I'm Mad as Hell

Icon

and I can't do a thing about it

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.

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

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.

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

The News According to Richard Stursberg

A few weeks ago I received a surprise e-mail. Out of the blue, at least from my side, I heard from Richard Stursberg, the former V.P. of CBC English. He left a telephone number and an e-mail address and asked if we could get together to talk.

At first I thought I was being scammed. I have written some pretty nasty observations about the man’s management style and his programming decisions. I would have thought I would be last person he would want to sit down with.

After a few weeks of dancing around possible times to meet we finally got together last week.

Let me start the description of our meeting with a few caveats. I was not invited to interview him, he asked for the meeting to question me. At no point did Richard ask me to keep our meeting off the record and thus I made no promises of any kind. Since it was not an interview, hot seat or otherwise, it was not conducted as such. I am writing this because I think there are a lot of people who are interested in Richard’s post-CBC thoughts and observations. What follows is a neutral, straight- forward report on our get together.

His stated purpose for the meeting was to talk about news. He gave no reason before or during the get together as to why he was interested in discussing news. I am still at a loss as to the purpose of the meeting. Having said that, I would characterize the time we spent together as cordial and frank. We shared our opinions easily and without rancor.

As you might guess there were a few things we agreed to disagree about and surprisingly, several areas on which we agreed completely.

From my point of view there were three main areas of discussion. We began by both lamenting the tragedy that the loss of local CBC newsrooms has been for the corporation. It has always been my view that the destruction of CBC’s local newsrooms in the mid-eighties that continued for over twenty years was a huge loss for CBC News that resulted in smaller and smaller audiences for all CBC programming. I was surprised to hear that he agreed completely. He believes that local news is the most important building block for a successful news operation and that when successful, as it was in the 80’s, it brings viewers to all CBC news broadcasts. I added that I thought it actually brought increased viewership to all CBC programs.

Mr. Stursberg is proud of the fact that he began to rebuild the local newsrooms and increased their airtime. I am not so sure. CBC local news ratings are still very, very poor and I believe that has a lot to do with the underfunding and lack of quality leadership with strong news experience. It’s not good enough to say here’s more time, but you will get no increase in funding or staff.

His second big point was about the general cowardice among his predecessors and some of the managers that have survived his tenure. He says he is a great believer in figuring out what shows are working and which shows are failing or at least beginning to fail. He feels the same way about on air personalities who are no longer meeting the audience’s needs and expectations. Stursberg believes CBC management that came before him should have cancelled programs that were no longer viable. He takes credit for doing just that, but he was never specific about which programs he was talking about. He believes that to be successful you have to be ruthlessly assessing your product at all times. At CBC it is far more common to say that everything is wonderful. CBC management (and I know this especially true of the news) is delusional. They think, or at least they say publicly, everything they produce is high quality and works well. They stand behind the work of all of heir on air people. Loyal yes. Smart, no.

Finally we got around to talking about The National. He claims he was not expecting the kinds of changes that were brought about two years ago. He says he wanted a newscast that was more serious. He wanted fewer stories with more depth. He was certainly not talking about current affairs. He meant longer news stories that explained in more context, the important events of the day.

So how did The National get filled with fluff stories that have so little connection to the real news of the day? I didn’t get a direct answer. I was just told it was not what he expected or wanted.

I asked why, as the boss, he didn’t get the kind of news he wanted. I never got a direct answer to that question, but I did get a long discussion about the people who run the newsroom. As far as Mr. Stursberg is concerned they are a kind of cabal that protects their own interests at the expense of the CBC. He claims he had a hard time having any influence over them. Worst of all, he said, they do not care about any show other than The National. They would happily undermine every other newscast the CBC produces to help The National. He feels the failures of CBC NN and local news can be attributed in no small way to the selfishness of the people running CBC News and The National.

There were other sidebar discussions that were illuminating. First I get the impression that Richard is not a fan of current affairs. He never said that, but the discussion always turned away from current affairs when I tried to bring it up. He did say he thinks Fifth Estate produces too few quality programs every year.

It is clear that Mr. Stursberg believes the best way to judge the success or failure of a television program is the ratings. To be fair, that’s the attitude of most TV execs in Canada and the U.S., but most who feel that way do not work for a crown corporation that has a mandate that goes beyond numbers.

