Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sun TV rises; is anyone watching?

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The Sun rose. And then the sun rose. And then, well ... whatever.

The world didn't end. The Earth didn't shake. Cats, so far as anyone knows, did not suddenly start lying down with dogs.

And despite the almost desperately self-congratulatory tone of its on-screen text and hosts-interviewing-hosts chatter, those who tuned in Sun News Network this week did not witness "TV history being made."

In fact, the big event turned out to more of a non-event, noteworthy more for its low-budget look and the mini-kerfuffle surrounding its female staffers' wardrobes than for any actual impact it had on this country's TV-news business and political discourse.

When its impending birth was announced last year by parent company Quebecor, Sun News Network was hailed by its creators as a long-overdue "straight-talk" alternative to existing news outlets and criticized by its opponents as a Canadian version of U.S. cable's right-wing-ranting Fox News that would further polarize political debate on this side of the border.

Based on its first week on the air, SNN seems to lack both the ideological zeal and the financial wherewithal to achieve its self-stated goal of changing TV history.

According to the in-house promotional reels that run ceaselessly throughout its schedule, SNN's content is divided into "Hard News" during the daytime and "Straight Talk" in the evening. But like its conservative-leaning cousin to the south, SNN doesn't really work all that hard at separating news and opinion in its various shows.

Daytime includes the mostly indistinguishable First Look, The Roundtable, Newswire and Canada Live, the last of which is hosted by former CBC Winnipeg news anchor Krista Erickson, who created a fuss on SNN's launch day last Monday by appearing as the Sun newspapers' Sunshine Girl.

Prime-time content -- billed as the hard-hitting part of SNN's lineup -- includes The Source hosted by Ezra Levant, Daily Brief with David Akin, Byline with Brian Lilley, The Caldwell Account hosted by Theo Caldwell, and Winnipeg-based radio host Charles Adler's latest TV effort.

The tone of all SNN's shows, not surprisingly, is pro-Conservative and anti-Ignatieff, with much of their on-air conversation focused on repeating PM Stephen Harper's evil-coalition warnings (in the event of another Conservative minority) and exploring any available avenue to assault the Liberal leader's character and/or record.

What is surprising is the weak-kneed manner in which it's done -- the attacks on Iggy and his would-be coalition conspirators are glancing blows, at best, and several SNN hosts have chosen to play warm-and-fuzzy with NDP leader Jack Layton, either because they dislike him less than they Ignatieff or they believe convincing left-leaning voters to support the New Democrats will hurt the Libs and ease Harper's path toward a majority. Whatever the case, watching The Roundtable's hosts, Alex Pierson and Pat Bolland, fawn over Layton and wife Olivia Chow when they appeared on Thursday's show was as uncomfortable as it was unexpected.

In the "Straight Talk" hours of SNN's schedule, Levant's The Source is both professorial and preachy, not exactly a tone that resonates with the anti-intellectual, anti-elitist sorts who are presumed to inhabit the conservative base. Daily Brief's Akin isn't professorial, but does sort of remind one of a high-school social-studies teacher.

Dull

Adler, the self-proclaimed boss of talk, seems destined to prove -- as he has with past medium-shifting attempts -- that what's incendiary on radio can be just plain dull on the tube. Only Caldwell and, to a lesser extent, Lilley, look to be leaning toward the hard-spinning and confrontational style that has made cable-news stars out of Fox's Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck.

Caldwell has borrowed heavily from the Fox News playbook, delivering bombast while underplaying his own intellect in hopes of connecting with SNN's target audience. Using toss-off lines like "I'm not a lawyer; I'm not even a smart guy" and "a regular guy, like me," he's clamouring for everyman cred; in fact (according to Wikipedia, anyway), Caldwell is a former head of Upper Canada College's debating society, holds a master's degree in public policy and management from the University of London (England) and has authored five novels, two plays and four screenplays.

Regular guy, indeed.

Toward week's end, some of SNN's female personalities expressed irritation with being criticized for what they wear -- colourful dresses, mostly, often of the sleeveless variety, rather than the blazer-accented business attire seen on other news outlets.

Whether such criticisms -- even from other women in the media -- are sexist is a debate that will continue, but if you're a news channel that convinces (or coerces) one of its marquee show anchors to pose as a pinup girl, it's clear that a dignified image isn't what you're after for your female staffers.

The overall look of SNN, at least in these early days, is of a network trying to do more with less. The sets and lighting are Spartan, and the fact that the hosts of various shows keep popping up on other hosts' shows leaves one wondering if we're watching a news network or a sketch-comedy show (seriously, when is SCTV's Earl Camembert going to take a turn behind the anchor desk?).

Almost as interesting to watch as SNN's programs are the ads that support them -- an out-of-the-gate low-rent collection of regional Ontario businesses (Everest College, cash-for-gold-screaming Oliver Jewellery, Diamond & Diamond personal-injury lawyers), informercial-calibre pitchers (Tempur-Pedic beds, Dr. Ho's Air Orhotics), public-service announcements (World Vision Canada) and those aforementioned endlessly repeated in-house promotions. Clearly, SNN needs to gain advertisers even more desperately than it needs to attract viewers.

As stated before, these are early days. SNN might very well find its footing and gain a sizable following among Canada's TV-news consumers. But just as an expansion NHL team has no chance of winning the Stanley Cup in its first season, SNN isn't going to mount a serious challenge in the TV ratings race with this roster of castoffs, acquisitions and highly touted draft picks from the print-media league.

It will be a question of will. Clearly, SNN's owners possess neither the limitlessly deep pockets nor the world-domination determination of Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch; how much they're willing to invest financially and how far they're willing to push ideologically will determine, in the longer run, whether Sun News Network emerges as a political/media power or slides quickly into the ranks of cable-TV's afterthoughts.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 23, 2011 0

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