I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

The more things change…

It never ceases to amaze me how big corporations can be so oblivious to what is happening on the streets just outside their fancy headquarters. We’ve all been disgusted by the big U.S. banks taking billions or trillions of dollars in bailouts and then turning around and handing out million dollar bonuses to their executives and top performers.

We are gob struck by hospitals in Canada who take all of their top doctors to meetings in Florida or Las Vegas rather than using the fancy boardrooms they have had built and furnished in their facilities.

All we can say is: what were they thinking?

So why are we surprised to learn that the CBC is sending twice as many people to a TV and media festival in Banff than any other Canadian network? That’s the way the CBC works. Some will go as a form of bonus or reward. Others will go to raise the CBC flag. A few will even go to Banff to do some valuable work. Heck, at the CBC they probably think they are saving money because they are likely sending fewer people than they sent in the past. While the profligacy boggles our minds, the CBC brass will be truly surprised by the mild uproar. It’s how they have always done their business. What’s new?

For years I traveled to conferences, markets and conventions all over the world. A few when I was with CTV, a few more at CBC, and regularly when I helped run a private company that produced television programs. Several things became obvious to me on my travels: first of course, was that CBC always had the largest contingent of any of the Canadian broadcasters or producers, most of whom were there for reasons that I, as a participant, could not fathom.

Further, except for a tiny group of people who were there to look for programs to buy or sell, it was a complete boondoggle. Most of the participants go to the conventions to see old friends, have fancy lunches and dinners with the same people they see at every convention, and to party…I know people, including CBC types, who never showed up at any of the serious convention events, in fact they were probably sleeping off last night’s party so they could be fresh for tonight’s party.

In truth, because the broadcast people already know most of the other participants, it would be far cheaper and way more effective to telephone the people they are meeting with or to travel to their offices, whether they are in New York, London or Paris. They would not have to pay huge entrance fees. They would not have to compete with hundreds of others for face time. Most important, they could do all their business in one quick meeting and then head home.

The problem with these organizations, like CBC, the big banks, hospitals, is that they have developed a culture that took years and years to grow and it is almost impossible for them to see beyond the way they have always done their business. You can see it in Richard Stursberg’s book, Tower of Babble. Here’s a guy who claims to have had massive money problems. He says he begged the CBC Board of Directors to allow him to create new sources of revenue to combat millions and millions of dollars in shortfalls. Yet, here’s King Richard, crowing about the results of studies that he personally ordered. He names at least three studies he called for. Each one probably cost over a million dollars. In all my years at Global and CTV I do not remember even one study bought and paid for by the broadcaster. That’s what they paid their execs to do: make decisions based on experience and intelligence. Yet to Stursberg it is normal. He sees it as part of his job. He never once puts two-and-two together to come up with the possibility of saving money for programming by shutting down the useless studies he is commissioning. To be fair, the CBC has been doing studies since long before Stursberg showed up. When I was at CBC local news we received the results of a study that said the viewers wanted more international news. There was another study that said The National should be moved to seven p.m. Yet another study told us that our viewers were slightly older than those of CTV, Global and CityTV. All of this was “cover-your-ass” information. It meant CBC bosses could say decisions were not based on their ideas, a study said they should do what they did. At CBC some expenses are never questioned.

I use the idea of studies as just one example. I could talk about the fact that although it is true that CBC programming dollars have been cut to the bone and production staffs are below the minimum needed to do the work in many cases, CBC management is still bloated. There are too many bosses for too few employees. I know of one unit at CBC news that has one producer and three bosses. I know the CBC documentary unit has over a dozen people to buy docs from independent and foreign producers, when it is a job for a maximum of three people at most broadcasters in the world. But hey, this is the way the CBC has always done its business.

The way for the CBC to survive the future cuts has little to do with the measures being taken today and much to do with a complete change in the culture and the way of doing business. I see no signs of this happening. I hope I am wrong. If you know of examples of changes in the culture that could save the CBC please share them. I for one would be ecstatic to hear about them.

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Tower of Babble

Review: The Tower of Babble by Richard Stursberg

Written for J-Source Website

The Tower of Babble, like Richard Stursberg, is a mass of contradictions. On the one hand Stursberg proves himself to be an incredibly astute observer of what was wrong with the CBC. Amazingly, he also comes across as a man whose bungled solutions to the CBC’s problems were in many cases wrongheaded – and worse – contradictory.

As I read the book I found myself constantly shaking my head. Sometimes it was in reaction to Richard Stursberg’s accurate insights into what needed fixing (the internal battles for funds, the lack of understanding of what is entertainment), other times it was in reaction to the incredible solutions he advocated (moving The National to 11 where it failed miserably before), sometimes in complete contradiction to his own stated goals. More important, though, than any of this, was the amazing chutzpa of a man who has obviously never been wrong and is not afraid to make this clear to everyone who reads his book.

Don’t get me wrong, The Tower of Babble is a good read. Stursberg has a way with words and sprinkles in enough humour to keep the proceedings light, even when the content drifts into a numbers game both fiscally and with audience research.

The best chapter in the book is about the lockout of CBC employees in 2005. Here he lays out the reasons for the lockout and fully explains how CBC management came to their decision. He points out that the lockout was necessary for two reasons: first, the technological changes, the move to on-line and the need for multi-tasking were essential for the CBC to survive in the 21st century. Second, it was vitally important to not allow the CBC unions to strike during the new TV season coming up in late September of ‘05 because Stursberg and company were unveiling the first of their new dramatic, comedic and reality based offerings; even more concerning, the CBC could not afford any disruption to the new hockey schedule, the National Hockey League coming off a lockout of their own that cost the corporation millions.

