TORONTO – They launched with great fanfare, vowing to deliver a viewing experience no other Canadian broadcaster dared to put on the air.
Yet exactly a year after it went live, media observers and viewership figures suggest Sun News Network, which promised ‘hard news and straight talk,’ is lagging behind its competitors.
Data obtained by The Canadian Press from a source at another network and confirmed by independent ratings agency BBM Canada, shows Sun News trailing the pack when “all day” English audience figures â€” calculated between 2 a.m. and 2 a.m. â€” were compared for news networks between Aug. 31, 2011 and March 31, 2012.
CBC News Network drew 1.4 per cent of viewers, U.S. news network CNN took 0.9 per cent, CTV News Channel attracted 0.8 per cent and Sun News brought in 0.1 per cent.
Sun News declined a request for an interview and viewership data.
“It began with a bit of a bang but it seems to be a little less noisy now than it once was,â€ Jeffrey Dvorkin, the director of the University of Torontoâ€™s journalism program, said of the network’s share of the audience.
“I think the novelty is wearing off a little bit.”
According to Dvorkin, a quick glance at the data across the board is all it takes to see that the all-day news model isnâ€™t faring as well as networks might have hoped and the repetitive nature of the constant news flow could be what turns some viewers off.
But why is Sun News, once dubbed “Fox News North” bringing up the rear? A look at the core audience it strives to attract might offer part of the answer.
“There is always in every audience, whether it’s in the U.S., Canada or any other country, a core of older white males who are chronically pissed off. That’s who Fox News appeals to and I assume that Sun Media was looking to tap into that as well,â€ said Dvorkin.
“But we may not have that same demographic journalistically and in broadcasting terms in Canada as in the United States. I guess we’re just not that angry.”
Thatâ€™s not to say the network owned by media giant Quebecor is without fans.
Various right-leaning blogs have praised the network for its approach and it has gained more than 12,000 “likes” on its Facebook page.
And there is no doubt the network is carving a distinctive niche for itself.
When it first launched, network officials said Sun News would balance what was seen as a “lefty bias” in Canada’s traditional media. Quebecor CEO Pierre Karl Peladeau had even argued that other Canadian news networks were boring.
That aggressive tone continues to be one of the networkâ€™s defining features. But to some observers it’s cause for concern.
“It’s not news, itâ€™s merely right-wing propaganda,” said Tim Knight, who writes a regular column on media matters for Huffington Post Canada and has reviewed Sun News in the past.
The talk-based format employed by the network, which often brings reporters â€“ including from the Sun newspaper chain â€“ into the studio to discuss a story, could be doing much to diminish ratings, said another observer.
“They are so high on the ranting and the opinion that it is difficult to kind of wade through that and find what should be fair and balanced,â€ said Janice Neil, a Ryerson journalism professor and editor-in-chief of the Canadian Journalism Project at J-Source.ca.
“They are basing most of their material on dragging people into the studio and the guests that they have tend to be very favourable to Sun.”
Two key incidents over the course of its first year really hurt the networkâ€™s credibility, said Neil.
The first was when an interview between “Canada Live” host Krista Erickson and Quebec-born dancer Margie Gillis went viral after Erickson quizzed Gillis about whether it was appropriate that she receive government grants to support her dance work. The segment from the afternoon news show drew a record number of complaints from viewers who felt Erickson was being unfair, but the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council eventually ruled the â€œaggressiveâ€ interview was acceptable.
The second was a citizenship reaffirmation ceremony broadcast from the networkâ€™s studios during Citizenship Week last fall in which bureaucrats posed as new Canadians when not enough newly naturalized Canucks showed up for the shoot. The two Sun News co-hosts who referred to the “new Canadians” in the studio said they were unaware of the snafu at the time.
“In PR if you believe that there’s no such thing as bad news, then certainly they got lots and lots of eyeballs,” said Neil. “But certainly in terms of journalistic integrity, I think there are a number of instances where they just don’t bring the same credibility.”
Sun News also faces a distribution hurdle. It isnâ€™t classified as a mandatory channel â€“ as CBC and CTVâ€™s news networks are â€“ which means it’s harder to find on the dial and those with basic cable packages donâ€™t get it at all.
Nonetheless, despite their growing pains, Neil believes Sun News could potentially enrich the Canadian media landscape over time if they polished their product.
“There would be lots of room for Sun News to have informed debate,” she said. “But they’re out to prove their point as opposed to discover the argumentâ€¦I would like to see them doing better.”