A few weeks ago I received a surprise e-mail. Out of the blue, at least from my side, I heard from Richard Stursberg, the former V.P. of CBC English. He left a telephone number and an e-mail address and asked if we could get together to talk.
At first I thought I was being scammed. I have written some pretty nasty observations about the man’s management style and his programming decisions. I would have thought I would be last person he would want to sit down with.
After a few weeks of dancing around possible times to meet we finally got together last week.
Let me start the description of our meeting with a few caveats. I was not invited to interview him, he asked for the meeting to question me. At no point did Richard ask me to keep our meeting off the record and thus I made no promises of any kind. Since it was not an interview, hot seat or otherwise, it was not conducted as such. I am writing this because I think there are a lot of people who are interested in Richard’s post-CBC thoughts and observations. What follows is a neutral, straight- forward report on our get together.
His stated purpose for the meeting was to talk about news. He gave no reason before or during the get together as to why he was interested in discussing news. I am still at a loss as to the purpose of the meeting. Having said that, I would characterize the time we spent together as cordial and frank. We shared our opinions easily and without rancor.
As you might guess there were a few things we agreed to disagree about and surprisingly, several areas on which we agreed completely.
From my point of view there were three main areas of discussion. We began by both lamenting the tragedy that the loss of local CBC newsrooms has been for the corporation. It has always been my view that the destruction of CBC’s local newsrooms in the mid-eighties that continued for over twenty years was a huge loss for CBC News that resulted in smaller and smaller audiences for all CBC programming. I was surprised to hear that he agreed completely. He believes that local news is the most important building block for a successful news operation and that when successful, as it was in the 80’s, it brings viewers to all CBC news broadcasts. I added that I thought it actually brought increased viewership to all CBC programs.
Mr. Stursberg is proud of the fact that he began to rebuild the local newsrooms and increased their airtime. I am not so sure. CBC local news ratings are still very, very poor and I believe that has a lot to do with the underfunding and lack of quality leadership with strong news experience. It’s not good enough to say here’s more time, but you will get no increase in funding or staff.
His second big point was about the general cowardice among his predecessors and some of the managers that have survived his tenure. He says he is a great believer in figuring out what shows are working and which shows are failing or at least beginning to fail. He feels the same way about on air personalities who are no longer meeting the audience’s needs and expectations. Stursberg believes CBC management that came before him should have cancelled programs that were no longer viable. He takes credit for doing just that, but he was never specific about which programs he was talking about. He believes that to be successful you have to be ruthlessly assessing your product at all times. At CBC it is far more common to say that everything is wonderful. CBC management (and I know this especially true of the news) is delusional. They think, or at least they say publicly, everything they produce is high quality and works well. They stand behind the work of all of heir on air people. Loyal yes. Smart, no.
Finally we got around to talking about The National. He claims he was not expecting the kinds of changes that were brought about two years ago. He says he wanted a newscast that was more serious. He wanted fewer stories with more depth. He was certainly not talking about current affairs. He meant longer news stories that explained in more context, the important events of the day.
So how did The National get filled with fluff stories that have so little connection to the real news of the day? I didn’t get a direct answer. I was just told it was not what he expected or wanted.
I asked why, as the boss, he didn’t get the kind of news he wanted. I never got a direct answer to that question, but I did get a long discussion about the people who run the newsroom. As far as Mr. Stursberg is concerned they are a kind of cabal that protects their own interests at the expense of the CBC. He claims he had a hard time having any influence over them. Worst of all, he said, they do not care about any show other than The National. They would happily undermine every other newscast the CBC produces to help The National. He feels the failures of CBC NN and local news can be attributed in no small way to the selfishness of the people running CBC News and The National.
There were other sidebar discussions that were illuminating. First I get the impression that Richard is not a fan of current affairs. He never said that, but the discussion always turned away from current affairs when I tried to bring it up. He did say he thinks Fifth Estate produces too few quality programs every year.
It is clear that Mr. Stursberg believes the best way to judge the success or failure of a television program is the ratings. To be fair, that’s the attitude of most TV execs in Canada and the U.S., but most who feel that way do not work for a crown corporation that has a mandate that goes beyond numbers.
Personalities aside, during the time I spent with him, he was charming and witty, but hey that’s easy when we don’t have a working relationship and neither one of us has anything to lose. What became crystal clear to me was that Richard Stursberg is a smart man who found himself in the wrong job. I suspect he would fit in beautifully at CTV or Global and would perhaps do an excellent job. At CBC he was fighting the mandate, the history and the idiosyncratic way things are done. I will even give him credit for recognizing many of the absurdities of CBC Television, but what he had to understand equally, and it appears he either didn’t get or refused to bend towards, was the special place and task that a public broadcaster has in a country like Canada.
Sorry folks, we never talked about his management style, the lockout he is accused of engineering or the quality of the comedies and dramas that now populate the CBC schedule. He said he wanted to talk about news and I kept my part of the bargain.