Thus rather than wait for the workers to strike, CBC management locked them out in August.

He crows about how the plan worked to perfection. The workers were out in summer when viewership is down anyways, and then settled long before the puck dropped on a new hockey season. His only regret, it seems, was that management got everything they wanted from the new contract but had to keep quiet when the union bosses claimed victory. Not being allowed to gloat is obviously a terrible sacrifice for Stursberg.

The other interesting chapter is the one he calls “Money.” Here we get a glimpse into how difficult it is to run a public broadcaster. When the economy took a dive in 2008 all TV networks in North America, probably the western world, were badly hurt. As businesses suffered they spent fewer dollars on advertising. Adding to this was the fact that tight money meant loans were close to impossible to secure. Stursberg points out that Global and CTV could pay less for U.S. shows, could cut stock dividends, could cut profits – in other words, there were all kinds of fiscal tools open to them. More important, they could act quickly. CBC needed approval of their board of directors, government committees, and the heritage department to do anything and that could take months or even years. Further, since CBC is a non-profit company, there were no fiscal tools open to them, and since they made or bought predominantly Canadian programs, there was no way to pay less for content.

Stursberg and his staff desperately tried to come up with schemes to make money. They wanted to run infomercials overnight but the board said the CBC was not allowed to run infomercials; they wanted to allow political advertising when no election was called, but the board nixed this idea too. It seems whatever plan Stursberg came up with, the CBC Board of Directors said ‘no’.

Most of the rest of the book is old hat to anyone who has followed Stursberg and his time at the CBC. The rants in favour of popular programming, the need for one million viewers for every show, the “wrongheadedness” of mandate programs…these are the views we have come to expect from him. Sure, he makes more arguments, but they all sound like the same ones we have been hearing since “King Richard” rode in on his high horse to save the damsel CBC in distress. I have no problem with Stursberg staking out his ground again. Where I object, is that so many of his arguments are just plain wrong, both factually and philosophically.

Here are some of the incredibly basic factual errors he makes: he says CBC has no programs that make the top 20 in Canada. Hockey Night in Canada is regularly in the top 20.

He says before him CBC never produced popular programs. What about Front Page Challenge, Kids in the Hall, SCTV, Road to Avonlea, heck what about Tommy Hunter and The Plouffe Family?

He says that CBC didn’t produce “any” programming in the 70’s and 80’s. Has Stursberg ever heard of Seeing Things, Street Legal and some of the above named programs.

He says Newsworld was launched in the early ‘80s. In fact it was started in 1989.

He mentions “Sunday Morning” in 2004. It had been cancelled and replaced by that time (with Sunday Edition).

He says Global television never produced any sports. In fact they produced Leafs games for several season in the early ‘90s.

For heaven’s sake, he calls Traders a CBC drama. It was on Global.

He constantly claims he miraculously turned around CBC-TV’s audience numbers and adds claims that he brought them to their highest levels ever. Barry Kiefl, who was the best audience researcher the CBC ever had, maybe the best any broadcaster had in Canada, disagrees. Kiefl points out that CBC’s audience share is 8.7. It has been between 8 and 9% for eight years. Yes there was a bad year before Richard came to the CBC but that was directly attributable to the NHL lockout. Before the NHL lockout the CBC had an 8.9 share. In fact before Stursberg arrived, in the early Robert Rabinovitch years, the corporation actually reached a 10 share. The ratings were never at an all-time high in Stursberg’s time at CBC.

Here’s a quote from Barry Kiefl’s blog, mediatrends-research.blogspot.ca:

Then, why is it that CBC seems to have more viewers for some individual programs today than a few years ago? Well, and this is a fact that few in the TV industry want to address, it turns out that three years ago, in fall 2009, the definition of who was to be counted as being in the audience was changed dramatically by the ratings system. The majority of programs on all networks for the past three years have had a much larger audience as a result. Audience share wasn’t much affected because almost every station’s audience went up. But audiences really didn’t increase, just as the temperature is not affected when one switches from Centigrade to Fahrenheit degrees.

Mr. Rabinovitch and Mr. Stursberg both began their careers as Ottawa bureaucrats and learned, as so many in Ottawa have, that if you repeat something often and loud enough, the press (and their readers) will come to believe that it must be true.

Philosophically, the problems may even be worse than the factual errors. He argues that the industry demands plots finish in one show so that viewers don’t disappear when they miss a program. He doesn’t deal with the fact that some of the most successful shows on TV are Madmen, The Wire, The Sopranos, The Good Wife, and 24, all of which have ongoing story lines. Has Richard ever heard of recording shows, of downloading programs? This from the man who wants CBC to be on top of the new technology.

He goes on about the “new” direction for news. He talks about how important local news is. However, when he expanded local news from 30 to 60 minutes, he didn’t add staff or funds to make it possible for local to do a credible job (perhaps taking it from The National, which he felt is over staffed and over funded). Further, he talks about how he wanted The National to be a place to go for depth and explanation of the days events, yet he doesn’t explain getting rid of perhaps the best news documentary unit in North America. Nor does he explain the contradiction in turning to television doctors Frank Magid and Associates. Remember, these are the people responsible for “Eyewitness” news, if it bleeds it leads. Stursberg never sees the contradictions.

The truth is I have skimmed the surface of the errors and contradictions presented by Stursberg. Anyone who reads his book will add dozens more to my list. So why read The Tower of Babble? It is a rare opportunity to see inside CBC management. It is an amazing look at one of the most controversial, confrontational characters to work in media in Canada. And it actually does provide many examples of what’s wrong with our national broadcaster and the difficulties inherent in trying to keep it running.