Personalities aside, during the time I spent with him, he was charming and witty, but hey that’s easy when we don’t have a working relationship and neither one of us has anything to lose. What became crystal clear to me was that Richard Stursberg is a smart man who found himself in the wrong job. I suspect he would fit in beautifully at CTV or Global and would perhaps do an excellent job. At CBC he was fighting the mandate, the history and the idiosyncratic way things are done. I will even give him credit for recognizing many of the absurdities of CBC Television, but what he had to understand equally, and it appears he either didn’t get or refused to bend towards, was the special place and task that a public broadcaster has in a country like Canada.

Sorry folks, we never talked about his management style, the lockout he is accused of engineering or the quality of the comedies and dramas that now populate the CBC schedule. He said he wanted to talk about news and I kept my part of the bargain.

Filed under: Media Commentary, , ,

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.

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

New Boss, Same Old Stursberg Manifesto

Now it’s my turn to change the narrative. The response to my last blog about the excessive nature of the coverage of the terrible death of Sgt. Ryan Russell has been overwhelming. Perhaps shockingly, there has been only one negative response. I was expecting to be bombarded with hate mail. Be that as it may, it is time to move on.

If there is an organization that is more screwed up than the CBC I would worry about its ability to continue to function. The CBC however, ambles along seemingly oblivious to its own shortcomings and failures.

When Kirstine Stewart was finally named to replace the Evil Emperor, also known as Richard Stursberg, it did, I admit, come as a bit of a surprise. In fact it raised a whole lot of questions. For instance, why did it take more than a half-a-year to replace Stursberg when the replacement was his sitting second in command? Did the CBC search for an outside replacement and fail? Was Kirstine Stewart the second, third or tenth choice for the job? Was there a fight about whether to promote her at the board level? We will never really know because once the die is cast the only story we get is how wonderful a choice Ms. Stewart is.

Even that statement raises questions in my mind. What we all know to be true, whether you thought Richard Stursberg a mad genius or the man responsible for the every mistake our national broadcaster has made in the last half a decade, was that the only opinions King Richard accepted were his own or those that agreed with his. The man accepted no opposition and heard no disagreement. In the end it was this attitude that led to his banishment. He refused to accept the CBC mandate and he especially refused to contemplate programming dealing with the 75th anniversary of the corporation. You didn’t have to be a palm reader or a psychiatrist to know that the result was that he surrounded himself with “yes” people. One senior CBC employee told me that the new boss at CBC News began every statement she made with “Richard says…”

That being the case it’s not a stretch to wonder what the heck Kirstine Stewart was doing when Richard Stursberg was in charge. On the surface one can guess that she was just another “yes” woman whose job was to agree with the Emperor and to do his bidding when he could not do it himself. Not the kind of thing I would want on my resume. It is possible she disagreed with the boss in private but based on my experience, people like Stursberg do not keep people who disagree around whether it’s in public or private. It’s also possible she disagreed but kept it to herself and her best buds, but what does that say about her character and leadership abilities?

So, I ask again, why did Kirstine Stewart get the job? What qualified her to run the largest and most important cultural institution in English Canada? Here’s what was written about her on her Wiki page, I’m guessing composed by a CBC flack:

…Stewart oversaw CBC’s fresh presentation style launch with such new hits as Dragons’ Den, The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos, Test the Nation, The Greatest Canadian Invention, and The Next Great Prime Minister – all 2006/2007 green lit by Stewart in her first year, along with the critically acclaimed and highly rated show Little Mosque on the Prairie. The show’s ratings, averaging a million viewers weekly, were a first for CBC in more than 5 years. In 2009, new shows like Canada’s Super Speller and Battle of the Blades premiered on the network. In 2008, hits The Border, The Week the Women Went, and Sophie were launched by Stewart on CBC’s primetime schedule.
Prior to her current role at CBC, Stewart was senior VP at Alliance Atlantis overseeing eight channels, including BBC Canada, National Geographic Canada and Home and Garden Television. She also worked in the US as programming VP at Hallmark Entertainment, overseeing programming of 17 international cable and satellite broadcast channels.
Ms. Layfield began her career in international program distribution at Paragon Entertainment, rising to senior vice-president of the distribution division before moving to Trio/Newsworld, a CBC/Power Corp. joint venture. From there she joined U.S.-based Hallmark Entertainment as senior VP of programming, travelling the world to head up 19 international channels. In 2003 she joined Alliance Atlantis Communications, where she doubled the audience for its specialty channels such as Life Network, HGTV and Food Network Canada…

So what can we glean from this? She loves reality TV, no surprise having come from Alliance Atlantis where that’s about all they did. She does not even have a whiff of journalism, documentary, sports or current affairs in her background. Finally, that she has never run a major terrestrial broadcast network.

