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The sun is setting on cable news

Sun News never really had a chance. Colby Cosh explains why.


 
Ezra Levant, the star of the now-defunct Sun News Network.

Ezra Levant, the star of the now-defunct Sun News Network.

Listen to Colby Cosh read his column below, or subscribe to Maclean’s Voices for on-the-go listening.

So, farewell, then, Sun News Network. The Quebecor-owned cable channel with the conservative spin went dark abruptly in the wee hours of Feb. 13, after being orphaned in Postmedia’s fall purchase of Sun Media assets and failing to find a corporate white knight who was willing to invest and rebrand. There has been much musing about why a Canadian knock-off of Fox News, which is what Sun News all but explicitly was, could not have been made to work. Some have cited deep cultural differences between the two countries: Jonathan Kay, the new editor-in-chief of Walrus magazine, quipped that “the U.S. has a culture war . . . we have question period.”

That’s as may be, but it feels a little self-satisfied (which suggests that Jon’s fitting right in at his new gig). Is Canada entirely without culture strife, or do the conservatives just have the upper hand here, having fought the war a little more intelligently? On the American stage, Fox News has the significant advantage of playing the role of an opposition party. In Conservative-run Canada, Sun News often seemed to be whipping the underdog.

Related reading:
Former Sun News national bureau chief David Akin: In defense of Sun News
Jaime J. Weinman: Why Sun News failed
Gilmore: We need more discordant voices in the media

I could not, honestly, stand to watch very much of it. In the United States, much of the mainstream media is still clinging to a consciously liberal identity; in Canada, as has often been pointed out, most print organs endorsed the Conservatives in the last national election. And even the ones that didn’t were not exactly un-skeptical of Michael Ignatieff, nor are they un-skeptical now of Justin Trudeau or Thomas Mulcair.

The truth is that, to the degree the Canadian media identifies as liberal, it has been met halfway by a Conservative Prime Minister who is visibly outlasting the social conservative crusaders in his own caucus, has held a liberal line on abortion and gay marriage, and has appointed seven of the nine judges on a Supreme Court that keeps on enthusiastically blacking his eye anyway.

My real question about Fox News North is this: How sure are we that even the original Fox News has a future? From a Canadian vantage point, Fox is considered healthy, just because it is the dominant No. 1 in cable news, having left CNN in the dust more than a decade ago. Its prime-time viewership, however, actually peaked in 2009. In raw numbers of viewers, it is down almost 19 per cent from that pinnacle, and the median age of its audience is an uncomfortable 68.

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The cost to keep the show on the road is rising steadily, and Fox is getting ever more aggressive about squeezing cable companies for licence fees, which is why it recently had a brief standoff with the Dish Network. You may have seen Bill O’Reilly doing Fox house ads accusing that provider of “censoring what you see” when it suspended carriage for a few weeks. Fox and Dish made peace on Jan. 15 (at the very high price of $1.50 per subscriber-month, according to the Wall Street Journal). But one does sense that this arm-twisting business model, backed by massive senior-citizen power, will work only up until the day it suddenly doesn’t. Perhaps Fox News will wink out of existence, as Sun did—with mere minutes of warning, its last message a sequence of promos for future programs destined never to air.

I am not quite sure what a cable news network is even for anymore, though I do like the nutritious all-business environment of Bloomberg TV. The mainstream American cable nets have become pathetically useless for any breaking news event, short of a space shuttle exploding on the White House lawn. If you ask me to imagine a regular Sun News Network viewer, I do, alas, immediately envision the TV room of a seniors’ home. I look forward to media historians explaining to us why, despite the low official viewership figures, we all seemed to have one older relative who swore by Sun News. And why did that relative almost always seem to be an uncle rather than a parent?

I noticed, not long ago, that the median ages of the populations in Canada’s prairie provinces reached their all-time high a couple of years ago and are now headed downward. That means a sizable part of our country has already made the demographic turn we have all been bracing for over the past few decades. In Alberta, at least, the Millennial takeover is no longer hypothetical. Old tribal and political identity labels are not going to age well. And the blood already shed by old media forms is likely to seem trivial.


 

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