I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

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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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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2015: The CBC’s Impossible Dream

It’s taken me a while to try to figure out the CBC’s new five year plan. It’s called 2015: Everyone, Every Way and it is rife with platitudes about where CBC is going, but extremely short on details. And as we all know, the devil is in the details.

It’s not that I think CBC President and CEO Hubert Lacroix is pulling a fast one. From all reports he seems like a good guy who cares not only about public broadcasting but about the people who will have to make the changes he foresees. My problem is that I don’t get what he and Kirstine Stewart are actually trying to accomplish.

In broad strokes, they are talking about the CBC English service becoming more Canadian, more local and more digital. Sounds okay so far, but except for the digital part it is nothing we haven’t heard for the past few years. The CBC is already almost totally Canadian in prime time. Yes, in summer, late at night and during holiday periods U.S. films and series pop up to fill out the schedule. Does this mean that next summer we will get Canadian films and re-runs of Canadian series? I suspect the audience would have liked it better the old way but hey, they’re going back to their mandate, a word that was lost during the Stursberg era. It also looks like Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune are toast on the CBC. While the nationalists in the crowd will cheer, I am left to wonder where the big money these two shows generated will come from and what effect that will have on Canadian production in prime time. While I am totally in favor of the CBC being 100% Canadian, I’m afraid I have to live in the real world. Money, not platitudes is all that counts in broadcasting today. It takes millions of dollars to produce a new drama or sitcom. Since we all know that Stephen Harper is not inclined to give the CBC more than it gets today, and since based on all previous experiences we can guess that the loss of American movies and series will result in fewer viewers and that fewer viewers mean less advertising revenue, I have to ask the question: where Mr. Lacroix do you intend to get the money to produce your all Canadian programs?

Looking at what details we have it actually gets worse. Mr. Lacroix and Ms. Stewart are also talking about beefing up local television, especially in areas that are under-served or not served at all by CTV and Global. He says the lack of local news and stories is actually an opportunity for the CBC to reconnect with Canadians. I sure hope this works because it is both necessary and overdue. But again, let’s not kid ourselves, the CBC went back into local news in, what is for them, a big way in past couple of years. They reopened newsrooms and added 30 to 60 minutes to local newscasts. What goes unsaid is that CBC local newscasts are embarrassingly bad. A handful of hard working folks try to cover big cities or vast provinces without the resources to succeed. The result has been dismal ratings. So few people are watching CBC local news it would be cheaper to send out CD’s rather than bother to air the program. Even in B.C. where the CBC hired the biggest name in west coast news history the ratings have been terrible. Without the money and the staff, as the CBC has proved, there is no point in making the effort. I would be all in favor of a well financed return to local TV. It was a huge error to allow local TV to flounder since the mid-80’s, but if you can’t fund it, don’t do it. The money can be better used elsewhere.

The five year plan also talks about the return of culture. Does anyone who watches the CBC remember culture? There was a time when ballet, modern dance and opera actually appeared on the CBC. It cost a truckload of money to produce and provided tiny but loyal audiences. I miss this programming and wish it were still a part of the mandate. If the CBC doesn’t produce it, it will not get done. CTV and Global are not in the habit of making expensive shows that produce audiences of less than 200,000. So while I love the idea, I ask once again, Mr. Lacroix, where will the money come from?

It’s a whole new digital world out there. I am glad the CBC brass recognizes this, people now download and watch TV shows when they want to, not when the network schedule says they have to watch it. The CBC is talking about doubling its spending on digital services. More big bucks spent on non-TV and radio product.

The new plan even talks about new CBC channels for sports, kids and arts and entertainment. It mentions new local weekend and morning news programs. It promises new “micro” news websites for large local communities, naming Hamilton and the Montreal suburb of Longueuil. All of the ideas cost real dollars. Dollars the CBC doesn’t have.

Everyone, Every Way leaves me with more questions than answers. There is no mention of increasing local news staff and budgets. In fact the plan calls for streamlining staff, I read that as cuts. Will the new morning and weekend news programs have dedicated staffs or will the already overburdened local news teams be expected to stretch even more? Will the digital web sites be staffed and funded? Will new channels have original programming or just be places to rerun network shows? If there is to be new programs how will they be paid for, subscription? Will we be forced to buy more channels we have no intention of ever viewing?

The truth is, and we all know it. The money is not there to do everything, some might say anything in 2015: Everyone, Every Way. So what is this really about? Is this a PR stunt? Is this meant to show that the Stursberg era is past? If so, I have a few better ideas. Fix up The National and CBC NN. Make them relevant again by producing quality stories we actually care about and lose the pap and thin gruel that fill your airwaves and erode your audiences. Begin to produce dramas and comedies with some heft that tackle serious issues in an adult way. Little Mosque on the Prairie and Being Erica are okay, but they are what we expect from any broadcaster, they do not speak to the needs of a national broadcaster. Not all programs have to be heavy or serious, but the odd one or two each week would be a pleasant change.

In other words, it’s time to fix what you do now before you spread your dollars even more thinly. Mr. Lacroix, I have no beef with your ideas, I just don’t believe they are real.

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“Dragon” Down the CBC

I am off doing a documentary for the next few weeks. I will try to post but in the meantime here’s a great story sent to me by a reader. It is from Walrus magazine. Enjoy…

DRAGON DONE

Richard Stursberg’s controversial tenure at CBC

by Trevor Cole
Photograph by Nigel Dickson
From the November 2010 issue of The Walrus

He was “a bad man,” I was told. Those exact words. And “a nasty piece of work.” That was one person’s opinion, of course, so I asked others. “Arrogant,” I heard. Actually, I heard that one a lot. “Dismissive.” Someone took pains to express it more fully: “You know he couldn’t give a rat’s ass about you.”

Understand, these were his employees talking, the folks whose cheques he signed. Said one of them, perhaps unnecessarily, “There are a lot of unhappy people.”

There were others, outsiders, who echoed that discontent. Some of them are famous. R. H. Thomson, for instance, that nice actor who exemplifies Canadianness in Canadian television, feared the man wasn’t deeply interested in the very thing he was supposed to be protecting. “He doesn’t have the instincts for it,” said Thomson.

You wouldn’t have cared about Richard Stursberg if he’d been in charge of a sheet metal factory. If he’d been known to be mean to people who make muffins. But he was the vice-president of English Services at CBC. He was the guiding force of, as he described it himself, “the largest and most influential cultural organization in the country.” He was the pilot of the last flying fortress of Canadianism. And plenty of alert and reasonable people were pretty sure he was steering it straight toward the edge of a cliff.

