TORONTO — It seems like a made-up headline on the Rick Mercer Report — political satirist turns down top job at “Fox News North.”
But it’s no joke. The proposed specialty news channel Sun TV News made a play to make Rick Mercer the cornerstone of its prime-time lineup, the comic said, and confirmed he had a meeting with Kory Teneycke, the newly-hired Quebecor vice president.
Teneycke, who less than a year ago was Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s director of communications, was hoping to steal CBC’s top-rated Rick Mercer Report.
“He called me up and we went for a drink,” recalled Mercer. The meeting took place “a while ago” and Mercer chose to keep mum about his knowledge of the proposed news venture.
“They were a very stealth operation,” he said. “Because they had offered me a job basically I felt obligated to keep my mouth shut. Maybe that was their plan!”
The Rick Mercer Report has been eyed by rival broadcasters in the past. Seen as a crown jewel of Canadian content, it is a consistent ratings winner coming off its seventh and most popular season.
The Tuesday-night hit averaged over a million viewers a week last season, making it CBC’s biggest scripted hit. What many don’t realize is that it’s privately produced and renewed on a year-to-year basis, allowing others to occasionally inquire as to its availability.
Still, when it came down to it, Mercer chose to stay with CBC.
“Since we’re talking about a conservative television network, I’ll quote a great conservative and say I decided to ‘dance with the one that brung me,”’ he said, borrowing a phrase from former prime minister Brian Mulroney.
While he was “very intrigued by this notion of starting a new network,” Mercer ultimately felt he had no reason to jump.
“As an independent producer, I’m very happy with my relationship with the CBC,” he said, “but, like anybody, you always hear people out.”
Mercer is a fan of one of the station’s early hires, former Global Ottawa correspondent David Akin. He’s also pals with outspoken Western-based conservative pundit Ezra Levant and thinks he’d make a good addition to the service — provided Quebecor knows what it’s getting into.
“I hope Ezra catches the world on fire with his smile and his charm — for five or ten hours a week,” Mercer said.
“I hope, if he’s live, they have good liability insurance.”
At first glance, Mercer seems like an unlikely target for an upstart, right-wing TV news operation. It would be a bit like Fox News stealing Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” away from Comedy Central.
Officials at Sun TV News have made no secret they’re out to counter what they see as a liberal bias in established Canadian media circles. Mercer has heard the “lefty CBC” accusations for years but doesn’t generally buy it.
“Jean Chretien used to go home and kick his set in” over reports on the French language CBC service, said Mercer.
He recalls full-page stories in Ottawa newspapers “with analysts discussing what can be done about what Mercer is saying about Paul Martin every week.”
The self-described “news junkie” doesn’t expect Sun TV News to just be a mouthpiece for the Harper government, either.
“If Sun TV was on the air today, would they be crowing about how wonderful it is that they’re spending a billion dollars on the G20? I would hope not. If they’re true conservatives, they would be more aghast than liberals.”
The 40-year-old Newfoundland native has made a career of mocking and ridiculing politicians of all stripes, but often saves him most savage wit for the right. He once famously punked then presidential candidate George W. Bush. Posing as a reporter on the hugely popular CBC comedy special “Talking to Americans,” he got Bush to give a friendly shout out to “Canadian Prime Minister Jean Poutine.” Back when he was on “This Hour Has 22 Minutes,” Mercer mischievously rallied hundreds of thousands of Canadians to sign a petition to have conservative Stockwell Day’s name legally changed to “Doris Day.”
But those skits weren’t issues as Teneycke made his overture. Purely from a competitive television stand point, the move would have been a win-win for the network. It would have wounded its opponent, the CBC, and probably would given the network a ratings winner.
As it stands, Mercer won’t be part of the Sun TV News lineup when and if (pending CRTC licence approval) it launches next January as planned. Beyond that, in TV as in politics, anything can happen.
Mercer wished the new venture luck and called Teneycke “a smart fellow.”
“I never thought Kory had such good taste until he offered me the job,” Mercer quipped.