadians don’t like or watch Sun News and now the channel is asking the CRTC to force Canadians to bail it out of millions in debt -- all to protect their divisive, biased content that undermines Canadian values,” Avaaz campaign director Emma Ruby Sachs said in a statement. “We are confident the CRTC will listen to the tens of thousands of personal messages from citizens concerned for the future of our media.”
Like Sun News itself, parent company Quebecor has also been struggling with its bottom line. The owner of the Sun newspaper chain cut 500 jobs, or about 10 per cent of its workforce, last fall in an effort to shave $45 million off operating costs.
The period for the public to submit comments to the CRTC on Sun News’ application ended last week. The telecom regulator will hold hearings on must-carry applications starting April 23, but no specific date has been set for a decision on Sun News.
Other than Sun, 21 channels have submitted applications for a must-carry licence, which currently only eight channels enjoy.
Among them are Starlight: The Movie Channel, which would use the money from its mandatory subscriber fees to fund Canadian-made original movies; Maximum TV, a Netflix-like on-demand streaming service; and Vision TV, an existing multifaith channel.