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CBC: Failure at the top

It is all too clear that no matter what you think of the cuts to the CBC in last week’s budget, the people who run the Corpse have been missing in action in the process. Sure they will tell you how hard they have been working behind closed doors in offices and boardrooms across the country for the past while to figure out how to cut $200 million from their budgets over the next three years. The problem is that the real work they should have been doing was never done.

It seems, and this is according to CBC President Hubert Lacroix, that the government came to them a few weeks ago and asked them how they would cut 5% or 10% of their budget. I want to first say that this should be none of the government’s business. Yes, they can cut the CBC’s stipend any way and any amount they want to, but there is supposed to be an arms-length relationship between the national broadcaster and the government. The purpose of this is to make certain that there’s no political interference in the running of the CBC. By asking the Corpse how they would make the cuts the Finance Ministry and the Heritage Ministry crossed a line that should never be crossed for the protection of all Canadians.

Just as important though, the President of the CBC should not have provided the government with the answers they asked for. This was the time for Hubert Lacroix to take a stand, in fact many stands, against a government that recognizes no rules unless it suits them.

The first thing the CBC president should have said to the government was that the CBC could not deal with any cuts at all. The broadcaster is already underfunded and cannot do the job it has been mandated to do with the money it is already getting. I don’t know whether this is true or not, but it doesn’t matter. Lacroix is there to protect the CBC’s budget and mandate not to give it away whenever the government comes calling.

Certainly the Harperites would have cut anyways, but at least Lacroix should not have made it easy for them.

Second, Lacroix and company should have appealed publicly to all Canadians. He should have held a media conference to say that the Tories were planning to cut the CBC budget. He should have explained the consequences to his organization and to all Canadians. In other words, he should have put up a fight. It’s his job to make it difficult to hurt the organization he runs, not to make it easy.

Third, Lacroix should have told the government it is none of their business how he will make any cuts if they are forced on him and the CBC. Once again, that’s his job, to protect the CBC not to help the Finance Minister balance his budget.

In the end Lacroix committed the biggest crime of all. He told CBC staff and all Canadians that CBC could not only absorb the cuts, but that his 2015 plan would still be able to go ahead. He made the cuts look like it was no big deal to the average Canadian. He gave Canadians no reason to protest, no reason to care.
If you don’t believe me, just check out what the Heritage Minister, James Moore, said when he was questioned about the cuts in question period. He said:
“I would encourage my honourable colleague to look at the speech that was given by Hubert Lacroix, president of the CBC, that outlines it in greater detail, and as a matter of fact the member opposite has it exactly wrong,” he said. Moore then used his time to explain that the budget allows for the “funds necessary for the CBC to fulfill their obligations under the Broadcasting Act.”
The network will still be able to fulfill its 2015 plan which, he said, includes maintaining coverage in all areas, maintaining its official language “footprint,” more “digitization,” and to become “leaner”. The plan “serves the interest not only of the cultural communities but also of taxpayers.”

Talk about an easy out. Thank you very much Hubert Lacroix!
From the performance I have seen over the past week from CBC brass I find it near impossible not to believe that Lacroix, Kirsten Stewart and French V.P. Louis Lalonde appear to be far more interested in keeping their jobs by making the government like them, than they seem to care about the future of the CBC.
It’s too bad really, just when the CBC needs strong leadership most, it becomes obvious that the folks running the corporation are petty bureaucrats whose only interest is self-preservation. Past CBC presidents have resigned their posts over far less.
As far as the actual cuts are concerned, there is little specific information available at this time. Lacroix and his hench-people promised more information soon. What is clear is that $43 million is going to be cut from English programming. Kirsten Stewart refuses to say, at this time, whether that will come from entertainment, sports, or news. We do know that the doc unit is gone, at least as far as making documentaries is concerned. CBC will basically become a buyer of docs in the future.
We were also told that 10% of managers will be cut. We were not told whether this referred to salary or numbers. CBC is still massively over managed. Few managers have been cut over the years. I, and almost anyone who has ever worked for more than one network in Canada, am amazed that CBC honchos can’t cut far more from management to protect programming and the people who actually make the shows.
Lacroix estimates that 81% of the cuts will come from the networks (French and English) and 19% from the regions.
All-in-all a sad time for the national broadcaster: unloved by government and un-led by it’s bosses. If there is any justice in the world, Lacroix will not have his contract renewed. Nobody likes a suck up, not even the folks he’s sucking up to.

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King Richard: in his own words

Having just returned from a marathon two month stay in South America and a side trip to Montreal, it came as a bit of a surprise to see that Richard Stursberg, the former grand poobah of all things English at the CBC is back too, and he’s back in a very big way.

It seems Stursberg has a new book out, “The Tower of Babble” that tells the inside story of his tumultuous tenure at the national broadcaster. It should be an interesting, perhaps maddening, look at the machinations of the folks who ran the corporation and a behind the scenes account of some of the most divisive time in CBC history.

As a sort of preview King Richard wrote what he and The Globe and Mail are calling an essay entitled “How to Save the CBC.”

If the book is anything like the essay it will be both a direct and indirect exercise in self-congratulations. Heck if Stursberg pats himself on the back at the same rate as in his essay, he will need shoulder surgery to correct the rotator cuff damage he inflicts on himself.

