Time To Kill Off Sun TV And Trouble Brewing At The London Free Press

It’s been almost a year and a half since Toronto One was rechristened Sun TV, or as I like to call it, Suck TV.  During its brief, 3-year existence, the station has gone through 3 owners:  Craig Media (which no longer exists), CHUM (which had to sell the property because it already owns enough Toronto-based channels) and Quebecor (its current owners).  Quebecor has owned the Sun Media corporation, in more ways than one, since a successful merger became official in January 1999.  At the time, joining with Quebecor was considered a better option than being swallowed up by TorStar (The Sun’s longtime rival who made an unsuccessful bid for the paper in 1998).  Many are regretting that the merger happened at all.
Since then, the Sun Media chain has been in turmoil.  It has suffered greatly from round after round after round of firings.  Many columnists have disappeared without any official explanation.  Other departures were described as “retirements”.  In turn, it has hired some questionable columnists (the controversial Rachel Marsden comes to mind).  Overall, there is a growing collective feeling of outrage and sadness among many of its employees who long for the days when Doug Creighton ran the show in Toronto. 
Which brings me back to Sun TV’s troubles.  On the Canadian Media Guild website there’s an archive of announcements regarding the union’s dealings with Sun TV’s management.  Since January of this year, the Guild has been trying to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with the company in order to protect the jobs of its employees and then, to get on with the business of running the station better.  There have been 8 such announcements in 2006, the most recent of which was released in November.  As of this writing, there is still no agreement in place between the two parties.
The CMG put forth its proposals, based on the surveyed wishes of Sun TV employees, on January 30.  (It’s the usual list of demands:  fair wages, harassment-free workplace, etc.)  The next day, they announced that Sun TV management would examine those proposals and get back to the union.  Both parties agreed to meet again in a month.
2 months later, Sun TV fired 13 employees from the station.  According to CMG, they were informed of this terrible news “only five minutes before the employees themselves were informed.”  They further noted, “[u]nder federal law, the employer is not supposed to make alterations to its operations without the union’s consent. We are exploring our legal options.” 
On March 24, a day after the union publicly reported those dismissals, it announced that it was “considering filing a complaint with the Canada Industrial Relations Board about the disgraceful treatment of employees.”  In the same press release, they had this to say about Quebecor:  “If the company has a plan for breaking into the English-language TV market, no one seems to know what it is.”  The union further complained that “[t]he broadcast licence granted to the station by the CRTC calls for editorial independence between the Sun and Sun TV; it is not clear how that will be fulfilled if the station’s only current affairs show relies on the newspaper’s editorial employees.”
That’s a reference to CANOE Live, Sun TV’s suppertime newscast.  Apparently, Quebecor couldn’t find any local Canadian talent willing to host the program so they recruited Indiana broadcaster Janette Luu for the job.  (She had previously been a reporter at ABC and NBC affiliates in Fort Wayne over an 8-year period.)  Much of the program involves Janette interviewing Toronto Sun reporters and columnists about stories covered in the newspaper.  Occasionally, guests like Ontario PC Opposition Leader John Tory make appearances but mostly, the bulk of the program is made up of one set of Quebecer employees interviewing another set of Quebecor employees. (There are no proper stories by TV reporters because Quebecor disbanded the ENG department.  They also axed the marketing department which leads one to wonder how they intend to increase their viewership if they don’t have anybody on-board to publicly push all of its programming.) 
This has not made for compelling Television (I can only take the program minutes at a time) and not exactly the winning formula for eating into the ratings of its more established local competitors who have respected anchors and reporters.  How long before the 7-month-old disaster (which got a critical pummelling from Toronto Star Media Critic Antonia Zerbisias) is put out of its misery is anybody’s guess.  Considering the channel’s history of not sticking with its homegrown programming, I’d be very surprised if it’s still on the air this time next year.
In April, The Canadian Media Guild and Sun TV management finally sat down to talk about reaching an agreement, nearly 3 months after the CMG announced its employee proposals.  Both sides agreed to work on the “non-contentious issues” first before getting to the more difficult and controversial matters at hand.  A follow-up meeting on May 24 led to more preliminary discussions of each side’s interests.  The union announced that it was hoping that this method of conciliation would lead to an agreed upon deal “without too much drama.”
But on September 5, a deal between the two camps was nowhere in sight.  The President of The CMG, Lise Lareau, publicly grumbled that day in a statement entitled Get With The Program, Sun TV, that since Quebecor took over the station, Sun TV “has become even less of a player.  The new owner is unable or unwilling to produce, or even purchase, shows that people want to watch.”
A quick perusal of the schedule confirms this fact.  All night informercials, reruns of Canadian shows like The Beachcombers, Danger Bay, and King Of Kensington, re-airings of American programs like Chico And The Man, Leave It To Beaver, Family Affair and Here’s Lucy (the Lucille Ball sitcom viewers don’t want to see again and again), and collectively ignored in-house productions like The Grill Room (a sports roundtable yakfest) and CANOE Live haven’t exactly set the local TV scene on fire.  Any current shows that are aired like 60 Minutes or Scrubs are simply simulcasts, meaning Sun TV airs these American staples at the exact same time American stations broadcast them.
Lareau further noted, “Sun TV management has recently cut back hours for studio technicians because there’s not enough work for them to do – and no clear plan as to how that work is ever going to come back.  Even more troubling was management’s recent inability to meet payroll for a group of temporary employees.” 
All of this leads to these important questions:  Why is this union wasting time negotiating a contract for its members with a company that has no idea how to efficiently run an English-language TV station?  Is it really worth spending almost a year trying to reason with people who can’t make payroll?  Why work for a company that has never had a show in the Top 30?  It’s lunacy.
I’m no fan of unions because I value individuality over the mob mentality but I’m definitely on the side of the CMG in this one.  They’ve been more than professional in their dealings with Quebecor.  But they’ve got to look in the mirror and realize that they’re not welcome in the company.  It’s time to cut their losses, kill off Sun TV and help find jobs for their members in places that will actually welcome them.   
I remember the days when The Toronto Sun bragged about being the only non-union paper in the city.  Employees shared profits with each other, 10-year veterans got an automatic 2-month vacation and it was rated one of the top 100 companies to work for.  
Those days are as good as dead.
If that weren’t enough trouble for Quebecor to deal with, now they may be facing a revolt at one of their dailies.
On December 12, The Professional Writers Association Of Canada issued a press release regarding The London Free Press.  They announced that Sun Media is urging its employees to sign a contract that would remove their right to compensation with regards to their reprinted material.  In other words, let’s say if a LFP columnist has his/her piece published in LFP, they get paid the same as before.  But if the company wanted to reprint that piece in another Sun daily, like The Toronto Sun, for instance, if they signed that restrictive contract, they wouldn’t be compensated for their work.  PWAC is urging its members to reject the contract and they believe they have the numbers to make it happen.
Last week, I reported the email exchanges I had with former Winnipeg Sun columnist Lydia Lovric.  She wrote me personally to explain why she left the paper.  She mentioned that Sun Media had urged her to sign away her right to reprint compensation so they could publish her column in any of their papers without paying extra.  In a follow-up email, she explained that, on principle, she left the company because she felt that policy was wrong.  She noted that the paper she currently works for, The Vancouver Province, pays for the right to reprint columns.
This is the exact same situation that’s happening at The London Free Press.  One wonders how many other Sun employees, past and present, will come forward to tell their tales of woe as we all try to understand why Quebecor is going out of its way to alienate its journalists.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, December 14, 2006
9:19 p.m.
Published in: on December 14, 2006 at 9:27 pm  Leave a Comment  

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