When Stursberg arrived in August 2004 as vice-president of English television (he annexed radio in January 2007), many people who concerned themselves with that sort of thing were dismayed. Ian Morrison, spokesperson for Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, an organization that concerns itself with nothing but, seemed to fear the End Times had come. “There is absolutely nothing positive I could say about his appointment,” said Morrison, adding that the outlook for the corporation was “bleak.”

Six years later, those who feared wholesale change at cbc in the wake of Stursberg’s appointment could clasp their chins and gravely nod, unable to celebrate even as his departure was announced in early August. His legacy at CBC is not likely to be undone soon: Every one of the network’s programming directors has been replaced. Its prime-time TV lineup has been overhauled, as has everything about its news specialty channel, including the name. To cries of outrage, the comfortable rug of classical music has been ripped from under Radio 2. More than 1,000 people in CBC’s news division have seen their jobs changed or redefined. Anything else? Oh yes, the entire philosophical foundation of CBC English-language TV programming has been rearranged.

“I knew Richard was going to be a bull in a china shop,” says former CBC president Robert Rabinovitch, the man who hired him. “That’s one of the reasons I brought him in.”

Had any bull ever appeared less threatening? Just four weeks before Stursberg’s exit, suited in a gray that matched his thinning hair and wearing old-fashioned tortoiseshell-and wire-rimmed spectacles, the sixty-year-old then vice-president walked slow and straight-backed through the atrium of the CBC building. Hands crossed lightly behind him, a small smile on his face, he carried himself with the repose of a plantation owner. In his office on the seventh floor, it pleased him to discuss the Miles Davis book on his coffee table, the John Lee Hooker photo behind his desk, and the artists whose work hung on his walls (a group of five Canadians, including Douglas Coupland, all from the same class at Emily Carr University in Vancouver). I knew Stursberg loved art, because I’d been told his home was “dripping” with paintings. “There’s no one more cultured than he is,” said a former colleague. And this was important to note, because what he did to CBC is seen to be the
opposite of culture. He is seen to have followed the agenda of a philistine.

“By and large, people don’t like change,” said the man himself, lightly, in his way. “Many people who have not altogether agreed directionally with where we’re going have been upset. That’s okay.”

Directionally, Stursberg made CBC Television a network concerned principally with ratings. To an audience of CBC folk, he once put it this way: he wanted the corporation to be Tim Horton’s, not Starbucks. From this simple pledge flowed all of the change, and much of the ire.

“I’d rather be Canadian and popular than American and elitist,” he told me. “Absolutely.” No one argued with the “Canadian” part of that, but the “popular” part led to consternation. Because wasn’t popularity the province of the commercial networks? Wasn’t the nation’s public broadcaster supposed to strive for the very thing suggested by the word “elite”: exceptional programming the marketplace alone cannot or will not support? “It depends who you think the CBC is here to serve,” replied Stursberg. “Me? I take the view that the CBC is here to serve the Canadian public.”

In the weeks leading up to his firing, Stursberg had gone on what he must have considered a well-earned holiday in France. CBC’s board of directors had just concluded its yearly formal review of the corporation’s senior executives — a process that forms the basis of its bonus payouts — and had assigned both Stursberg and the network he ran its topmost rating. He was just settling back into the work of pushing cbc down its controversial path when president Hubert Lacroix informed him that his time was up. The styles of the two men had clashed repeatedly from the time Lacroix took over in the fall of 2007. Why he chose this moment to fire Stursberg, Lacroix won’t say, but in Rabinovitch’s view, “It was inevitable. The two of them never got along.” Some reports had Stursberg being escorted from CBC’s Front Street headquarters in Toronto, and though he also refuses to discuss the event he does admit, “It came as a surprise.”

It had all begun with such assurance. Back when Stursberg started, one of his first moves was to hire his eventual interim replacement, Kirstine Stewart (née Layfield). He lured her away from Alliance Atlantis, where she oversaw specialty channels such as HGTV, with the aim of revamping CBC’s programming. Under his direction, the network then set about rearranging its prime-time schedule to maximize its ratings and revenue potential. It purchased syndicated US shows such as Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy!, and Ghost Whisperer, at significant cost (one source placed the bill for the game shows at $12 million per year) and laid them like icing atop its nightly lineups. It killed the dark and acclaimed Canadian drama Intelligence, from Chris Haddock, creator of Da Vinci’s Inquest, when it failed to draw the targeted number of viewers. It made new efforts to integrate advertisers into the remaining shows, such as sliding references to TD Canada Trust into Little Mosque on the Prairie
and others. It subjected iconic shows such as The Fifth Estate to sudden ratings pressures. “‘You guys have got to get audience,’” Linden MacIntyre remembers the show being told. “‘And you will live or die by the audience’… We were given a target of 800,000 a week. Well, my God, Rick Mercer can’t do that.” (Mercer does, occasionally, do that, but The Fifth’s target was nonetheless subsequently lowered to around 600,000.)

The emphasis on ratings also meant a new focus on entertainment, which disturbed many insiders, partly because it seemed to come at the expense of news and current affairs. Stursberg was seen to care not a whit about the gathering and reporting of information, even to disdain it. “He was always going, ‘Drama, drama, drama,’” says a veteran CBC employee. “He never talked about news.” This might have seemed strange, given that his father, Peter, was one of the country’s most acclaimed news correspondents during the Second World War. But all you had to do was look at the signals. All the initiatives of Stursberg’s first few years came on the entertainment side — new shows, new personnel, and a new programming division, Factual Entertainment, intended to fashion viewer-friendly reality programs such as Battle of the Blades and Dragons’ Den — while the news and current affairs side got short shrift. The Fifth Estate, already facing staff cuts due to budget
pressures, was wrenched from its traditional slot on Wednesday nights at nine and moved to Friday night, which everyone knew was the graveyard of television. And it was moved — look, you see? — to accommodate a frothy new comedy, Being Erica.

As if more proof were needed, the long-time head of CBC News, Tony Burman, whose relationship with Stursberg was acrimonious and seemed to involve a lot of arguments over budgets, left the network in 2007. A little more than a year later, Burman’s replacement, respected newspaperman John Cruickshank, also resigned. Now publisher of the Toronto Star, Cruickshank says that during their initial conversations, he came to believe news was a priority for Stursberg: “I eventually understood that it wasn’t.”