I am also made to wonder what Kirstine Stewart deems a hit when most of the shows she takes credit for were anything but. The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos has never been a ratings success, Little Mosque on the Prairie took no time to lose its audience when the audience realized how shallow it is, The Next Great Prime Minister, did anybody see that? Sophie! Does anyone remember it? Truth be told the CBC has three hit shows. Dragon’s Den which is a format show bought from abroad that has little or no actual CBC input, Hockey Night in Canada which has great numbers but nobody presently at the Corpse can take any credit for, and Battle of the Blades…congratulations, one home grown hit. As an old friend of mine used to say “even a blind squirrel finds a nut sometime.”

Until Richard Stursberg came to the CBC there was a tradition that the chief programmer would come from the journalistic side, Denis Harvey, Peter Herrndorf. It can be argued that drama and comedy were given short shrift. The truth is that drama and comedy are purchased from and produced by outsiders, independent producers who come up with ideas and sell them to the CBC. News and Current Affairs are produced in house. The bulk of CBC creative staff work in News or Current Affairs. The programming that once made CBC stand-out was once News and Current Affairs. I still believe the CBC is still the CBC if Little Mosque or Dragon’s Den disappear, but the CBC no longer needs to exist if The National and Fifth Estate no longer produce excellent programs.

Under Stursberg The National was reorganized into close to oblivion. The Fifth Estate was moved to the dead zone of Friday night. The CBC claims to be getting more viewers, a statement I reject, but does anyone believe that reality and mediocre sitcoms present a reason to spend a billion dollars on a national broadcaster?

From this perch it looks like more of the same at the CBC. The Stursberg manifesto lives on. Only the stewardship has changed. Sure Kirstine Stewart will be easier to get along with. She will probably pay her respects to the board and to the president. She will even pay lip-service to the mandate. But the soft, squishy programs that we have come to see as the new CBC will continue to be the present and future. Too bad. Especially at this time, when a 1,000 channel universe and a growing on-line viewership threaten our financial ability to produce real Canadian content. Now, when we need CBC the most it is being destroyed by reality and thin gruel.

Filed under: Media Commentary, , , , , ,

“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

Filed under: Media Commentary, , , , , ,

No News is Bad News

At the end of the year it’s traditional to look back at what occurred during the past twelve months and pick out the highs and lows. Most years there are a few examples of each. 2009, however, has proved to be one of the most dismal years for news and current affairs in Canada ever. I can’t think of a worse period in my lifetime.

Everybody has already noted the disaster that is the new National at CBC: thin gruel masquerading as news, the worst reporting staff in CBC Television history, the inability to fill sixty minutes with relevant stories, and this doesn’t even refer to the ludicrous and totally unmotivated standing around to read the news and do interviews. The good news is that the audience numbers are way down. Perhaps this will induce the CBC bosses to see the error of their ways. I’m not holding my breath.

The CBC’s last great journalism show has also been diminished. The Fifth Estate has been moved to the dead zone of Friday night where it is almost impossible to garner decent ratings. The reason for the move: a better night to run Being Erica. Now I’m all for Canadian drama but why do the schedulers at CBC need to promote Canadian drama at the expense of their flagship current affairs program?

CBC fell further under the leadership and thrall of the evil emperor, Richard (Darth) Stursberg. He and his hand-picked minions of “yes” people seem to be doing the best they can to wreck CBC News and Current Affairs. Under his rule we have seen the degradation of national news, the moving of The Fifth and local news to dead zones, the virtual disappearance of the once popular program Market Place (it finally reappears after New Years), the now almost non-existent documentary, and I haven’t mentioned the terminally unwatchable CBCNN. There are those within the network, the cynics I guess, who believe Stursberg wants to see news and current affairs fail miserably so he can take the money and spend it on new drama, comedy and reality. If that’s the case the man has not looked at the history of television. News has been, and still is, one of the best ways to build an audience for your entire schedule. Hello, Dick, is the CBC still the CBC without Little Mosque on the Prairie and Being Erica? Is the CBC still the CBC without The National and The Fifth Estate?

