Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Damage was Already Done, Looking at the Sun

Pursuant to the previous post, and about a case and a half of local brews later, let me conclude the earlier matter by saying that my reaction to my data loss was about as calm and collected as the reaction of Stephan Lichtsteiner to the officiating in the Switzerland-Chile World Cup game.

Sometimes you feel like a Lichtsteiner, sometimes you don't. What is there to do, sometimes, but scream to the heavens and flap your arms like the most majestic of furious penguins?

So, we move on. I had been working on a humdinger of a post about that upcoming SUN TV News -- the capitalization is either "Sun" or "SUN", depending on who's being paid to write about it at the time -- and it was really close to completion before, well, you know. So humour me as I try to reconstruct the main points for consideration from memory, presenting them for my own sake as an itemized list.

1] Just so we're clear on this, the SUN TV News channel will not be a Conservative-slanted, right-wing station -- and if you don't believe it, just ask them. According to Kory Teneycke, Quebecor Vice-President of Development and the man personally spearheading the station:

"“There will be a range of opinion (. . . .) If you’re wondering what the presentation (will be), what kind of news stories we will be interested in, and the flavour of the commentary we’ll have, pick up the Sun newspaper and you probably have a pretty good indication. The Sun newspaper has many different voices there. So will this."

Well, there's a punchline just waiting to happen, but let's take the high road on that one for the time being.

Their stated intentions are to start a network based on impartial "hard news and straight talk", which sounds perfectly reasonable. Except that the network is headed by Stephen Harper's former Director of Communications, their columnist tasked by the namesake newspapers with making the network sound less potentially scary is a former Conservative MP (you'll note that the focus on the coffee-shop angle is just them staying on message), and the Vice Chairman of the Quebecor Board of Directors is none other than Brian Mulroney. Yes, that Brian Mulroney.

Now, the first two I could look past pretty easily -- Conservatives gotta eat too, and it can't be easy finding work when common parlance holds that the Liberals have monopolized all the journalism jobs everywhere else -- but how does anything with Mulroney floating around the top of the food chain get away with claiming "straight talk" as a founding ideal? Not off to a great start, guys.

(And, really, how two-faced would you have to be to compile a staff along partisan lines and then fervently proclaim nonpartisanship? What kind... of... wait, right. Never mind.)

2] I know I say something along these lines with surprising frequency, but sometimes I think it's a shame I missed the good ol' days.

If you pop down to our Provincial Archives and our Legislative Library -- they're in the same building, which is pretty convenient -- you can fritter away hours of your time delving into the newspaper records of over a century ago, and they are fascinating. They're filled with wacky local-interest stories, curious old advertising strategies, perfectly exact election tallies, detailed recaps of social gatherings large and small, and occasionally a really well written serial short story or a joke section so impeccably racist that your brain recoils your head back out of the microfiche reader in self-defense.

Us modern types may make a big show of decrying sensationalism, but pffft, we know we really don't mean it. People love sensationalism, and people have always loved sensationalism; one look at these old papers and you start to fear for humanity realize how deeply entrenched the approach is. Hell, Joseph Pulitzer ran some of the most unscrupulous, populist, scandalous, sensationalistic newspapers of his era, and the prize for excellence in journalism is named after him. (To be fair, that's because his estate forked out the money to establish it, but still. Figure that legacy out.)

But the really refreshing part of reading the newspapers from the late 18th and early 19th centuries is how cheerfully, unabashedly honest they were about their political bents. If you're reading these archived papers and an election draws near, you get to watch as the editors of each paper explicitly pick sides and announce their party preferences right up front -- usually with grand statements like "This paper firmly believes that the Conservative Party is the proper choice and the only Party capable of sound leadership" or "There should be no hesitation whatsoever amongst all right-minded individuals that the Liberal Party is by far the better selection for the governance of Canada" and I'm kind of winging these off the top of my head but you get the general idea.

I know we would consider this kind of behaviour -- this honesty, ugh -- absolutely unthinkable in modern mainstream media, but wouldn't it be a hoot if they gave it a shot just for a change of pace? We could try it out next election, it's not like people vote any more anyway.

3] Given its branding synergy with the newspaper holdings and its inherent conservative (sorry, "centre-right" "straight talk") leanings, I will be deeply upset if the SUN TV News marketing team doesn't at least consider the idea of hiring Bill Murray to do the television spots:

"For relaxing times... make it SUN-Tory time."

Money just fell out of my wallet as I typed that. Make it happen, Quebecor!