Last January, Stursberg took the stage in the Glenn Gould Studio and delivered, to any CBCer who wished to attend, a condensed version of a presentation he had recently given before the organization’s new board of directors. “The thing that people sometimes forget,” he said, clearing his throat, “is that what TV is actually about — and I don’t say this to denigrate news, at all — but it is about entertainment. That is what television is deeply about.”

Here you get an image of CBC collectively sunk to its knees, holding its head in its hands, keening in memory of its lost golden age, when the network’s news resources were the envy of broadcasters around the world, when it had more African bureaus than anyone but the BBC. Gone, all gone. In the kitchen of his Toronto home, Linden MacIntyre slid a piece of text over to me and said, “Nail that on the mast of your sailboat.”

It was an excerpt from section three, subsection L of the Canadian Broadcasting Act: “The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, as the national public broadcaster, should provide radio and television services incorporating a wide range of programming that informs, enlightens and entertains.”

Everyone who cares about the tradition of news and information programming at CBC — news being “closer to the soul of the CBC,” in John Cruickshank’s words, than things like comedy and drama — knows that section by heart: informs, enlightens, and entertains. “Those are three pretty easy words, and they come in a row, and that’s the order they come in,” says R. H. Thomson, who even though he’s an actor seems to consider informing important. Surveys of viewers, including one administered in mid-2009, confirmed that their priorities lined up the very same way. And everyone who knew that section well enough to recite it knew that Richard Stursberg had changed the order.

He didn’t look at news like a newsman; that was the problem. “He doesn’t think news is a Great God,” says Lise Lareau, national president of the Canadian Media Guild. “He thinks it’s just another television commodity.” Considering Stursberg’s job, that might not have been unreasonable. But when news is your calling and you sense that the man in charge isn’t devout, it’s unsettling. “He was really goring their ox,” says Robert Rabinovitch.

When Jennifer McGuire took over the news division in May of 2008, she told people that fighting with Stursberg wasn’t the answer. They had to get him to invest in what they did. Eventually, the vice-president did turn his attention to fixing news. But in the eyes of the news folk, he did it all wrong, for the wrong reasons. Under Stursberg’s direction, the news brain trust commissioned studies (including, during the brief John Cruickshank period, what Stursberg now calls “one of the largest looks at Canadian news consumption habits that’s been done”). They consulted expensive American consultants (Frank N. Magid Associates, invoked by CBCers with the epithet “Magid”). All told, the corporation spent “a few million dollars” revamping the news, says Stursberg. This was done not to make the news sharper, or more probing, or wider reaching, nor to end CBC’s reliance on footage from the Canadian Press or to bring an influx of reporters to its regions, but to make the
presentation of the news more appealing.

Suddenly, Peter Mansbridge was standing when he read the news, and shapes and colours were moving across the screen behind and around him. News items became shorter — an American touch if ever there was one — and The National’s “back half,” traditionally comprising longer, more explanatory items and in-studio discussions, seemed to fade away as personnel were eliminated or reassigned in the great realignment that entailed a thousand new job descriptions. And onto the fourth floor of cbc headquarters dropped something called the Hub, an arrangement of producers and assignment editors charged with assembling and coordinating the news across regions and “platforms” (a consultant’s word encompassing radio, TV, and the web). The Hub — originally introduced under Cruickshank — was meant to bring some efficiency and focus to CBC’s news operation, which everyone knew was broken and full of redundancies. But the Hub was hated, because it created new disruptions and
communication wrinkles, and it was part of too much change all at once, which added to the overall sense that the cbc everyone had known and loved was gone, it was ruined, and it was all Richard Stursberg’s fault.

t was always going to be difficult for Stursberg. He arrived as a marked man, having worked as a federal civil servant, rising to assistant deputy minister for broadcasting and culture (where he handled the 1991 broadcasting act in its final stages). He traded on his government connections to become a lobbyist for the cable television industry, and then vice-president of government, law, and environmental affairs at Unitel. He was briefly president and CEO of the satellite company Star Choice, then briefly the head of Cancom after those two companies became one; he subsequently became unemployed, and quite rich, when Shaw Communications bought out Cancom’s shareholders. For a short while, he chaired the Canadian Television Fund, which supports the development of Canadian programming; and for two and a half years immediately before arriving at cbc, he was the executive director of Telefilm Canada, which funds Canadian TV and movies. The point, in the eyes of his future employees,
is that he was never a CBCer, never even a broadcaster, which made him an outsider, the first true outsider ever put in charge of the English network.

And he came with an aroma that offended many CBCers. There was this business of his having supported, while at Telefilm, the government’s quest to push Canadian films to 5 percent of the box office take in Canada. Apparently, almost nobody thought that could, or should, be done except Stursberg, and he’d embraced the challenge with an almost unseemly verve, moving funding away from what he disparaged as “art house” films toward movies that had more “popular” potential. (In the year after he left, when films from his term hit the screen, including Deepa Mehta’s Oscar-nominated Water, they achieved a total of 5.3 percent of the Canadian box office, compared to 1.7 percent the year before he arrived.)

Perhaps more upsetting was the fact that, in his quest to bring a Hollywoodesque marketability to Canadian films, Stursberg actually arranged to bring Hollywood to Canada, in the form of an arrangement with the powerhouse Creative Artists Agency. Working under the guidance of Fred Fuchs, a true Hollywood player and the former head of the Francis Ford Coppola company American Zoetrope, Stursberg paid CAA a retainer to have its agents come north and meet with filmmakers across Canada, in the hope of increasing ties between the two countries’ industries. What a terrible idea, many people thought — including Telefilm’s own Feature Film Fund Advisory Group, which was credited as a co-author of the plan even though the members frankly wanted no part of it. To them, it seemed to imperil Canada’s film making autonomy. Stephen Waddell, national executive director of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television, and Radio Artists, called the plan “insulting” and “absurd.”

In the end, little came of it, but it meant that Stursberg arrived at CBC trailing the can of controversy behind him. He also had the bad luck of poor timing. Just days after he took over, the National Hockey League decided to lock out its players. That meant no Hockey Night in Canada, and the disappearance of about $100 million in ad revenue. Within several months, negotiations with the network’s largest union, the Canadian Media Guild, began to sour, which ultimately led to a lockout in the fall of 2005, a strategy Stursberg strongly endorsed. Says one cbc staffer, “People didn’t understand Stursberg before. Now they just outright hated him. He was the poster boy for everything that was going wrong in the corporation.”

But it must be said that the biggest problem Richard Stursberg faced, at least within the context of CBC, was Richard Stursberg.

