The First Year Flop of “Fox News North”

Canada's answer to Fox News turned one last week. It was not a happy birthday.

Sun TV News launched with the stated goals of taking Canadian cable news by storm and giving viewers an entertaining alternative to what its executives called the “smug, condescending, irrelevant” journalism of the nation's leading networks, led by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

It didn't work out that way, and Sun TV News enters its second year on ratings life-support. According to recent reports in the Canadian press, between Aug. 31, 2011 and March 31, 2012, 0.1 percent of Canadian viewers watched the network, equal to one-fourteenth of the CBC's audience and one-ninth of those tuning into American CNN.

In the weeks before the network's debut last April, Sun Media blitzed Canadian airwaves with a brash pre-launch promotional campaign that quickly cemented its nickname, “Fox News North.” Heavy on nature imagery, hockey sticks, and aggrieved everyday Canadians holding grocery bags, the ads declared, "It's time," "Political correctness has run amok... We're on your side," and "Unapologetically patriotic."

A year later, for most Canadians the network is unapologetically associated with crude sets, club-and-grunt ambush interviews, and anchor Pat Bolland's Rollie Fingers mustache. “The sets are very stale and look like leftovers from Who Wants to Be A Millionaire,” says Bill Brioux, a former Sun Media columnist who now writes for the Toronto Star. “Canadians like news, but the style is just so over-the-top. A lot of the programming is similar to what you might see on the Daily Show, only they aren't in on the joke.”

The recent push for a Canadian Fox News analogue may date to the afternoon of March 30, 2009, when Canada's Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his press secretary, Kory Teneycke, dined privately in New York with Rupert Murdoch and Fox News chief Roger Ailes. Among the known topics of conversation that afternoon was Murdoch's frustration with Canada's strict laws governing the foreign ownership of print and electronic media. According to the National Post, Murdoch complained to the prime minister of the deep regulatory moat that in 2003 stymied his effort to launch Fox News Canada in a joint venture with Calgary-based Shaw Media.

If Harper and his party were to enjoy the benefits of a Fox News-style network, they would have to build one on their own. A few months after the New York lunch, Teneycke left the prime minister's office and a year later became Vice President of Development for Quebecor, the Quebec-based media conglomerate and publisher of the conservative Sun newspaper chain. Teneycke was tasked with launching an all-news cable channel, Sun News TV.

If Teneycke is Sun News' Ailes figure, the political operative turned conservative echo-chamber architect, Quebecor also has its Janus-faced Murdoch in the form of the brothers Peladeau, Canadian media titans whose grand ambitions are streaked with deep resentments of the Canadian media and cultural establishments embodied by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Teneycke quickly recruited for the new network a roster of right-wing radio hosts and Sun print columnists, many of them known for CBC-bashing and animus towards Canada's European-style welfare state that provides universal health insurance and subsidized university study. To manage this roster of rightwing talent, Teneycke staffed the production side with at least three former Conservative Party alumni from Harper's office. One of them, Jason Plotz, specialized in opposition research.

The Conservative Party emerged in 2003 out of the cattle ranches and oil fields of Alberta, sometimes called the Texas of Canada. With its devotion to deregulation, tax-cut fever, and relatively hawkish foreign policy, the Conservative Party represented a new kind of rightwing politics in Canada. Observers considered it self-evident that Quebecor created Sun News to function as this disturbing development's media partner -- the Fox News to Harper's GOP. “The Harper-Murdoch-Ailes lunch and the putative right-wing political attack news channel is more evidence, as if Canadians need any, of the Harper Conservatives' determination to be the northern branch plant of today's Republican Party -- bruisingly partisan, all the time,” wrote a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press shortly before the station began broadcasting.

After 12 months of programming, Sun News TV has failed to impact Canadian political debate. The network's top-rated show, Ezra Levant's The Source, has around 35,000 viewers on a typical night, according to a BBM Canada, a ratings company. The number in the prized demo of viewers age 18 - 34 is sometimes so low (less than 1,000) that it appears as a dash. And this is the top-rated show.

“Sun News' reactionary message and crude style speaks to a tiny older audience, but the contrast between its swaggering self-important voice and its actual impact is comical,” says John Doyle, the television columnist for the Globe and Mail. “Much of what they do, which is pundits busting blood vessels over irrelevant issues, is genuinely laughable. At times the ratings suggest the number of viewers under 50 is literally zero.”

The example of Fox News teaches that patience has its rewards, and Sun News may one day grow into a ratings and politics powerhouse, however unlikely that seems today. As long as it enjoys political and corporate patrons with multiple agendas, it has a chance.

“Despite the poor ratings, I don't think Sun News is going to close up anytime soon,” says Donald Gutstein, co-director of the News Watch Canada Project at Simon Fraser University. “There's a lot more going on with this channel than just a corporate investment.”