Stursberg’s essay in Globe starts with the amazing idea that he presided over the CBC’s Golden Age. He says audience numbers were sinking at the CBC since the 1970’s. By the time he took over they were at their lowest in history. This is sort of true. What Stursberg fails to point out however, is that CTV, Global, in fact all terrestrial broadcasters lost audience in those years. As new channels, cable and specialty came on board, audience numbers spiraled downward. In the 1970’s the worst rated network show in Canada still got a 20 audience share. By the time the new millennium started the highest rated network shows in Canada were barely able to get a share of 18. The falling numbers had more to do with the new 500 channel universe than the CBC’s failures.

He goes on to say that starting in 2006, when the CBC began to reinvent itself…code for: the Stursberg leadership years, the CBC had a rebirth in both numbers and interest. So much so that the CBC has never been stronger than it is today.

There’s more than a little hyperbole here. Never! What about the 50’s and 60’s when CBC was either the only network or one of two networks? Nevermind that. More important, let’s look at how CBC raised its ratings under Stursberg. First of all, the national network forgot it’s mandate. They stopped running arts programming. The arts on CBC was an important outlet for serious dance, music, and the like. Sure it got poor audience numbers but it served a community that had no other access on television to this sort of programming. The same for religious programs, remember “Man Alive?” Stursberg led a regime that rooted out and killed anything that didn’t meet his audience numbers expectations. So yes, if you remove a show with 100,000 viewers on ballet and replace it with a drama that gets 500,000 viewers overall numbers will rise, but at what cost to the services provided? An awful lot of important CBC support disappeared with the mandated shows.

Stursberg also takes credit for the success of CBC radio. He points out that Gian Ghomeshi’s “Q” gets more listeners than Peter Gzowski got in the good old days. The numbers data he is working from is correct. The context is AWOL.

CBC Radio is doing marvelously well. I suggest that the quality of the programs is an important factor, but a far more important reason is the fact that private radio has shot itself in the foot. Too many stations sound the same. Too many stations are programming to baby boomers who are not listening to as much radio as they did when they were teenagers and at the same time young listeners are having a hard time finding the music they want to hear. The only competition CBC Radio has is from sports talk and phone in shows. Luckily Stursberg and company never got around to fiddling with Radio One’s content or they might be in the same boat as private radio is today…leaky and sinking.

Stursberg takes credit for the CBC’s producing programs that according to him compete favorably with shows produced in the U.S. If that’s the case why is there not a single CBC show in the top 20 other than hockey? If that’s competing, I’d hate to see what losing looks like.

He claims CBC has beaten Global in prime time for the past four years. Huh? Yes the CBC beat Global the year of the writers’ strike in the U.S. when all Global was running was re-runs. Other than that I have never seen numbers that place CBC ahead of Global.

King Richard even has the temerity to suggest that “Marketplace” and “The Fifth Estate” are doing better today. What the… The fact that those two shows are doing reasonably well is a tribute to the fine people that make those shows. Moving “The Fifth” to Friday night away from the larger audience night on Wednesday did hurt the numbers. They are now below one million viewers most nights. And what the CBC did to “Marketplace” is beyond disgusting. It has been moved all over the schedule and it has seen it’s season shortened. How do you do that to one of your most successful shows? The folks who produce those programs deserve a medal for overcoming the odds that were stacked against them by Stursberg and co.

Stursberg goes on to make some interesting points about the damage that’s being inflicted on the CBC by the government cuts. He even has some interesting, if very general and unexplained thoughts about how the CBC should proceed in the future, but make no mistake, Richard Stursberg is playing fast and loose with the facts to build up his own legacy. It’s not that he is completely wrong, it’s that he is manipulating the facts in the most self-serving of ways. Read his book. It is important to understand where he was coming from, but don’t be fooled by the rhetoric. The CBC is in trouble. The mandate is all but gone and forgotten. And contrary to what Stursberg says, too few Canadians care about the future of the CBC, and for that reason, he has more than a little ‘splaining to do.

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Monopoly…a Canadian way of doing business

A lot of you will look at the deal to buy Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) by Bell and Rogers as simply a sports deal. You may be questioning what this means for the future of your favorite sports franchise, be it the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Toronto Raptors, TFC (the soccer team), maybe even the Toronto Blue Jays or one of the other six NHL teams in Canada. If you are a sports fan in this country and whether you love the dismal Toronto franchises, or love to see them fail year after year, there are real sporting implications…the truth though, whether you like to hear it or not, is that the future of the Leafs success on ice is mostly irrelevant in this deal.

The sale of MLSE is about content rights, who will control the television, radio, internet, mobile, etc. rights to the sporting content generated by these teams. In those terms this is a very frightening deal. Bell and Rogers are already the two most powerful media conglomerates in Canada. They own and manage, some would say mismanage, 80 television stations including all of the major sports stations on TV. They own 88 radio stations including all of the major sports-talk stations. They will pick up an additional three television licenses that MLSE owns. Together they own the vast majority of Canada’s online and mobile services. You think that it’s just Bell and Rogers? Think again. They also own Virgin, Solo, ChatR and Fido, and of course the largest satellite and cable companies too.

It’s hard to believe that a few short years ago it was deemed illegal for a cable or satellite company to own a television station, let alone a network. Thank you CRTC.

This concentration of power will be bad for everyone. While Bell and Rogers are busy divvying up the nation, they leave little room for their competition. This means they can do with sports content what they have done with mobile technology and cable and satellite delivery. They can control access and they can control price. All you have to do to see the future is to look at what these to companies have done in the past. Canadians pay among the highest rates in the world for mobile service and internet access, and Bell and Rogers continually strive to keep competition out through influence on government and regulatory bodies and with unfair discount practices that disappear when the competition is wiped out. To quote Ellen Roseman in the Toronto Star, “Rogers and Bell bludgeon customers into accepting a flurry of extra charges for wireless phones. They hit them with unexpected bills for data roaming and third party text messages.”