He had always been a stimulating personality — a bit like a wasp at a picnic — yet in previous roles, in prior settings, this had been not altogether a bad thing. In the federal department of communications, where he became assistant deputy minister in 1990, he created an environment that inspired many to excel. “I adored working for Richard,” says a former departmental colleague. “He had this wonderful ability to engage with people.”

Niv Fichman, formerly the co-chair of Telefilm’s Feature Film Fund Advisory Group, says he found Stursberg quite willing to listen to input from people he respected — sometimes during arguments that lasted hours, even days — though he would usually go ahead with his own plans anyway. “He has no fear,” says Fichman. “He’s someone who passionately believes in what he believes in — though often I find that what he believes in is wrong.”

At cbc, Stursberg’s personality grated. Employees were used to the gracious warmth of vice-presidents like Harold Redekopp, his immediate predecessor — whom they considered a true broadcaster, a leader concerned with matters of “quality” and the public broadcaster’s special role, a gentleman inclined to ask about the wife and the tennis game. Stursberg, by contrast, might buttonhole someone in the elevator and drag him down to the cafeteria, then pump him for information. Then, since he hadn’t brought any money, he’d expect the employee to pay for his sushi.

His whole demeanor engendered hostility. It was often said of him that he doesn’t countenance fools, which is another way of saying, as Linden MacIntyre puts it, that “he can exhibit almost palpable disdain for people who he doesn’t think are as smart or worthy or important as he is.” During the lockout, Stursberg crossed the picket line without permission in Toronto and tried to do so in Ottawa as well, relenting from this breach of protocol only when picketers shouted at him to wait his turn. Reports also emerged of his general condescension toward employees, whom he accused of “acting like entitled grad students.” It seems he treated his peers little better. A colleague recounts a budget meeting with other vice-presidents, back when Stursberg was only in charge of CBC English TV, during which he looked up from his notes to interrupt a presentation by then head of radio Jane Chalmers. “There’s an interesting thing here,” the colleague remembers him saying.
“When you put together CBC Newsworld and the CBC main network, it actually represents 80 percent of the budget.” Then Stursberg paused. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt. Just carry on.”

“His point,” says the colleague, “was ‘I’ve got a bigger budgetary dick than you do.’”

At a Christmas party in 2006, Stursberg got into an argument with a technician that became so heated at least one witness was sure it would become violent. Instead, the (possibly inebriated) technician challenged Stursberg to an arm wrestling match, which the vice-president agreed to and won.

In March of 2009, in the Glenn Gould Studio, Stursberg took questions from the audience after announcing with Hubert Lacroix the need to cut 400 jobs in the wake of a $171-million revenue shortfall related to the economic collapse. He soon found himself defending a 20 percent cut to The Fifth Estate’s budget. First journalist Gillian Findlay and then veteran producer Neil Docherty stood up to take issue with his decision. “Hold my jacket now; we’re going to take this outside,” Stursberg said at one point, according to a transcript of the event. “I think it is invidious and unfair to start this kind of conversation.” Moments after the proceedings concluded, he did in fact take it outside, marching up to Findlay and Docherty before witnesses in the cbc atrium and, with his finger wagging, furiously accusing them of undermining him in front of employees and the press.

The man who hired Stursberg, former cbc president Rabinovitch, knew what he was getting, because the two had worked together in government. “Richard has an arrogant way of talking,” admits Rabinovitch. “It’s very unfortunate… sometimes you want to shake him.” At the end of 2007, Rabinovitch was replaced as president by the fatherly Lacroix, an expert in labour-management relations, who made a point of giving angry workers his ear. By some accounts, he spent his early months listening to people whose chief priority was convincing him to fire Stursberg.

When I suggested that his personality might have been part of his problem, Stursberg professed surprise. But the small smile at the corner of his mouth betrayed this as disingenuous. “He’s easy to demonize,” says Lise Lareau. “He kind of revels in it, in a way.”

If there were hard decisions to be made, decisions that were going to make him enemies, Stursberg wanted to make them. Producer Niv Fichman remembers chatting with Stursberg about his acclaimed Movie Central TV series Slings and Arrows. It was originally intended for cbc, but the network backed out at the last minute, without explanation. Stursberg tried to apologize for that decision, until Fichman reminded him he hadn’t even been at cbc at the time. “Everyone else in the world wants to take credit for things they don’t do,” says Fichman with a laugh. “Richard Stursberg wants to take the blame.”

Stursberg can be indicted for plenty of things he did do at CBC. Among them was paying far too much for the rights to NHL games (a burdensome cost said to be more than $100 million per year, about $40 million more than the network had paid in the previous contract), and trying to run infomercials at night, a plan the board voted down. What he can’t be blamed for are the conditions under which he made those decisions. Even some CBCers are now willing to admit that, in the face of the network’s harsh realities, Stursberg’s pursuit of ratings success for the public broadcaster was the only logical, perhaps the only responsible, choice.

Since the government of Canada decided in 1974 to fully fund CBC Radio but not CBC TV, the network’s finances have grown progressively more strained. Canada’s level of government support for its public broadcaster now ranks near the bottom compared with that of other Western industrialized nations, accounting for a pitiful .07 percent of GDP, versus 0.23 percent each for the UK, Denmark, and Norway, and 0.28 percent for Finland, according to the most recent study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. A 2006 report showed that Canada ranked sixteenth out of eighteen nations in per capita funding of public broadcasters, at $33 per inhabitant, compared with an average of $80. And it’s not as if the government was cutting back everywhere. From 1996 to 2004, Canadian federal spending on culture, excluding cbc, rose by 39 percent. In the same period, federal funding for CBC decreased by 9 percent.

The corporation’s financial woes stem mainly from its troubled relationship with government. “This arm’s-length relationship is really about a finger long,” says Lareau. Which would be tolerable if CBC enjoyed the same historical respect as the BBC (“Auntie” to the Brits). In Canada, however, politicians have long regarded CBC with suspicion, or worse. Tony Manera, CBC president in the mid-’90s, describes it as “substantially reliant on the goodwill of the government.” He adds, “It is true that it has eroded.”

Unlike the BBC, which is protected from parliamentary whim because it’s funded by a direct license fee of £142 per household and operates on secure five-year terms, cbc effectively functions at the pleasure of the prime minister. When Manera was president, he took pains to develop a good working relationship not with the minister of heritage, but with Eddie Goldenberg, Jean Chrétien’s closest policy adviser — a frankly ludicrous position for a nation’s public broadcaster to be in. Indeed, it proved useless to Manera, because Chrétien had cultivated a passionate hatred for cbc ever since surmising that separatist forces were at work within Radio-Canada during the 1980 referendum campaign. So when Chrétien’s finance minister, Paul Martin, delivered an austerity budget in 1995, it was no surprise when cbc took a $414-million hit, or 34.5 percent of its total expenditure, which has hobbled it ever since.

