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Sun News Network hits the airwaves with a hard right

A screenshot of Ezra Levant's debut on Sun News Network, April 18, 2011.

The Sun News Network can finally be judged on the quality of its content rather than on its ability to generate controversy off the air.

After a year of preparations, the all-news network went live Monday night and wasted little time in hammering home its message of "hard news and straight talk" with frequent attacks on the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and other media outlets that "want the government to do everything."

"They said it couldn't be done and we proved them wrong," anchor Krista Erickson told viewers in the opening minutes of the broadcast.

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While the critics who dubbed the network "Fox News North" worried the network's conservative tone could hurt the tone of news coverage in the country - the fact that it was launching in the middle of the federal election only added to the chorus of criticism - the network largely steered clear of federal politics Monday night.

The exception came during a commercial break - the first paid political advertisement to run on the right-leaning network was paid for by the Liberal Party of Canada.

The topics covered in its first night underlined its focus - Ezra Levant's debut show focused on how the CRTC is trying to regulate services such as Netflix, David Akin discussed private health care and Brian Lilley focused on spending at the CBC.

While the first half hour of the network's life was heavy on promotion, there were some glimpses into how the network will operate on a daily basis that had not been clear. Sun News Network will rely on CNN for much of its video, and count on Quebecor's network of print journalists when news breaks outside of metro centres.

What isn't clear, according to Janice Neil, a professor of broadcast journalism at Ryerson University, is whether the channel will emerge as a hard-news rival to competitors such as CBC Newsworld and CTV News Channel that will take advantage of its print journalists for content or whether it will rely on its high-profile personalities to talk about news stories rather than report them from where they are happening.

"I appreciate that they want to bring us the truth and all that," she said, "but I really don't have a sense of how they are going to do that. I don't know whether they'll have people there on the ground, or whether we'll just be watching people talking about what happened all the time."

Elly Alboim, a former parliamentary bureau chief for CBC-TV and principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group, said it is premature to try and assess the quality of the network's programming. While they have been rehearsing for months, it will take weeks before the staff is comfortable with being on the air.

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"The real question isn't how they will perform initially," he said. "The question is whether the news will be straight or tilted, and whether there will be any diversity in the voices from show to show."

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