Roseman goes to describe some of the dirty practices of Bell and Rogers that include discounts that evaporate before the subscriber ever sees them, raised prices that make the discounts offered moot, and of course, some 8000 complaints from Canadians to the government last year about how they are being treated by telecommunications companies like Bell and Rogers.

I expect to see access to Toronto’s sports franchises on radio and television to change in three ways, first, you will see far more games on Rogers Sportsnet and TSN and expect to see fewer games in which let’s say the Calgary Flames or Winnipeg Jets own the rights. Why pay the owners of a third party NHL club when you can pay yourself and fill the same amount of air time? Second, I see fewer opportunities for non-MLSE affiliated channels like CBC and Global to get the rights to the most popular sports entertainment. Finally, I see the possibility of a new pay channel that replaces Leafs-TV and Raptors-TV with a new sports channel that forces the public to pay big subscription fees to gain access to games that will no longer be available on any other channel, think MSG Network (Madison Square Gardens) or YES Network (Yankee Entertainment) two very profitable networks in the United States that control all of the most popular sports franchises in the New York City area.

Lastly I want to make a point about the way sports journalism will be affected. Since the owners of MLSE will now control virtually all of the sports broadcast media who will be left to criticize the missteps and worse the arrogance of this new sporting monster?

Will the guys at The Fan or TSN Radio take on their corporate bosses? Will they lose jobs and be punished for doing so? Does anyone see the conflict of interest here? Does anyone at the competition bureau or the CRTC care?

In the past few months Rogers and Bell have been busy buying the services of dozens of the best print sports writers to fill slots on radio and television and to write for new magazines. Most have quit their print jobs like Stephen Brunt, some like Damien Cox keep a foot in both camps. It is my contention that just about every sports writer in Canada is at least partially beholden to either Bell or Rogers. Sure you may write for a local paper in Vancouver that’s owned by the Post group or an independent in Toronto like the Toronto Star, but you all supplement your income, your reach and your popularity with appearances on one of the Bell or Rogers sports television and radio channels. Do you want to blow your chances for more guest shots? I think not. So, when the Toronto Raptors decide to spend less money and refuse to sign a free agent that’s available and who might make the team competitive, or merely watchable, will you write about it or just keep it to yourself? When TFC charges more for tickets than Manchester United (this is already a fact) will you shout about it in your column or is discretion a better road to take? For those of you who haven’t seen it, The Globe and Mail, which should stop calling itself Canada’s national newspaper, barely noticed this story. Why?

Sports journalism is for the most part an oxymoron in Canada. The last bastions were the daily newspapers in the major cities. Bell and Rogers have figured out how to co-opt even this small amount of opposition. Now it can only get worse.

Canadians in general and sports fans in particular will be the big losers if this deal is allowed to go through. The only way to stop it is if all Canadians get up of their backsides and scream at their political representatives. There’s one thing more powerful than the money and influence Bell and Rogers can and do wield, that is the threat of losing the next election.

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Gifts from the CBC

I have always been amazed at the greed of the very rich. Occupy Wall Street and all the other occupy groups around the world are right to be more than a little upset at the folks they call the “1%” who now seem to own a large percentage of the world’s wealth and with a few exceptions, reject the idea of paying more taxes on their incomes even though our governments are building up huge debts.

What though, does this have to do with broadcasting?

In the past few days I was shocked to hear that the CBC has joined the people who pander to the ultra rich. You all know of, or have at least heard the stories about very rich performers, athletes and celebrities being wooed by television awards productions with amazing swag. The producers arrange to have a room on site that they fill with expensive gifts and toys for the ultra rich who have everything. The gifts are supplied by the manufacturers at no cost to the production just to get them into the right hands. The right hands means the Madonnas, Paris Hiltons, Brad Pitts, George Clooneys and the like. The theory is that if we rabble see Brad or Paris with a certain shirt or bag, we will want one too.

When a celebrity shows up for an appearance, he or she is led to the swag room where they can pick out anything that they want. Generally that amounts to just about one of everything on offer, whether they need the items or not.

These are people who can easily afford to buy the products. Why buy when you can get the swag for free?

Well it seems that the CBC now has a swag room. It was created, as I understand it, just for George Stroumboulopoulos’ guests. I can only jump to the conclusion that this was considered by George’s producers as a necessary way to keep the big stars coming to his program. I just don’t know why. Most if not all the A-list guests George gets come on his show to publicize something…a new movie, a new CD or DVD, a new tour, a new book. The guests need George as much as George needs the guests. I believe they will show up whether George bribes them with swag or not. Perhaps they think the swag will put the guest in a better frame of mind for the interview. I suspect not. These folks are so used to the idea of free stuff I am not even sure they notice it. Just one more swag room in their world of never ending swag, the Christmas list taken care of without ever having to shop.

Is it just me or does this practice look more than a little unseemly for a network owned by the people of Canada, in fact a network that cries poor at every opportunity and is looking at a ten percent cut in their endowment from the government?

I know the swag probably doesn’t cost them a penny, well other than maintaining the room, stocking the shelves, getting on the phone to arrange for the swag and then the replacement products when the room begins to look a little bare. There must be a staff who are paid to maintain the room and the flow of products. You wouldn’t want to have an embarrassing swag room that has too little on offer or products that no respectable celebrity would want to be seen wearing. So there must be some cost.