CBC Radio has fared a little better but those in charge there believe it is purely a case of benign neglect and they fear that neglect is coming to an end. One producer of a flagship current affairs program on radio told me that Stursberg and company are beginning to look at radio. Scary. Ratings are good, but they can better if the shows are “dumbed –down” like over in CBC-TV land, at least that’s the idea the radio producers are getting from their bosses.

Over at CTV and Global the news is not much better. The bulwarks of “Capitalist Broadcasting” are coming to the government cap-in-hand begging for money in the form of cable and satellite fees. Their hook: they want to save local TV. Local TV, isn’t that the part of their empire they have abused and chopped going way back before they had a small financial dilemma? To prove how much they care about local TV they have been closing local stations even before they find out whether the CRTC will grant them their millions in unearned cash and they have steadfastly refused to guarantee that the dollars they squeeze out of cable and satellite subscribers will go to local TV. Save our shareholders! I guess that doesn’t sound so good in a television ad.

In the meantime CTV still runs W5 but buries it by running it against hockey on Saturday evening and if and when they invest in a documentary, it always airs in the W5 timeslot.

Over at Global, they bury their current affairs in their schedule too. Hands up anyone who has seen or heard about a Global documentary. I saw one on the rise of religion in Canada but that was only because a friend produced it and was kind enough to let me know when it was going to air.

CTV and Global news do a much better job of appealing to Canadians than CBC News does. For proof of this I only have to point out that both get over a million viewers regularly while CBC has trouble reaching half-a-million. Both are better produced and slicker than CBC’s effort but there is little room for celebration. Neither makes any attempt at depth or context. In a world where ABC, NBC and CBS have long understood that fewer stories told more completely is the best way to compete with all-news TV; CTV and Global are still doing newscasts the same way they were done pre-CNN and the internet. Here too CBC News’ failure may be a key. CTV and Global have always done a better job when they were pushed by excellent coverage at CBC. Now that the “Corpse” news has sunk below CTV and Global’s level there is no need for the privates to try harder.

In the U.S. we have witnessed the disintegration of the CNN audience with the odious Fox News being the main recipient of new viewers. Serious stories go unreported south of the border while the balloon boys, disappearing politicians and “birthers” dominate the airwaves. Sensationalism is winning and stories like Copenhagen are losing. Worse still the all news folks are challenging each other to see who can distort or get the facts more wrong. Any coverage of the health care debate by Fox or MSNBC is sure to make a Canadian’s eyes roll.

The good news? Well 60 Minutes somehow continues to tell excellent stories and surprise, surprise, gets a big audience too. The Fifth Estate still has the ability to do the best research and find the best stories. PBS’ new Newshour format is even better than it was before. CTV’s reporters, as a group, are as strong as any reporting team I can remember; perhaps that’s because they took their best and added some of CBC’s best to create a kind of dream team of news reporting. The Agenda with Steve Paikin gets better every year and deals with the kind of topics that only PBS and TVO tackle; oh, and surprise, surprise, they get pretty good numbers doing it in the middle of prime time against the toughest competition. CBC Radio has so far stayed the mostly fine course (we can only pray that lasts). And finally, Lou Dobbs is gone from CNN, this alone could be reason to celebrate the New Year.

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

Humpty Dumpty News

An observer of Canada and especially the CBC would be forgiven if they thought all the drama in the country was taking place at CBC News and CBC News Network. Being Erica can’t compete and Dragon’s Den doesn’t come close to the reality TV nonsense swirling around Peter Mansbridge, Richard Stursberg et al at Canada’s national network.

A few weeks after the disastrous launch of the new National and the unwatchable programming on CBCNN, the drama continues. From the outside it looks like Stursberg and his happy band of naysayers are attempting to build a wall around the Corpse that will keep out all the negative reactions. So far they do not, at least publicly, admit that there are any problems with the new direction that CBC News has attempted to sell to a dwindling audience.

Unfortunately for the CBC they have accomplished only one goal: yes, they have united Canadians, created consensus. Everybody hates the new news. Forgive me if I exaggerate, I have seen two articles from people who mildly like the new direction, but I have yet to speak to a single person who has anything positive to say about CBC News as it appears today. I have had conversations with people of all ages from many different parts of Canada. Not one likes what he or she is seeing.