When Rabinovitch arrived as president in 1999, he found a corporation in denial. “There was still this belief, especially on the English side, that one of these days the government was going to wake up and realize how underfunded the CBC was and write a cheque.” He knew that wasn’t true. But he thought there was a chance that if CBC could find ways to meet its essential needs and absorb the costs of inflation, the government might be convinced to break open its wallet and pull out a bill or two for programming. So he set about finding hard assets to monetize. He created a vice-president of real estate to sell off or rent out cbc properties. He scraped up $75 million by selling Newsworld International. He sold the Galaxie music service for $60 million. Like an obedient corporate Cratchit, he did it all to please his Scrooge. “I wanted a reward,” he says. Eventually, he got his goose, in the form of a special $60-million allotment for programming, which every year or two
must be approved for renewal.

It was into this more commercialized CBC that Rabinovitch brought Stursberg to apply the new pragmatism to programming, the only asset left to monetize. He knew Stursberg was inclined to think boldly when it came to CBC. Some years before, in 1996, Stursberg had authored a memo, apparently as part of a bid for a high-level CBC position, that proposed the network be sliced into three cable channels — for arts, documentaries, and news. It also proposed, remarkably, that CBC should live within its government appropriation and “get out of advertising altogether.”

Stursberg later dismissed the memo as notes “on the back of an envelope.” By the time CBC’s headhunters called, he had come to believe that living purely on public funds was impossible. Of CBC English Television’s roughly $630-million budget, less than half comes from the government. Most of the rest comes from advertising and subscriber fees. The political environment had hardly improved — the Conservative party was fanning anti-CBC sentiments in its fundraising campaigns — so the prospects for some future windfall were nil. The only way the network could function was to make what money it could from advertising. When Stursberg looked around, he saw (and it suited him to see) where the best growth opportunity lay — not in news, CBC’s historical strength, but in its weakness: homegrown entertainment.

In the middle of 2009, he stood before an audience of French Canadian television and movie people at a conference in Montreal and presented a slide showing that the ten most popular entertainment series in English Canada were all American. “Voici le problème,” he said. And his audience gasped, because in Quebec all the top shows are Canadian.

“We are the only country in the industrialized world that prefers other people’s entertainment programming on television to our own,” Stursberg said in his office. “The only one,” he repeated. “The only one.”

There was a time when CBC English Television’s share of the national audience, aside from a few American channels that leaked across the border, was 100 percent. By the early ’80s, when the network was running a mixture of Canadian and American programming (including Dallas) in prime time, it had fallen to 22 percent. In the mid-’90s, CBC decided to “Canadianize” and completely fill its prime-time schedule with domestically produced programming. Its audience share fell to 11 percent. By some measures, it stood at less than 5 percent when Stursberg arrived. The fragmentation caused by the proliferation of channels was only part of the reason, because the network was losing audience at twice the rate ctv was.

In Stursberg’s view, CBC’s entertainment programmers were making the same mistake as the filmmakers he had argued with during his time at Telefilm: they didn’t take the whole notion of entertainment seriously enough. Just as those filmmakers were making “art house” films for “elite” audiences, cbc tended to follow what Stursberg terms “European conventions” in its television, rather than the American conventions viewers obviously preferred.

“I say this with the greatest gentleness,” he told me. “One of the things that surprises me in terms of the cultural conversation within English Canada… is that people don’t admire popular culture. They don’t admire television.” Canada is living in the golden age of television, he said, and we’re missing it. The New York Times, The New Yorker — they take the medium seriously. “In English Canada, we don’t treat it as an art. And it may be because we have failed for so many years. But it is an art. It is the great, popular, difficult art of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I don’t know why we don’t love it.”

Stursberg’s CBC got rid of things like Opening Night, its Thursday night block of performing arts programming, a good example of TV that wished it wasn’t TV. It won awards, he said, simply because it had few competitors. Because nobody does that kind of programming anymore. Because nobody watches it.

Instead, Stursberg’s CBC embraced the medium. It started to love entertaining people. Frothy comedies? Family dramas? Hockey players on figure skates? Bring ‘em on. Yes, it would adapt a Canadian novel or two, but it would do the big international co-productions as well — The Tudors, Camelot, perhaps even an adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children — and it wouldn’t “turn them into art house projects.” It aimed for mass appeal, because then it could start a tide of revenue to lift all of CBC’s boats, including the news and current affairs division (which, by the way, would run “documentaries which are less auteur”).

To those who feared that by using the public broadcaster’s resources to purchase and present conventional, popular television, that by producing shows that could easily have appeared on other networks, Stursberg was following a path that would ultimately lead to a CBC with less reason to exist, he replied… yes. “I completely agree with that. And our shows in prime time are utterly different. They’re Canadian.”

Never mind that CTV has a Canadian series or two in prime time; the real business of the private networks is airing shows they buy in Los Angeles. That’s not CBC’s business. “I’m not worried about distinctiveness,” he said with a brush of his hand. “We have the most distinctive schedule that the CBC has ever had.”

hen it came time to talk about results, Stursberg acted like any executive. He was relentlessly self-congratulatory and showed only the numbers that served his cause. In front of his January audience of CBCers, he proudly shared figures that made it look as though cbc TV was climbing steadily toward success, from a 6.7 share of total audience in 2004–05 to a 9.3 in 2009–10. “Lots of the shows were genuine hits,” he chirped. “I mean, I don’t know how else to describe it. There’s no question that Battle of the Blades was enormous. Dragons’ Den clocked in one evening at over two million viewers.” Ratings data is slippery, though. cbc’s research makes a point of excluding periods — such as the Olympics (which the network aired in 2004, 2006, and 2008, before losing them to ctv in 2010) and the lockout — that tip the numbers in unflattering ways. “It’s all very arcane, dubious stuff,” says an expert familiar with cbc’s approach. An alternative compilation,
supplied by an independent source, says CBC’s total audience share now stands at 4.8 percent, just one-tenth of a point higher than in 2005–06. It’s hard to know if either view is accurate.

