Sun News Network will never be Fox North

The Sun News Network remains tucked away in the broadcasting attic. It wanders alone in the upper reaches, in the witness protection program of your digital box, hiding out in numbers like 142, 177, 506, out of sight, out of mind.

The Sun News Network remains tucked away in the broadcasting attic.

It wanders alone in the upper reaches, in the witness protection program of your digital box, hiding out in numbers like 142, 177, 506, out of sight, out of mind.

The CRTC decision to deny Sun News a mandatory spot on basic cable is, on the surface, not encouraging news for those of us who toil in the ever-diminishing journalistic pool in this country, but it is better news for consumers.

Thursday’s decision by the country’s broadcast regulator — whether it makes you applaud, scream or shrug — also tells us something about politics in this country that should make us happy.

Here’s hoping Sun News survives. The more voices available the better.

In a different time, it could have argued that it deserved the same start-up mandatory cable placement CBC and CTV received when those networks launched all-news channels, but the CRTC has offered it a lifeline with a pledge of a lightning-quick inquiry into how news channels are made available in this country.

That was enough apparently for the Sun to continue being the Sun — even if you can’t find it to independently confirm that — after network vice-president Kory Teneycke had vowed anything but a mandatory cable spot was a “death sentence” for the network.

The promise of a news channel inquiry was, apparently for Teneycke, a call from the governor as the condemned network was being fitted for the noose.

But Sun News was never going to be Fox North, even if the CRTC had given the network a guaranteed spot on basic cable then mandated that people be strapped in to watch it.

Canada is not the U.S. where the braying pundits on the left at MSNBC shout across the airwaves at the braying pundits of the right on Fox News Channel.

We may feel we live in a polarized political environment, but we are moderates compared to the shout fests on American cable television, where old grievances are never settled and every personal peccadillo is dissected.

We don’t argue about whether our prime minister is really a Canadian, we don’t cover every political story with the subtlety of a car crash and we just don’t (regrettably) have the political sex scandals to juice the ratings.

Canada is so civilized, we all more or less agree to forget politics for the summer and go swimming, drink beer and read novels. In the U.S., the political season never ends.

Sun News never altered the political landscape in Canada as it had bravely vowed, and if it provided “straight talk” to the country’s conservative echo chamber, it was largely comprised of talking heads screaming at the walls. It tried to bust into a political bazaar that had already been locked up on weekdays by CBC News Network’s Power and Politics and CTV News Channel’s Power Play and dominated on Sundays by CTV’s Question Period, a show in its fifth decade, and, more recently, Global’s The West Block.

The Cable Public Affairs Channel (CPAC) also provides political analysis with its mandated live coverage of the House of Commons and its mandatory carriage was renewed (full disclosure, I have appeared on both Power Play and CPAC).

It’s a crowded field in a nation that does not approach its politics with quite the same U.S.-style blood lust.

But access to news is vital to a functioning democracy and as CRTC chairperson Jean-Pierre Blais pointed out Thursday, nearly 12 million Canadian households subscribed to a cable or satellite service and watched more than 138 million hours of news programming in 2011-2012, 45 per cent of it from specialty news services.

Right now, only about 40 per cent of those customers can get Sun News.

“Television news channels provide an important public service by ensuring that Canadians are exposed to different opinions and perspectives on matters that concern all citizens,” Blais said. Under existing rules, they do not have pride of place in our broadcasting system, he said. So, there is the lifeline.

The CRTC would like to establish a neighbourhood of news channels, clustered in the same area of the digital box, presumably springing Sun News from the attic.

Then we can let the conservative news channel compete.

If you think it is a mouthpiece for the government, too dismissive of other voices, too shrill or too amateurish, move on to another stop in the neighbourhood.

That won’t make it Fox North, but its voice shouldn’t be stilled.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at tharper@thestar.ca.

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