4] We've all been there, I think; you loathe the company you're currently working for (or the person you're working under), but you tough it out because you either need the money really badly or need the experience to get to something better.

Assuming that Don Newman didn't make a conversation up out of thin air, Kory Teneycke was expressing his belief in the need for a Canadian right-wing news television network as far back as 2003. The chances are good that Quebecor knew his stance perfectly well, and they likely brought the issue up with him well before they hired him to specifically create one; I think it's safe to say that he's put a lot of thought into it, and that he's committed himself to the idea for a while now.

So it may seem strange in retrospect that, in between his departure from the Prime Minister's Office and his appointment as Quebecor VP of Development, he served brief stints with both CTV and CBC as an on-air political commentator. The hated rivals that he and his boss speak so venomously about at present? The very same. Because he needed the money? Naw, son -- because you can identify the strengths and weaknesses of an organization a lot more accurately from the inside than you can from the outside.

Smart man, Teneycke. He'll go far.

5] I do believe that the network will struggle initially to build credibility, but not for the reasons you would expect.

The staffing shouldn't be a problem, once you get past the swaths of big-time capital-C Conservatives behind the curtain. Running a core team of Akin, Lilley and Fisher is an excellent basis for building a credible and trustworthy reputation, and hiring Krista Erickson... well, uh... hmm. Three out of four ain't bad, though, right?

A lot of the negative (and, yes, perhaps a tiny bit kneejerk) commentary has revolved around the new network's assumed similarity to Fox News down in the States, but I must say that I'm not as convinced by that reasoning. I mean, yeah, taken at its ideological stances and fearmongering tactics, Fox News is pretty terrible -- but I thought Rob Silver summed up the success of Fox News against its cable competitors quite nicely in one sentence:

"It has nothing to do with right versus left and everything to do with interesting versus boring."

Margaret Wente is certainly not often mistaken for a left-winger -- and maybe she's angling for a job when she warns that it won't be controversial or interesting enough, who knows -- but she and Silver are thinking along the same lines when she suggests that SUN TV is going to have a harder time than Fox News because the Canadian political climate is simply less condusive to entertainment. The centre-left and centre-right spend all of their time trying to clog up the centre, so it's only very rarely that we get anything half as entertaining as the Peter Goldring Special from a few months back.

In fact, the Harper Conservatives have practically made an art of controlling the message, and thus far they've really been in no mood to encourage discourse on harder right-wing topics. They don't want you to associate the Prime Minister with program funding reductions and abortion debates, they want you to associate him with Beatles songs and nice sweaters. (So can it, Bruinooge.)

Basically, Fox News boils down to two components: ideology and presentation. And I'd suggest the chances are good that SUN TV News won't (for the sake of its political loyalties) or can't (for lack of appropriate material) be borrowing the hard political slant of its southern counterpart. If they're going to take anything away from the Fox example, then, it'll be the flashy production values and fast-paced entertainment philosophy -- and those values have apparently already made QMI television holdings a big hit in Quebec, so I expect they'll know what they're doing well enough when they hit the national stage.

If their message is "IGNATIEFF IS A PONCE", well, sure, we know he's a ponce. But how are they going to hammer home that he's a ponce? Therein lies the rub, but the evidence so far is that they've figured out how to rub folks the right way.

So if their problem isn't going to be the on-air talent, the ideological material or the presentation values, what variable is going to present their biggest obstacle to respectability as a credible, rational, professional news and information source? The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that the network's biggest weakness is what it'll be counting on most to establish itself early: its brand.

The problem isn't that it's going to be like Fox News. The problem is that it's going to be like the SUN.

Teneycke said it himself, in describing what the network will be like: "pick up the Sun newspaper and you probably have a pretty good indication." So pick one up and look through it. Go ahead, give it a whirl.

I don't say this as any indictment of ground-level SUN staff, mind you; if anything, I sympathize with the hardworking journalists and columnists here and across the country who do their best to follow local stories and address local issues. (Especially since, if them lefties at the Star are to be trusted, those workers are overstretched already without having to generate an additional station's worth of content in a different medium entirely.)

Imagine doing the arduous groundwork on an important local development in the morning, following up with leads and contacts through the afternoon, writing and polishing the final copy for the deadline in the later hours of the evening, and then seeing your story bumped to somewhere way back in the paper the next day because the marquee front-page story is a Bigfoot sighting. Thanks, QMI -- why don't you just throw in a couple kidney punches, while you're at it?