The numbers for specific shows are a little easier to parse, so in what was then still Stursberg’s office, sitting at his conference table, I asked how The National was doing. Throughout our interview, the vice-president had been playing with the chair beside him, rolling it back and forth, gripping it, wrestling with it. Now he began to spin the chair round and round. “The results so far have been encouraging,” he said. I told him the numbers for September 2009 to May 2010 showed The National was down 27 percent.

“That’s correct,” he said, without flinching, and neatly shifted to factors beyond his control. In early September 2009, the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement changed its system, switching to personal meters, with members of a ratings family each wearing a special device to record individual viewing habits automatically, no matter where they watched TV. But when the new, supposedly more accurate numbers began coming in, every network newscast noticed a jump in viewership of 16 to 18 percent, except The National, which showed an enormous drop. Jennifer McGuire described it as a “horrible moment.”

“I’m trying to understand it, too,” admitted Stursberg, still spinning the chair. “We are not all the way home.”

And radio? Since the shift away from classical music, the audience for Radio 2 was down 20 percent. Robert Rabinovitch considers this one of the places Stursberg failed, calling Radio 2 “a disaster.” “Oh, we can talk about Radio 2,” Stursberg said, dismissing it. “Radio One’s numbers are the highest in seventy-five years. I think the only thing that counts is success. When you have success, then you’re happy, right? Because you know you’re making things that matter to people. If you don’t have success, then you can make up all the excuses in the world.”

I told him that many people who worked at CBC didn’t sound very happy.

“Really?” he said. “Our numbers show exactly the opposite. Morale is really good.” He was referring to a survey of managers, which found improvements from 2006 to 2009 in a number of satisfaction indicators. By contrast, an internal survey of CBC National Radio news reporters completed last April showed widespread disenchantment: 95 percent either disagreed or strongly disagreed that national radio news was on the right course, while 95 percent agreed that morale in the national news service, which combines radio and television, was “lower than ever during my career.” The comments section writhed with anguish:

“The Hub is a nightmare.”

“Morale is low everywhere within the CBC. All the fun things seem to have been dismantled or destroyed.”

“Fix it soon, or we’ll all be working in PR. This is unbearable.”

“We’ve been annexed, steamrolled, obliterated… ”

“The new culture is mean spirited and corporate.”

“Never have I felt so isolated, neglected, undervalued.”

Ask former president Rabinovitch about complaints like these, and those that specifically targeted Stursberg — which contrasted starkly with the wide respect engendered by Stursberg’s Radio-Canada counterpart, Sylvain Lafrance — and he puts it down to culture. “It’s a different environment in Quebec,” he says. “The boss is the boss. They listen to the head of French Television. In English Canada, they’d rather take you down than help you move ahead.”

In his office, Stursberg continued wrestling with the chair beside him, and with the idea that the organization he led was somehow less than it had been before he arrived — less informative, less reflective of Canada, less focused on the special role of the public broadcaster, less happy. He could mount an effective argument against all but the last of these. “I’m a little surprised,” he said quietly. “I don’t dispute what you hear from people. I’m sure there are people who are unhappy, but my general sense is that, in the larger sense, people are happier than they were.”

What seemed like happiness to Stursberg might have been more like stoic resignation. Speaking with a range of sources, both inside and outside cbc, the fairest of them had perhaps reluctantly come to believe that maybe Stursberg wasn’t all bad. At least he’d had a plan. “Right after the lockout, it would have been awfully hard to find anybody in the corporation with a good word to say about Richard,” says Linden MacIntyre. Nearer to Stursberg’s departure, the sentiment became more “We’re all in this leaky boat together.” Stursberg was dealt a tough hand. The situation was impossible. Under the circumstances, what else could he have done?

“He was successful,” says Trina McQueen, a respected former member of the cbc board. “He managed to change a very large, very cantankerous organization so that it could carry out his vision.” And it won’t be turning in a new direction anytime soon. Says McQueen with a chuckle, “CBC can’t turn on a toonie, let alone a dime.”

A few weeks after his firing, Stursberg seemed a little at loose ends. He was spending his time, he said, “lunching with folks, yakking with folks.” He had no regrets. In his six years in charge at CBC, he’d shown that “if you focus on trying to please people,” those people would watch Canadian shows. There are those who say Stursberg’s legacy includes CBC’s significantly improved online presence, and that the fate of Radio 2 hasn’t been determined. But the populist course he set for CBC TV, that decision to focus on trying to please people, that’s the one most people will remember. McQueen, who in debates about the role of the public broadcaster falls firmly into the “exceptionalist” camp, laments what could have been. “He is so intelligent, he’s so thought provoking, he’s such an original mind,” she says of Stursberg. “It really saddens me that this is the vision he chose.”

In the world of media, of course, nothing is the way it was. Stursberg’s six years in charge coincided with a period of complete technological and economic transformation. Arguably, all that separated CBC from everyone else swept up in the maelstrom is that it alone had a focus for its pain. If ever an organization needed someone to blame, it was CBC. Richard Stursberg was made for that job.
Trevor Cole received Governor General’s Literary Award nominations for his first two novels. His third, Practical Jean, was published in September.

Nigel Dickson has won eighteen National Magazine Awards. His solo exhibition Canadian Content: Portraits by Nigel Dickson ran at the Royal Ontario Museum until last March.

© 2010 The Walrus Magazine

Time: Wednesday October 13, 2010 at 3:13 am
IP Address: 70.30.111.40

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The Witch is Still Dead

It has been over a week since Richard Stursbeg was shoved off the gang plank at CBC. There is still no reason given or available as to why the man who ran the corporation for six years was so unceremoniously dumped. If you read the letters to the staff from Kirstine Stewart, the interim new boss, and Hubert Lacroix, the President of the CBC you get the idea that everything was just fine. Management loved the new direction the CBC was taking. ‘Hubie’ and ‘Kit’ are over the moon over the big ratings increase. Nothing is going to change they shout in unison. Just to make matters really surreal, news honcho Jennifer McGuire sends out a missive extolling the benefits of the changes brought in at CBC news and sends hero-grams out to the folks who covered a few of the stories that CBC news actually got to including sending hosts to the Vancouver Olympics and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill; in the past the coverage would have been a given, now it demands extra notice.

I have a question for Hubert Lacroix, Kirstine Stewart and Jennifer McGuire. If everything at the ‘corpse’ is so hunky-dory, why did the leader who brought us all this success have to spend the last week and a bit removing the knives from back? Stursberg was the unquestioned leader and catalyst in the changes that you all claim were so successful, so why dump the genius before he has finished the job?

