Why Sun News failed

It was Fox News without the budget or the talent, writes Jaime J. Weinman
Ezra Levant. (Pawel Dwulit/CP)
Ezra Levant. (Pawel Dwulit/CP)

Conventional wisdom will say that Sun News failed because there’s no market for Fox News-style loud partisanship in Canada. And while conventional wisdom is, to be honest, usually right (conventional wisdom was that Sun News wasn’t very good), I think it’ll be wrong in this case. There’s always a market for conservative news, and they’re not always the people you might expect.

I know one person, liberal on most social issues and very liberal on economic issues, who still watched Sun News a lot because of Israel; it was the “pro-Israel” network, the antidote to the perceived anti-Israel bias of the rest of the media. I didn’t agree, but if Sun had managed to get a larger number of the people who think the media has a lefty bias, it would have been fine. There are always plenty of people who think the media is too far to the left. Just look in any comments section in the world.

Sun didn’t get those people, though, or not enough of them. I think that was basically because it wasn’t as good as Fox News —not good in the moral sense, but in the sense of the calibre of talent or production values. Sun News was the latest in a long line of Canadian networks and Canadian shows that are obvious copies of a more successful American product. It was Fox News without the budget or the talent, and it’s the budget and talent that makes Fox News what it is. Otherwise you’re better off listening to talk radio, without the unappealing pictures to distract from the talking. Not everyone was a dud: Michael Coren is not exactly my kind of TV personality, but he is an experienced TV personality, and knows how to put a show together. But there weren’t enough competent shows to make Sun competitive with Fox News.

Like many ersatz products, Sun seemed to think that simply being Canadian would give it an advantage with Canadians over Fox News. This may be true (though maybe not) for an outlet that’s built primarily on reporting. But the Fox model is mostly about punditry, discussions of the issues that matter. Most of the issues that matter on a channel like this are not specific to a particular country. Regardless of the status of gay marriage in your country, the issue of whether gay marriage is right or wrong is pretty much the same everywhere. Reactions to many other things, from Charlie Hebdo to the “war on Christmas,” play out similarly from nation to nation, and you’re mostly going to see better performances on Fox. Even Rob Ford you could hear about on American TV.

So what Sun was counting on was that it would get people who wanted to see a conservative take on the stuff Fox won’t touch: Canada-specific politics. One problem with that assumption is that Canadian politics simply aren’t divided enough to sustain that kind of hyper-partisan approach. Oh, we’re divided; everyone is. But the States is just more divided on issues that have long since faded into conventional wisdom here. U.S. conservatives have long opposed universal health care, and even now there’s a chance it might be overturned. In Canada, as in most countries, even conservative politicians won’t oppose national health care. (The U.S. does have socialized medicine for old people, Fox’s target audience, and sure enough, almost no one on Fox will openly advocate getting rid of Medicare, any more than Margaret Thatcher would try to denationalize U.K. health care.) We just have too many political issues where the divide of “acceptable opinion” is too narrow for a rip-roaring partisan TV debate.

Which is to say, if you’re going to make a conservative pundit network, most of your bread-and-butter topics are going to be not the CanCon ones, but the ones you share with Fox News. That means the only way to survive is to match the competition — spend more money, get better sets, better TV personalities, blonder blonds, angrier old guys. TV punditry is theatre, and people don’t want to watch a cheap performance.