No, if you were excited for the idea that a third national news network would mean more coverage of meaningful stories in your area, it's better you steel yourself for disappointment now. If you subscribe on day one expecting hard-hitting analysis of civic and provincial issues, you're going to put your remote through the television when something like Indonesian cow sex is their top story.

I mean, even the SUNshine Girls aren't local, and they're one of the biggest selling points of the brand. Consider that for a moment.

This also brings up another considerable concern: the majority of the content in any given SUN paper is not going to translate properly to the small screen. How do you bring the SUNshine Girls into the medium of television without coming across as skeevy and/or desperate? How many pages per day are dedicated to non-transferable classified listings and other newspaper trappings like comics, crosswords and car ads? And considering how much real estate in the SUN is dedicated to sports coverage, are they going to cough up the dough necessary to license clips and provide analysis and maintain a nexus of on-air sports talent?

The only particularly useable sections of the SUN, for television, are maybe a dozen total pages of news and then the editorial and commentary sections that skew bluer than Violet Beauregarde after the experimental gum. ("It won't be right-wing! It'll be like the SUN!" Yeah, okay. And my album won't be reggae, it'll just sound exactly like Bob Marley.) I guess you can throw in the few pages of celebrity gossip, too, if those fall under your working definitions of "hard news" and/or "straight talk". But how do you stretch this out across a twenty-four-hour broadcast day, every day? And how do you get a news and politics network to be taken seriously when the network specifically named itself after low-circulating Red Tops recognized for everything but their news and politics coverage?

It ought to be interesting, however it shakes down, that's for sure. But first they have to actually get the thing on the air.

6] SUN TV News still has to go through regulatory approval between now and the end of the year, and the CRTC is never exactly heralded for its ease to work with. The big dealbreaker still floating around out there is whether or not the network can secure its desired Class 1 license from the CRTC -- and at a time when the CRTC is specifically clawing back all the licenses already out there, at that. If QMI can get ahold of that Class 1 designation, there'll be a lot more revenue flowing into the network; if they don't, the venture may end up being a whole lot smaller than initially proposed when it does finally get off the ground. They're in this to make money, remember, as strange as that may sound when they're making a gigantic investment in a continually shrinking industry. So for all the hypotheticals being thrown around by all comers about its content and its presentation right now, we still have to remember that what they put into it will be influenced by what they can get out of it.

Boy, if only they had any high-placed connections to influencial figures within the federal government, they might have a better shot at the ruling they need. But who has those just lying around, am I right?

7] I know I've just written extended considerations on the prospective differences between SUN TV News and Fox News, but what the hell, it's more fun sometimes to pretend that panicking people know what they're talking about. So let's humour the common fears and consider the question -- what if SUN TV was exactly similar to Fox News in all aspects?

I don't know what your favourite Fox News moment is, but unquestionably my absolute favourite thing to come out of Fox News emerged during the leadup to the 2008 American Presidential Election. Those of you who know me well know that I still bust this one out on an almost daily basis, in real life, so you'll be unsurprised when I take my inspiration for my next segment from this modern-day legend of broadcasting integrity.

"A fist-bump? A pound? A terrorist fist jab? The gesture everyone seems to interpret differently. We'll show you some interesting body communication and find out what it really says."


Yes, in covering a given topic, the rules of engagement are as obvious as they are straightforward: if you present two plausible explanations and then a third batshit crazy explanation, you get your desired message out while still technically remaining fair and balanced. We're taking on political correctness, remember! (No, I'm serious, Teneycke actually said that.) This is important!

Yes, if you want hard news and straight talk about the issues of the day, we've got you covered:

"Lower grocery costs? Greener eating habits? Or ritualistic blood sacrifices? Find out why people in your community want to keep chickens in their backyard, tonight on SUN TV News."

"Tonight on SUN TV News, your Member of Parliament: a good citizen? A hard-working role model? Or a treasonous foreign-interest plant? We'll identify the most likely defectors, tonight."

"Are fogging buffer zones inspired by distrust of chemical toxins? By respect for the natural ecosystem? Or by mosquito sympathizers? SUN TV News profiles the hug-a-bug liberal elites who are ruining your summer, coming up next."

"When aboriginal women go missing, are they murdered? Forced into prostitution? Or just leaving their children and hanging out with their friends for a couple of weeks? A special feature on the Sarah George story, tonight, on SUN TV News."

It's a bright new day for Canadian journalism! Now watch as people only read the last few lines of this post and tear into me for misrepresenting the situation. (Hey, it wouldn't be the first time.) Good to be back!

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