Worse though is the message it sends to the folks who pay the CBC’s bills. The millionaires and the billionaires are welcome to get all the free things on offer. The taxpayer gets the benefit of an interview with Sting.

I suppose it’s not relevant, but all of this is going on for a show that has never caught on with the CBC viewing public. The numbers remain miserable even after years of the program being on the air and getting some of the best promotional time and money from the corporation.

I think we would all be a lot more forgiving if the swag was given out Oprah style. That is, openly and to the audience rather than the wealthy guest. But alas it isn’t so. George and his team, as well as CBC brass have done everything they can to keep the swag room a secret. They had to know it would not play well to the masses.

Oh, and in case you think CBC management may not like the idea or have second thoughts, not a chance. It seems among the first people to inspect the swag room, and by the way, leave with one of everything on offer, was none other then the boss, Kirstine Stewart. Her significant other Zaib Shaikh joined her at the trough. They, unlike the rest of us, didn’t even have to be a guest on George’s show to get their gifts.

Filed under: Media Commentary, , , ,

CBC 0: The Government 0

There is a strange, bordering on weird, fight going on in Canadian broadcasting. Interestingly, few Canadians seem to even know about the battles taking place between the CBC, the Federal Information Commissioner, the courts and a group of Conservative Members of Parliament.

In the past few years, since CBC has come under the purview of Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation the “corpse” has been deluged, their words not mine, with hundreds of requests for information. Depending on which side you listen to, the CBC is either dodging those requests, slowing the process deliberately, or attempting to keep up with an ever increasing number of FOI demands, most from the same source: the Sun media group owned by Quebecor.

It is completely clear to any sane observer that the producers of Sun TV and the owners of the Sun newspaper group are doing everything they can to harass the CBC at every turn. Most of the FOI requests are probably shots in the dark looking for any tidbit that may serve to embarrass the CBC. Somehow Pierre Karl Peladeau and his minions seem to think the best way to reduce funding for public broadcasting is to embarrass CBC so much that the government will find it hard to keep paying for CBC and Radio Canada.

The problem has grown to the point where the CBC has refused to open some of its books for the FOI requests forcing the Privacy Commissioner to get involved and demand the material being asked for be made available. So far the CBC has said no and have as a result of this been taken to court. They lost the original court battle but have now appealed to a higher court. The CBC says they are willing to take their fight all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Okay, while I agree that Quebecor is acting distastefully or worse, they are acting within their rights and within the law. The CBC, on the other hand, is handling this case very badly. Look, it’s a Crown Corporation that gets billions of taxpayer dollars and that alone should be enough reason to be completely transparent. Further, CBC journalists themselves are regular users of FOI to gather facts on the government and other Crown Corporations. How can you deny what you ask for on a regular basis?

The CBC’s argument is that there is proprietary information being asked for that puts them at a competitive disadvantage. Nonsense. First of all, if they give the information to the Privacy Commissioner, they could ask her for an exemption if the information is detrimental to their competitive situation. But so far they will not even trust the Information Commissioner. More important, the TV business is a small one in Canada, almost more of a club than a business. Most of us have worked for more than one network. Many CBC employees have come from CTV or Global and the reverse is true, many Global and CTV employees once worked at the CBC. Everyone works in similar ways and we all know how a television show is financed and put together.

The real story is that CBC is afraid some of its bungles will come out. They are afraid of how the information will then be used to portray them as bunglers.

This is a big miscalculation on the CBC’s side. By withholding information the CBC already looks guilty. They look like they have something to hide. Also, since we don’t know what CBC is hiding the management at the national broadcaster has no way to explain away the perceptions. Those who don’t like the CBC have all the ammunition they need without a single fact coming to light.

The CBC should just come clean, open its books, and then take the time to explain to the public when Sun TV takes a fact or a number out of context and attempts to blow up its significance (as we all know they will).

Every large corporation stubs its fiscal toe on occasion. The public will be willing to understand and forgive if there are explanations that make sense to them and actions are taken to correct the error.

Further, airing some of the internal mistakes and financial errors will make it easier for management to actually fix those problems. When I worked at the CBC I saw misspending being swept under the rug time and again. This led, most commonly, to a repeat of the mistakes and very little being done about the institutional problems that lead to inefficient and sometimes illegal use of CBC funds. For a corporation that in its news department demands transparency and clarity from everyone else, the CBC has been most efficient at burying its own skeletons.

Now add to all of this turmoil, the fact that a group of Tory Members of Parliament are attempting to take sides in an action that is still before the courts. The Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics have taken it upon themselves to take the CBC to task for refusing to succumb to the requests of the Privacy Commissioner and Quebecor. Is this the most important use of their time and efforts considering the fact that the Canadian Government is near the bottom worldwide in providing information about itself to its citizens and its media? Here are a group of people who are prime players in one of the most secretive institutions in Canada, our government, belittling the CBC for not being completely open. Can they not see the hypocrisy? Can they not see that we see the hypocrisy?

The issue is before the courts, thus it is being handled. Why pile on? One can only jump to the conclusion that going after the CBC is good Tory policy. It plays to their voting base. Any chance to hurt the dreaded left-wing CBC cabal cannot be passed up. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to help a strong supporter like Pierre Karl Peladeau.

Add this all up and it is easy to see this as comedy of errors. The unwittingly silly CBC falling into a trap constructed out of their own fears and the Keystone Kops from Parliament Hill chasing the perceived bad guys that they hope to find.

Welcome to Canada in the 21st Century…the land that leadership forgot.

