08/13/2013 12:13 EDT | Updated 10/13/2013 05:12 EDT

Media Bites: How Sun News Could Change Cable as We Know it

It's always a bit of a challenge for one news outlet to objectively cover the affairs of another. North American journalism isn't exactly in a golden era of profitability, after all, and at a time when every newspaper and cable news network across the continent is hemorrhaging talent amid furious cost-cutting, and when the only model of sustainable funding looks to be letting some eccentric dot-com billionaire purchase you for his antique collection, it's not entirely paranoid to fret about the free advertising implications of devoting precious column/air space to stories with headlines like "Our competitors: a glorious future awaits?"

It's for this reason, I suspect, that coverage of last week's biggest Canadian media story -- the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission's rejection of Sun News Network's high-profile request for "mandatory carriage" -- has been so terse and perfunctory. There's been dry "event happens" wire reportage and backhanded editorials passive-aggressively mourning the "tragedy" that this unapologetically ideological network just couldn't cut it in ultra-"civilized" Canada, but in terms of deeper analysis of what the CRTC decree means for the future of Canadian television in general, it seems the only place to get genuine insight on the Sun News decision is Sun News itself.

Some background: The CRTC is the much-loathed federal body that holds the power to determine what Canadians can and can't watch, in order to best protect the interests of entrenched media cartels Canadian nationalism. Last winter, the perennially money-losing Sun network decided it wanted to utilize some of that power to boost their bottom line, and began aggressively lobbying the commission to upgrade their channel rank to "must-be-included-in-every-single-cable-package" status, also known as "91h."

Now, the CRTC doesn't just hand out 91h designations willy-nilly. The perk is generally understood to be a sort of charitable helping hand for super politically-correct niche networks that clearly wouldn't survive otherwise (one of the three stations that got he 91h nod last week was a channel for blind French-Canadians living outside of Quebec, for instance), as opposed to the merely unprofitable. This is why Sun's rock-ribbed free-marketers got so much such scorn for seeking it -- they were basically doing the Canadian media equivalent of Johnny Knoxville trying to scam his way into the Special Olympics.

But if some folks on the left are cheering the comeuppance of Sun's lips getting smacked from big government's ample teat, the network's own spin on their rejection has been almost Orwellian in its implausible happiness.

"In spite of what you will read, see and hear in the state-financed media, or from leftist spin doctors," declared Michael Coren in Sun's lead rejection editorial, "Thursday's CRTC decision was a victory."

"It is good news," nodded Sun's phlegmatic vice president Kory Teneycke on Coren's show later that day.

"Sun News isn't going to die at all," one-upped pundit Warren Kinsella. "It in fact has been given everything it wanted."

While some of this is pure denial -- and for obviously self-serving reasons; one imagines Sun's advertisers wouldn't be too keen pitching their products on the We're Doomed power hour -- it's not completely insincere, either. There was, to quote another Sun talking-head, "a pretty significant silver lining" in losing 91h that few anticipated -- including the network itself.

In their epic, 51-page ruling on the matter, the CRTC was surprisingly sympathetic to Sun's suffering, differing more on cures than symptoms. There "is merit to the arguments raised by Sun News," they conceded, namely the network's idea that Canadians need their news "to come from a variety of independent sources" reflecting a "range of viewpoints," and that Canada's news stations "should be given a pride of place" in our 500-channel universe (ie: not off the air).

As a result, the CRTC now plans to spend the fall debating a couple reforms that would fundamentally rejig the rules governing how Canadian cable companies are permitted to sell and broadcast news channels in general. This is the "good news" old man Teneycke was talking about, since Sun will almost certainly benefit from said rejiggering.

Reform possibilities include:

  • forcing cable providers to cram all their news stations in the same numeric range of channels, say 2 through 15, creating a so-called "news neighbourhood" on the cable dial;
  • forcing cable retailers to sell all Canadian news stations in a single bundle, meaning if you subscribe to, say, CTV, you'll have to get Sun too, thus ensuring you're exposed to that full "range of viewpoints" the commission considers so important;
  • forcing cable companies to -- get this -- let their customers decide for themselves what individual news channels they do or don't want to watch/pay for.

Of the three basic proposals, it's the third that's most revolutionary, at least by paternalistic CRTC standards. I mean, imagine: a Canada in which the news you get to watch is determined not by some take-it-or-leave it cable package, but your own personal preference. Radical!

Sun's 91h bid was obviously more than a little shameless, and, from a conservative philosophical perspective, hugely hypocritical. Yet that irony is now itself ironic, given the newfound possibility that the network's cynical appeal to the heavy hand of state power may actually provoke a lasting reform to Canadian cable that's vastly more capitalistic than their original request.

For a network that never stops bragging about wanting to "change Canadian television as we know it," that's not a bad legacy to leave -- even if it wasn't intentional.

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