National Newswatch

OTTAWA - The first journalist hired by Sun News Network says its demise had more to do with regulatory hurdles and shrinking resources than with the size of Canada's appetite for a conservative-minded TV channel.

Shortly after Sun News hit the lights for good Friday, Parliament Hill bureau chief David Akin suggested the outfit's failure had more to do with the shifting plates on the media landscape it had pledged to shake up.

Sun News Network took to the airwaves nearly four years ago with a promise to counterbalance what it considered the left-leaning bias of traditional media, a mandate that earned it the nickname "Fox News North."

Akin, a veteran Ottawa reporter, said the turning point came in 2013 when the federal broadcast regulator refused the network's request for mandatory carriage, which would have included the channel in basic cable and satellite packages across Canada.

A guaranteed spot on the dial would have generated significant revenue for the Quebecor-owned network, which had struggled in the ratings since its creation.

"Had we got that our way, we'd still be around," Akin said in an interview.

Akin expects the network's critics to blame its downfall on controversies created by outspoken, conservative Sun News hosts like Ezra Levant.

But it wasn't about the content, said Akin, who added he believes Canada still has a viable market for a channel like Sun News.

Although he acknowledged the network could have invested more in how the final product looked on TV, Akin remains convinced the market was there to support his former employer.

"Was Canada ready for a conservative news network? I think, sure."

Not everyone agrees.

"I think in the end it was their own ideas and their own ridiculous rhetoric that did them in," said Jeffrey Dvorkin, director of the journalism program at the University of Toronto.

Canadians have different values than Americans, particularly when it comes to freedom of speech, said Dvorkin — a dual Canadian and U.S. citizen who's intimately familiar with the Fox News dynamic that served as the Sun News model.

"Canadians are uncomfortable with those rather extreme expressions of free speech."

Levant, the outspoken, often controversial on-air columnist whose notoriety made him the de-facto face of the broadcaster, disagreed that the problems were linked to its editorial or ideological views.

"If we had a liberal point of view, that wouldn't have done us any better if we didn't have the cable deals," Levant said in an interview.

"If you have a favourable cable deal, that's the most important thing from a business perspective, right?"

Christopher Waddell, a journalism professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, agreed mandatory carriage would have allowed Sun News to turn a profit — even if nobody watched.

The problem was Quebecor's timing, Waddell said.

The push to land such a critical base of funding ran up against a growing subscriber revolt against the traditional model of paying for bundles of TV channels, which often include unwanted content, he noted. What's more, fewer and fewer young people are signing up for cable and satellite TV.

All of that has been adding up to pressure on the regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, to start limiting the number of mandatory channels, not increase it, he said.

Sun News also suffered from quality issues, Waddell acknowledged. Case in point was a chronic shortage of video footage to accompany stories, a symptom of the fact Sun News had few local stations providing supplementary images.

"You're really left with people sitting around talking about stuff," he said. "That's not very compelling television."

Unlike Dvorkin, Waddell said he didn't think the network's aggressive approach or the political leanings of its commentators had much — if anything — to do with its fate.

Everyone agrees on one thing, though: the network's closure means fewer journalists keeping an eye on Canadian politics.

Sun News was the only national TV network with reporters on all the major party campaign buses during provincial election campaigns across Canada in recent years, Akin said.

"We made a real serious commitment to covering politics in this country."

— With files from Victoria Ahearn in Toronto

Follow @AndyBlatchford on Twitter

The Canadian Press
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