Sun TV's Canadian-content Promise

When Kory Teneycke announced, back in mid-June, that he would be heading up the proposed Sun TV network, he promised not to be boring. If Prime Minister Stephen HARPER's former communications director meant he wouldn't stay around long enough to grow stale, he was more than true to his word. Teneycke bowed out last week after just three months, saying his involvement contributed to "vicious and vitriolic" controversy over the proposed news-and-talk channel.

He hasn't answered questions about his surprisingly fast exit, so precisely what aspect of the heated debate over the project drove him to quit so quickly isn't yet clear. (The day before his announcement, a left-leaning activist organization called Avaaz said it had asked police to investigate who put fake names on its anti-Sun-TV online petition "Stop Fox News North." Teneycke had admitted to some inside knowledge of who messed with the petition by signing up under the names of Canadian media personalities and fictional characters like Sesame Street's Snuffleupagus.) Whatever his exact reason, Quebecor Media Inc. apparently doesn't see any need to distance its Sun TV project from political players. Pierre Karl Pelédeau, the company's conservative-minded president and chief executive, replaced Teneycke with Luc Lavoie - former prime minister Brian MULRONEY's long-time spokesman. Unlike Teneycke, Lavoie was a TV journalist before he was a partisan spinner, and he's also a veteran Quebecor executive. Still, Lavoie's media credentials from outside politics can't erase the impression that the Sun TV venture is closely connected to insider Conservative circles.

But how the project's high-profile linkages to generations of Tory leadership might boost its chances of succeeding is far from obvious. Pelédeau's hope of duplicating in Canada the success of Fox News in the U.S. depends first on an application to the CANADIAN RADIO-TELEVISION AND TELECOMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION. The federal regulator has scheduled a hearing for Nov. 19 on Quebecor's request for a particular kind of licence for Sun TV - one that would guarantee the channel's wide availability. "The broadcast policy issue is, is the commission going to make an exception for Sun TV?" said Jay Kerr-Wilson, a communications lawyer at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin in Ottawa. Kerr-Wilson's prediction: "I think it's highly unlikely."

The trick is that Quebecor is seeking a type of licence that is fading out of existence. Back when CBC and CTV were launching their all-news channels, the CRTC required cable companies to make them very widely available. But the commission's stance since 2008 has been that those news services are now well enough established to compete for viewers without such guarantees. So, starting next fall, distributors will be free to negotiate terms with CBC and CTV when it comes to packaging their existing news services with other specialty channels to sell them to subscribers.

Serge Sasseville, Quebecor's vice-president of corporate and institutional affairs, says Sun TV needs a chance to establish itself. He says Quebecor is asking the CRTC to "make an exception" by requiring cable and satellite companies to at least offer Sun TV in bundles with other channels for up to three years, long enough for the new service to catch up to CBC News Network and CTV News Channel. "They were allowed to build their customer base," Sasseville says, "and we're asking the CRTC to level the playing field and let us do that, too."

Insiders say the CRTC could hardly grant Sun TV that special consideration without also extending the favour to the existing all-news channels. "Is the commission going to modify its policy to create a general exception that applies to Sun TV, but that other services might fit into? I think that's unlikely," says Kerr-Williams. "Or are they going to hold the line, saying, 'Everybody knew these were the rules - there's nothing different about you.' "

But maybe there is something different about Sun TV. Suspicious observers point to those Conservative ties that are so unusual in the upper echelons of a news operation. The CRTC, however, is independent, and its chairman, Konrad von Finckenstein, recently declared that nobody in the government has approached him about Sun TV. And his commission left little doubt about its willingness to set its own direction last year, when it ruled that cellphone start-up Globalive didn't meet Canadian ownership requirements, a decision Harper's cabinet later overturned to support the government's clear preference for more cell competition.

If the political cast of Quebecor's pitch doesn't sway the CRTC, another aspect of the Sun TV concept might - its promise to air nothing but Canadian programming. "That itself is a 'wow,' " says Iain Grant, a Montreal-based communications industry analyst with the consulting firm SeaBoard Group. Given the CRTC's policy of encouraging homegrown voices, Grant adds, the all-Canadian pledge might be reason enough to "welcome the application with open arms." It could be that the best card Quebecor has to play in its bid to import an anti-government U.S. cable news formula is to appeal to a government regulator's old penchant for Canadian content.

Maclean's October 4, 2010