Filed under: Media Commentary, Political Commentary, , , , , ,

CBC: Fade to Black

Every time someone writes a blog condemning the new CBC, like the one last week by Tim Knight that caused a small stir, there seems to be less and less interest in it. There was a time when a piece like Tim’s would have caused a tremendous reaction. CBC backers would have taken to their computers and their writing implements to shout him down or to join him in the chorus of complainers. The fact that this is not happening speaks volumes about where the CBC is today in the conscious minds of Canadians. It is in fact not a pretty picture.

The CBC move to become ultra-light in an effort to woo younger viewers and boost its ratings has been a dismal failure. The age of the average CBC audience has not declined appreciably. The audience numbers have not risen, especially in comparison to the gains made by CTV and Global since the rating system was changed. Shows like Little Mosque on the Prairie and Insecurity have served to turn loyal CBC viewers away from the network. The National’s weak efforts since it was revamped have served to cut anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of the CBC News audience. The dismal treatment of current affairs mainstays like The 5th Estate and Marketplace have eroded both their numbers and their positive affect on how we view the work and importance of CBC TV. All of this is regrettable, and most important each small failure has led to the Corp’s biggest problem: too few people care enough anymore to fight for the CBC’s future.

I just returned from a trip to the east coast. When I lived there many years ago the CBC was a mainstay. It was top of mind if not top of ratings. The National’s news anchor was a star. There were programs that everyone watched and talked about. Yes, it was mainly in news and current affairs, but under brilliant people like John Kennedy the CBC was producing excellent movies and series that made a difference.
Today, I couldn’t find anyone who called himself or herself a CBC viewer. Most of the people I met don’t watch The National at all and seldom see anything on CBC. I know this is not a scientific survey, but I did see a lot of people in social group situations. The Maritimes, like Manitoba and Newfoundland were where the CBC picked up its biggest per capita audiences. That’s not true anymore for the Maritimes.

As if all this is not bad enough, at least three people questioned why the CBC should continue to exist and be funded by the taxpayers. One man from New Glasgow, a bookshop owner, went so far as to say he would not vote for any political party that would not sell off CBC TV. The general argument they make is that CBC TV programming is the same sort of stuff we see on CTV and Global. When I talked of Canadian content and jobs in the TV industry they laughed, saying if you can’t produce quality shows that I want to watch, you don’t deserve to have a job in the industry.

While many of these people’s feelings are extreme, what I see is a general malaise. People just don’t care anymore about the CBC and its future. When Parliament asked CBC to look for five percent in cuts to a budget that is already far to small to do the job, I didn’t hear a peep from anyone complaining about our cultural heritage or the need to have a national broadcaster. The silence was deafening.
CBC TV, it seems, has finally lost its standing as an important Canadian institution. Twenty-five years of budget cuts and six years of management dumbing down the content have worked their magic to make CBC TV just another station, and an unpopular one at that. The fact that the CBC costs Canadians a billion dollars per year only serves to make citizens care more about the money and less about what the network has to offer.

In the best of all worlds there would be a groundswell of opposition to what the current managers have done to a venerable institution. There would be a demand for watchable local news and a more serious National. There would be an outcry demanding a few high quality shows to counterbalance the froth. Alas, none of that is happening. What we are witness to is a slow fade to black at CBC TV. The very people who are responsible for a 75 year old legacy are either asleep at the wheel or have no idea what they are doing to the reputation and standing of the CBC.

Stephen Harper will not have to sell off the CBC, he won’t even have to do anything drastic. All he has to do is stand aside and let the CBC drift further and further into irrelevancy.

Filed under: Media Commentary, Political Commentary, , , , , , , , , ,

Burying the Murdochs

I have to start off by saying that the troubles and scandals now threatening to bring down the Murdoch empire are both long overdue and well deserved payback for a decades of disreputable journalism, not just in the tabloids, but on television channels like Fox News as well. There is no excuse for breaking the law in order to ferret out a story. There is certainly never a reason to hack the phone line of a missing teenager and to delete messages that, by their absence, send false signals to her parents and the police.

I’m sure you are all waiting for the “but,” the turn in the story. Well here it is: I am sick of all the holier-than-thou folks out there who say the Murdochs and their Hench-people should have known about everything that was happening at The News of the World.

Yes the buck stops at the bosses. True the Murdochs are responsible in the end. They do own the newspaper in question. They did create and condone the sick milieu that gave birth to the journalistic atrocities that we are all now hearing about. But when the news analysts and irate journalism types say they can’t believe the Murdochs didn’t know what was going on when the phones were being hacked and the rules were being broken I have to take issue.

I believe it is entirely plausible. Hey these guys are running a huge enterprise with lots of newspapers all over the world, TV stations and satellite and specialty stations. I do not find it hard to believe that they may not have known exactly what was going on at The News of the World.

I was at CTV when W5 produced a story on Chinese students keeping Canadians out of Canadian universities. It was a crock, fabricated by a senior producer on the show. Chinese groups in Toronto organized and protested for weeks. The result was an apology and a lot of red faces at CTV. My point here is that I am certain Murray Chercover, then president of CTV had absolutely no idea that W5 was fabricating a story. Heck I am sure Don Cameron who was V.P. of the news operation had no idea. I even believe that Lionel Lumb who was the show’s producer didn’t know his story was based on lies and untruths. We’re talking about a pretty small network and an even smaller news operation, yet the bosses did not know what was going on. So why is it so hard to believe that Rupert and son didn’t know about the telephone hacking?

Does anyone think CBC President Hubert Lacroix knows everything that is going on at The National or local news in Vancouver? I think Hubert has bigger problems to deal with.