The truth is there is an awful lot of “bull” being spread since the manure hit the fan. Guys like John Doyle who got most of it right from the get-go was way off the mark with his characterization of Stursberg as a strong leader the CBC needed and the whining troops were always destined to resent. Stursberg was not a strong leader he was a tyrant and a bully. The CBC needed change, it like any large organization always does. But change cannot be accomplished without the help of the staff. You are talking about 5500 union workers and maybe a thousand more managers. If you ignore them or push them around they will rebel and make your job a lot tougher. Good leaders have the ability to convince the people they lead that they have a plan that will work. They get the majority on side and the workers not only help make the changes happen, they come up with a few ideas for change of their own. When they feel like things are being shoved down their throats they fight back. If John Doyle was right many of the people who were the winners in the Stursberg shuffles would be coming to his defense. So far, I have heard nothing but joy coming from inside the CBC since Stursberg was fired. The folks who worked under him knew him and they didn’t like what they saw.

Then there’s all the spin about the ratings. What a hero Stursberg was because he raised the ratings. How only the CBC would get rid of such a successful boss. What a load. The rating of CBC went up for two reasons: the new people meters added 30 to 40% viewership across the board. CTV and Global saw their numbers jump even higher than CBC did. The second reason: reality programs and American quiz shows. In fact most of Stursberg’s “successes” get poor ratings. Little Mosque on the Prairie is typical. It got a huge starting audience of well over a million viewers. We never hear the end of those numbers. How come we seldom hear about the loss of over half of that audience? In fact of the new shows that came in under Stursberg’s reign, only Dragon’s Den and Battle of the Blades are genuine CBC hits. The dramas and the comedies, whether you like them or you hate them, are getting about the same numbers that the CBC got for dramas and comedies before Stursberg.

Interesting, the purveyors of the great ratings argument come from the right wing press. David Akin who is one of the people behind the new Fox-like news coming to Canada, and the Ottawa Citizen, part of the National Post chain who distinguished themselves by criticizing every CBC move during Stursberg’s tenure are among the leaders of the woe is CBC for dumping Stursberg cabal. Folks, these are the people who want to kill the CBC. These are the people who want the CBC sold off. These are the people who say the CBC is a communist plot against right-thinking Canadians. Yeah, let’s buy into their spin.

I don’t know what’s going to happen at the CBC in the coming months and years but I do know this: if things were really meant to stay the same, Stursberg would not be gone. There are changes coming, no matter what Hubie and Kirstine say. When a new permanent V.P. is chosen we will get a hint of the direction those changes will take. I will bet real money that the news will be the first place that returns to sanity. I believe there will be room for the odd serious drama to take its place among the fluff. I’m not holding my breath but I would like to see the arts make a re-appearance on the network. There’s no guarantee we will like the direction the new boss has in mind any better than we liked what Stursberg did but if the CBC is going to survive it will have to not only get new viewers but it will have to win back and retain the loyal audience that supported the network before the changes wrought by Stursberg and his gang. That’s how successful enterprises remain successful, they appeal to new consumers while keeping their loyal customers happy. Stursberg threw out the baby with the bathwater. He pissed off the typical CBC type while attracting too few new acolytes.

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Looking for Bias

Over the past several weeks the CBC has once again come under fire from Conservative politicians and conservative rabble rousers for their perceived bias. This has been a regular occurrence for decades. I was with The Journal when Brian Mulroney became Prime Minister and quickly began attacking the CBC. He hired a former CTV newsman and executive to look into the pro-Liberal leanings of the staff and management of the national broadcaster. Since there was never any action that resulted from the inquiry I have to guess that the powers in Ottawa could not find what they were looking for.

At the time I had only been at CBC for a short time and I was surprised by what I had found. I too believed there was a liberal bias, that is, until I arrived and started working with the CBC. Sure there were Liberal and NDP supporters on staff. There were also many Conservative supporters working at The National and The Journal. And guess what, the conservatives were actually the people in power, the decision makers. Barbara Frum would never admit to it, but she was always pushing the conservative viewpoint. In fact she would call her husband, a devout Conservative, and ask his advice before most political interviews. I never asked Mark Starowicz who he voted for but he always struck me as leaning to the right. There were similar stories at The National. As any reasonable person should suspect, there are people of all political stripes working throughout the media and all we should care about is there ability to do their jobs as professionals, not who they may vote for if an election were held today.

More to the point though, I was generally impressed with the fact that the stories that got to air were not particularly affected by any personal bias of the reporters, producers and writers. The staff were, in fact, professionals who were attempting to get their stories right with no time for the political games that politicians or fanatical viewers want to perceive. There have been the odd exceptions but those exceptions have popped up on all the networks and on all sides of the stories.

Now along comes Stephen Harper and his hatchet man Doug Finley along with Conservative Party President John Walsh to renew the CBC bashing when the going gets a little tough for his party. I suppose attacking the CBC might make a few people ignore Afghanistan and Guergisgate, but I suspect that CBC news has slipped far enough from the consciousness of Canadians that the ploy won’t do the Tories any good.

The Harperite attacks should have been ignored by the brass at the “corpse.” They were not. In fact CBC management has over-reacted big time. The CBC’s defensiveness will do more harm to their cause than anything the Harper minions could accomplish themselves.

The first big response was President Hubert Lacroix commissioning a study. How Canadian. Lacroix announced that a team of outside experts would conduct an independent review of its news gathering and delivery. How’s that for a vote of confidence in your staff? The results are due in the fall. How does one measure such things? If the CBC covers Helena Guegis are they being anti-Tory? What about covering a Liberal policy conference? Is that pro-Liberal? It’s a mugs game that will provide the answers that Hubert Lacroix wants or needs. If he needs an excuse to hammer his people into being easy on Harper, the panel will find a pro-Liberal bias. If he wants to back his peeps, guess what? There will be no bias at all. I can’t imagine anyone accepting the results of the study unless it agrees with their preconceived notions.

For 25 years in news I was called too far left by conservatives and too right wing by liberals. I always considered this a badge of honor. Nobody likes the coverage when they are dealing with a negative story about themselves. In the case of Parliament, the party in power always takes more hits than the opposition. Heck, they are making the policy and thus they are open to criticism. Lacroix should understand this and not respond in any other way than to show confidence in and watch the backs of his professional team of journalists. Any other response only leads to more charges and the growing of the story.

