Sun News Network expected to be attacked for its politics—not its professionalism. But the reviews of the conservative-leaning news channel have pointed out that it looks amateurish: “The sets and lighting are Spartan,” wrote Brad Oswald of the Winnipeg Free Press; Globe and Mail critic John Doyle called it “cheap, cheesy, terrible television.” That’s not a charge often levelled at Sun’s U.S. model, Fox News, whose high production values are acknowledged even by people who hate it. If Sun has trouble looking classy, it has nothing to do with the rather modest short skirts and sleeveless dresses; it may be because of the unexciting scenes behind them.
The hyper-patriotic Sun turned to the Toronto-based AKA Creative Group to design the sets. Andrew Kinsella, AKA’s president, feels they created “a style that Canadians have never seen before,” but adds that it would be “a lot more expensive to work with the big-name [design] competitors south of the border.” But on screen, the American competitors sometimes look more spectacular. Ezra Levant’s The Source is modelled on Glenn Beck’s soon-to-be-cancelled Fox show; it has the host do wacky conservative things like destroy a bush to show his contempt for Earth Day. But Beck’s program has an elaborate set and there’s creative use of camera angles and lighting. Levant’s set, dominated by two fairly small TV screens with his name on them, looks much more low-tech. And like many of the Sun shows, the backgrounds are often monolithically blue, which can give news shows a feeling of sameness: U.S. set designer Jim Fenhagen, who designed shows like ABC World News Tonight, hasn’t seen Sun but told Maclean’s that as a general rule, “doing blue sets is pretty old-fashioned now.”
While some Sun programs make good use of space—Kinsella is proud of the main news hub, with a “retractable rear-projection screen as well as flexibility for the host to move freely from one area to another”—others don’t look much more big-budget than the average local newscast. Some of the daytime shows feature the familiar sight of announcers at a desk with a drab-looking newsroom in the background, the kind of thing Fenhagen tried to avoid when he created the newsroom set for ABC: “Usually the main shot is all the people back there and you can’t get rid of them, which I think is a mistake.” Conservative TV host Michael Coren, who has appeared as a guest on Sun, considers the overall look “sharp and modern” but added that “because of the number of linked interviews with guests around the country, there is always going to be a certain limitation to the overall look.” But those limitations may mean the Sun hosts can’t compete with a Fox personality like Megyn Kelly, the network’s aggressively blond daytime star, who yells at guests against a stylish background of glass, metal and flickering screens.
Another difference between Sun and Fox is that Fox is a little subtler about plugging itself. The Sun logo is often omnipresent: Theo Caldwell, the tousled-haired host of the O’Reilly Factor imitator The Caldwell Account, sits at a desk that has the logo literally built into it, suggesting Stephen Colbert’s desk that’s shaped like the first letter of his name. Brian Lilley, host of The Byline, sits in front of a background that has almost nothing on it except his own name and the name of his show. Fox News is cannier about pushing its brand name on its viewers; even when the logo is part of a Fox News set, it’s done in an almost subliminal way, like the semi-transparent logos on the set of Fox & Friends. “People do like to see the logo,” Fenhagen says, but a network needs to avoid “over-logoing it.”
In the end, it could be that what matters for Sun’s future is not production values but Canada’s desperate need for conservative content. “I’d watch an Ezra or a Theo in a box, instead of any standard Canadian host in a palace,” Coren says. But as Fox News frequently points out, many of its viewers are independents attracted by its inviting look. Despite the righteousness of its anti-liberal mission, declared the conservative blog Rightchik, Sun “looks like a small-town television station production. They need some Yankee help.”