Is it possible that all of us journalism types are ready to throw the Murdochs under the bus because they are exactly the kind of people we have come to despise in news game? They run a company that is most famous for its right wing biases and its penchant for playing fast and loose with the truth. There is so much to condemn them for that there is no real need to attack them for their declaration of innocence.They say they didn’t know about the telephone hacking and the payoffs. So be it. There is no way to prove this one way or the other right now and I assume we all still believe in the principle that people are innocent until proven guilty.

This whole affair, not the wrongdoing, the virulent attacks on the individuals from within their own journalism community reminds me of how Canadian news people reacted to Conrad Black and his troubles. We didn’t like the way he treated the news, too right wing. We were upset by the way he treated his employees, anti-union and worse telling them what their opinions should be when they wrote for him. We hated the perceived arrogance of the man. All of the above meant he was guilty before any trial. All the proof we needed was that it was Conrad Black.

All of that being said, the Murdochs are responsible for the actions of their employees. They did set the tone that created the perceived need to illegally hack telephones so that their tabloids could scoop everyone else. They did create an empire that allows politics to overrule facts. Every day they allow Fox New to publish half-truths, lies and innuendo to further a political agenda. Let’s condemn them for what we know they did wrong and let’s act like the journalists we say we are and stick to the facts when we go after them. Stooping to the Murdoch’s level makes us as bad as they are.

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Leadership Vacuum: The CBC in 2011

While I am one of the dwindling number of Canadians who believes the CBC should not only exist but it should be helped to prosper, I must admit I was shocked by the recent spate of CBC’s self-congratulating PR missives patting themselves on the back for the massive amounts of dollars the national broadcaster generates for the Canadian economy. The study, paid for by the CBC and done by Deloitte and Touche LLP, claims that for your billion dollar investment, the Corp creates 3.7 billion dollars in economic activity.

I have no idea whether this is a reasonable figure but like all numbers and statistics I find it questionable. Two facts jump out at me. First that CBC paid for the study, and second that the BBC paid Deloitte Touche for the very same kind of study in the United Kingdom and came up with almost the exact same results. The BBC it seems generates just over three times its taxpayer supported subsidy. Coincidence? Would the CBC have paid for such a study if the BBC’s results were different, say if the Beeb wasted one third of the money it gets? I suspect not. I also wonder what is the norm for a corporation that employs over six thousand people and buys product and materials from other Canadian businesses. I suspect every company that is not going bankrupt generates at least similar, and in most cases far more dollars for the economy of the country.

The real story, and it is one the CBC is not talking about, is the cultural benefits that are accrued to the country. These you see, are priceless. How do you put a dollar value on the understanding Canadians have for each other from coast-to-coast? How much is Opera Atelier or The Royal Winnipeg Ballet worth to the Canadian soul? What about the value of k.d. lang or Leonard Cohen?

The reason the CBC is not talking about all this is because culture has just about disappeared from the CBC channels. In fact, in the rush for great ratings, high quality drama and comedy have all but disappeared for CBC viewers. Today, in the post Stursberg CBC the Stursberg philosophy lives on: go light, get numbers, avoid depth and at all costs don’t allow serious culture anywhere near the line-up.

As if to prove my point both InSecurity which may be the worst comedy on North American Television and Little Mosque on the Prairie, which specializes in comedy that would have been passé in the early sixties are returning to the CBC schedule. There’s more reality and double episodes of that all Canadian soap opera, Coronation Street. You want Canadiana, how about Camelot? To be fair, there is a new series called Arctic Air and the historical series John A: Birth of a Country…on the other side, there’s also a sequel to the Don Cherry biopic that ran a couple of years ago.

From this perch it looks to me like there is no serious planning going on at the CBC, just a bunch of folks guessing at what will bring in the numbers. That’s okay for a private network, but I question whether that’s the way a national network should work. I would love to see some leadership from the top at CBC. The President, Hubert Lacroix may be the most invisible president the CBC has ever had. Do you know what his vision for the CBC is? I’ve never seen it, heard it or read it. Kirstine Stewart, once Stursberg’s leading yes woman, is surprise, surprise carrying on as if Stursberg were still telling her what is what.

You know the CBC did an internal survey this spring. They have managed to keep the results relatively quiet. Perhaps it wasn’t difficult because there were few surprises in the poll results. Little that was really newsworthy.

Let me sum up a few things about the survey. There were 65 questions in 12 categories. They organized them by favorable scores. As an example, employee engagement got 85%, while Leadership and Direction got only 31% approval. That last score is pretty amazing, by far the lowest of any category. Essentially, more than two-thirds of employees believe CBC management is incompetent.

Operating efficiency approval was at 33%. What does this say about the vast amounts of money the CBC is generating? Perhaps the CBC needs that money to overcome the internal waste and inefficiency. Keep in mind, these are figures for the CBC as a whole. Apparently, they are considerably lower for News and Current Affairs. For example, Leadership and Direction for all of CBC is at 31% approval, while for News and Current Affairs it was around 20%.

The CBC does need more dollars to do the job it is mandated to do properly. But I for one am not in favor of giving them one extra penny until they begin to serve all Canadians, to show leadership in culture and Canadian affairs and until the corporation hires leaders with a vision for the future that is based on more than numbers as well as leaders who can be trusted to do their jobs by more than fifty percent of their workforce.

Call me when you can give me a reason to care.

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About the Author

Howard Bernstein is a former TV producer. He has worked at CBC,CTV, Global and has produced shows for most Canadian channels as an independent producer.

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