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SNN news network launches with defiant gesture

Right-wing channel shows infamous five-year-old cartoons of Prophet that inflamed conservative Muslims

TORONTO -- The controversial new Sun News Network launched Monday with a defiant act: showing the infamous cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that prompted a storm of protest across the Muslim world after they were published in a Danish newspaper in 2005.

The caricatures were displayed on the fledgling network's very first show, "The Source with Ezra Levant.''

Levant discussed his decision to publish the cartoons back in 2006 when he was editor of the Alberta-based political magazine The Western Standard. A graphic of the magazine spread appeared onscreen during his Monday show that clearly showed the 12 controversial caricatures of Muhammad.

"What's the big deal? We just showed it. Nothing bad happened,'' Levant said.

The cartoons first caused controversy after they were published by the Jyllands-Posten in 2005, and again in 2006 when they were reprinted by some Western media.

Levant launched "The Source'' on Monday shortly after the Sun News Network signed on at 1:30 p.m. PST with the playing of "O Canada'' over images of flags and Mounties, as well as photos of famous Canucks including Wayne Gretzky, Sidney Crosby and Shania Twain.

The sign-on was followed by a "pre-game'' show with anchor Krista Erickson, who was featured as a Sunshine Girl in Monday's Sun newspaper.

"Welcome to the very first minute of our very first broadcast,'' said Erickson. "Well, they said it couldn't be done and boy, were they wrong.''

She said her show, "Canada Live,'' would be a "contrarian take on the day's news events.'' The program is to air daily from noon to 2 p.m. on the West Coast.

Levant's show, meanwhile, was billed as "the most provocative and thought-changing (program) Canada has ever seen.''

The Twitterverse took note of the look of the network as much as its political stance.

"If the ratings are as high as the hem-lines, Sun News has a chance,'' tweeted Globe and Mail sports columnist Jeff Blair.

Added comedian Rick Mercer: "Just yesterday SUN TV's studios was full of dry wall, today it is full of silicone.''

Added Dave Dutton of the Ottawa Citizen: "26 babe shots in intro; still awaiting actual news.''

Dubbed "Fox News North'' by critics, the TV station's on-air personalities also include Winnipeg-based talk-radio host Charles Adler and former BNN and CBC reporter Pat Bolland.

Sun News Network officials have said they hope the new venture will balance what they see as a "lefty bias'' in traditional media. Quebecor CEO Pierre Karl Peladeau has also argued that the other Canadian news networks are boring and are driving viewers to U.S. network CNN.

One of the key forces behind the Sun News Network's agenda is Kory Teneycke, former chief spin doctor for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Other former PMO staffers have a hand in the venture as well, including Matt Wolf and Dennis Matthews. Another -- Jason Plotz -- joined for awhile and then returned to work for the Conservatives.

In the past few months, the network has garnered some high-profile critics.

Writer Margaret Atwood launched a Twitter offensive against the Sun News Network, while retired CBC newsman Don Newman grumbled that it meant the end of Canadian journalism.

"They've been hugely successful in attracting attention to themselves and have gotten an awful lot of publicity up to this point,'' said Chris Waddell, a former CBC Ottawa bureau chief and Globe and Mail business reporter who now teaches journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa.

However, Waddell says the true test will come in the weeks to come.

"The more important thing is what are they putting on the air, and what are the people they've got on the air doing; what are they saying, and what type of programming are they're doing."

The Sun News Network is still working to get on air across the country.

It's just negotiated a free six-month window on Shaw cable and the Quebecor-owned Videotron cable systems. No deal is in place yet with Rogers, but many in Ontario will be able to view Sun News on the old Sun TV channel.

A spokesman for the Sun News Network said the cable deals mean the network will initially be seen in over six million homes.

Since many viewers are initially receiving Sun TV free of charge, Waddell says that a significant hurdle for the network will come half a year from now, when viewers will have to decide whether they are willing to pay for it.

"At the moment the difficulty they face is, most of their audience would be an audience that isn't paying money to get the channel ...  So for the first six months or so, they're not getting much in the way of revenue," he said.

"Because just putting stuff on the air from a room is obviously one thing, but beyond that, setting up a national network of cameras, of distribution ... if you want to be newsgathering rather than just sitting in a room talking about news, that becomes a lot more expensive.''

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