Unfortunately the CBC did not stop at a study. In response to the charges that CBC is using a Liberal pollster, Frank Graves, someone at the CBC went really overboard and opened the corporation to far more questions from both within and without. They went out and hired former Harper aide Kory Teneycke just weeks after he left the PMO. Inquiring minds have a question about Kory Teneycke’s new job…NDP MP Charlie Angus’s question to the Ombudsman was how CBC justifies hiring him when there is supposed to be a 2 year “cooling off” period. This is indeed the question that is raised most with the people I know.

But there is another question…who exactly hired him? Nobody I spoke to at CBC ever heard of one person being hired on what we can only presume is one contract to do a multitude of appearances on SEVERAL different programs. Did all the news and current affairs producers just happen to get together and try to entice him to accept such a deal. The ones I spoke to had not been contacted about the hiring. Or, as seems more likely, did CBC management hire him, and then proceed to ram him down the throats of CBC executive producers? Once upon a time, program producers decided who would be guests on their programs.

The CBC is being run by “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.” Every move they make seems to result in another hole in their feet. If Hubert Lacroix really wants to fix the CBC he should begin with a long and hard look both in the mirror and at the folks running the place and leave the politics to the politicians.

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

Pointing Fingers

Last week I received an anonymous email purportedly from CBC News staff that was sent to CBC President Hubert Lacroix. It took a few days to determine that this letter in fact came from inside the CBC and further that it was truly meant to go to Mr. Lacroix. I don’t know if he actually received the letter but I do know it really did come from CBC News staffers.

It is a terrible indictment of where CBC News is at today. Low morale, poor leadership, and a general malaise have overtaken the place. Perhaps this is part of the reason it has taken so long to launch the new CBC National News.

Here’s the letter:

Dear Mr. President,

A concerned group of staff are writing to inform you that CBC English Radio and Television are in a state of crisis and desperately require intervention.

Our current managerial structure seems to have been inspired by the mythical hydra whose many heads frequently consumed one another. Former executive vice president Harold Redekopp’s notorious “pylons” have now been replaced by “the Stursberg Labyrinth,” where daily management decisions have to be run up multiple reporting lines. While it was certainly a challenge to work efficiently and effectively in the previous management structure, the current system is an unmitigated disaster where everyone is forced to serve not two but ten masters.

Mr. Stursberg’s leadership choices have also strongly impacted daily News operations. When John Crookshank, the best thing to happen to CBC News in a decade, suddenly resigned a scant few months into his tenure, Jennifer McGuire was made head of News despite the availability of candidates with superior news-gathering credentials. That decision continues to have repercussions.

In a similar vein, Jill Troyer was made Director of Regional Programming, where she has utterly failed to gain the trust or confidence of those she was intended to represent. Ms Troyer is directly implicated in the sudden departure of Mike Linder from the CBC this week. We understand that Mr. Linder was an award winning journalist in his own right. He was, by all accounts, one of the most creative, charismatic, effective and popular managers in the entire English service. The Edmonton News show he re-built from the ground up is now universally regarded as one of the best in the country. While the specific reason for Mr. Linder’s departure is not known, we’ve learned that CBC Edmonton staff were so outraged they nearly rioted when the announcement was made, and would likely have “stormed the Bastille” if their jobs were not at risk. With his outstanding journalistic and managerial track-record, Mr. Linder will no doubt be scooped by the competition and CBC News will be exponentially poorer for his loss.

Even more disturbing than the above is the fact that Mr. Stursberg was overheard by CBC employees making highly disparaging remarks about you and your attempt to build strong, collaborative bonds between CBC management and the unions. We would like to state for the record that we greatly admire you collaborative management style, in particular, your willingness to listen openly and fairly to concerns staff have raised. Genuine honour and integrity are not qualities commonly associated with CBC’s senior management and your unique approach is deeply appreciated. We think it is very unfortunate that some who claim to represent you do not also share your ethical code.

Sadly, these are ugly times and we recognize that were the authors of this letter ever to be identified, our careers, incomes and pensions would all be jeopardized. As such, we regret to inform you that this email account will be deactivated as soon as this letter has been sent.

Mr. President, morale at every conceivable level of CBC English Services is at an all time low. As such, it has become necessary to publicly declare that “Rome is officially burning.” What is desperately needed now are more fire fighters and less fiddlers throughout CBC’s management system.

Yours in dismay,
Concerned CBC staff

Okay, it’s not the best written letter and it does get a bit childish when it points a finger at Mr. Stursberg’s alleged disagreement with the President’s direction. But the letter is a symptom of a very diseased operation.

A lack of money because of budget cuts, the remaining fallout from the lockout a few years back, the changes in leadership and the quality of the new people in charge, the project to renew the news and the subsequent changes, all these things have been piled on a beleaguered news staff. Any one of these things could hurt an organization, together they are deadly.

Where is CBC News at today? The latest fallout starts with the new direction of the news that practically bans all news documentaries. This was the one thing CBC News did that differentiated it from CTV and Global. On many nights it was the most interesting part of what has become a pedestrian newscast. From where I sit, it is a huge mistake.

Then came the reassignment of the staff that produced the documentaries. Some very talented people are cooling their heels in places they do not fit or would rather not be. Some have been pushed out of the Corp completely. Most of the people I speak to at CBC News claim they still do not know what is expected of them. The new National is supposed to start next week! Worse, when they speak to their bosses they are told they too do not know what is expected. Mixed signals abound. How long can a story be? Where will it run? Who do we pitch to? Staffers with 20 and 30 years experience don’t know where to turn.

At the same time some of CBC’s best on air talent has been banished to radio, Newsworld and retirement. The CBC News was weak on air before the changes, now they are close to laughable.

Finally, from what I have seen of the “new” direction so far, because in reality the news has already changed, only the new set, opening and music are still to be introduced, the content that has replaced the documentaries feels like filler. Non stories are being padded up to 3 or 4 minutes to fill the last 20 minutes of the program. In one such item I saw a group of kids, all of whom looked under 20, interviewed on the street and asked about what they will do to prepare for swine flu. Interestingly the script talked about those who remember the 1976 swine flu outbreak. These people were not even born in 1976. This is poor judgment, bad supervision and inexcusable journalism at the highest level of broadcast news in Canada.

The National, like any newscast succeeds or fails based on the people who do the work, their morale, their talent and their understanding of their jobs.  It is a given that morale is as low as it has ever been at CBC News, and that’s saying a lot. It looks from the outside like there is little understanding of the expectations of management. And finally, the talent level both on air and in management seems to be highly suspect.

Is it any wonder that The National’s ratings are less than half the audience at CTV National News?

Filed under: Media Commentary, , , , , ,

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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