What’s worse, whenever two media people get together, or whenever a CBC News staffer meets a news viewer, the dreadfulness, is that a word, of the changes is still the main topic of conversation. Rather than going away, it is growing. The viewers are as pissed off at CBC management as the news staffs are. Really, the entire episode is a great embarrassment, or at least it should be.

The most damning result of the changes to CBC News is playing out in the ratings. CBC made the changes to combat poor news numbers. Most nights the CBC peaked at about 600,000 viewers. CTV and Global generally got over one million viewers for their national newscasts. Now the CBC is barely breaking the 400,000 viewer mark. That’s a drop of one third of the audience. If rumours are to be believed, the back half, where the documentaries once ran, is losing viewers at an even greater pace. Failure has been swift and clear cut. In the meantime numbers at CTV and Global are rising. The damage is actually worse than the last CBC disaster when they tried to move the news to nine p.m.

So what can the CBC do to deal with the self inflicted wounds before they become fatal? The first step, it would seem obvious, is to admit there have been big mistakes made. You cannot begin to make changes if you don’t admit change is necessary. Step back. Have a look at the programming. Remove the rose coloured glasses. Look at CBC News for what it has become, not what you predicted, attempted or wanted. News viewers, especially CBC News viewers, want depth, context, serious reporting. They want interviews and documentaries that engage and inform. They want the news content as it was before. As far as style is concerned, they are willing to accept change that is motivated by bringing better quality coverage. They don’t want standing for the sake of standing and moving graphics because a U.S. TV doctor says that’s what you need to be young and modern. If you can’t answer the question “Why is Peter standing?” then he shouldn’t be standing.

I repeat, all of this is predicated on the CBC bosses admitting they goofed…big time. The way the CBC works I can’t see that happening. Last time CBC goofed Ron Crocker and Tim Kotcheff were run out of the CBC. They took all the blame even though they were mainly there to implement what the entire braintrust had created. Sure they played their part in the changes but they were no more responsible than the rest, the ones who took over and changed the news back to 10 o’clock and the old format. This time that will be more difficult. Many of the old bosses, the ones who know what they are doing, have been shuffled off the news if not out of the CBC entirely. The new bosses come from radio, from current affairs. It is questionable as to whether they know what they are doing and further whether they even know how to put the news back together. There are no possible scapegoats that are not directly tied to Uber boss Richard Stursberg. If Stursberg were to fire Jennifer McGuire it would reflect directly on him personally and his poor judgment. I don’t know Stursberg, but I know people who do know him, and they tell me this is not going to happen. They tell me according to King Richard, he doesn’t make mistakes.

In the meantime, as viewers drift away and the credibility of the news service suffers, major cracks are starting to appear inside the newsroom. Insiders tell me the news team is finding it almost impossible to fill the hour. The news desk is begging all the units to send them stories, any length…even long docs of 20 minutes or more. Many of the best reporters are beginning to revolt. They want to produce better stories but feel the desk has no understanding of what that takes in time and energy. They also feel they are being made to look bad. Their reputations are suffering. I think they are right. The editors are saying the new young producers don’t understand how news works. They are generally unprepared and don’t understand the editing process. Fingers are being pointed in all directions. Everyone is looking for someone to blame and Richard Stursberg and Jennifer McGuire are the names I hear most often. We are talking about massive breakdown at all levels.

Humpty Dumpty has fallen down. Predictably, all King Richard’s horses and all his men so far cannot put Humpty together again.

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

Heads in the Sand at CBC

There is only one thing harder to watch than the new National News on CBC, it is the complete and utter baloney emanating from the people who run the newscast.

In the face of an avalanche of negativity, some observers are pegging the overwhelmingly negative response to the changes at over 99% based on the CBC’s own web site and blog spots, the folks who run CBC and CBC News are making complete asses of themselves with their responses to what I would consider a crisis or even a catastrophe.

While it is true that there have been a lot of complaints about Peter Mansbridge’s uncomfortable standing posture, and many, many complaints about the highly overdone “mal de mer” inducing moving graphics behind every person who ventures on to the set, and of course darts tossed at the strange unmotivated whooshing sounds that emanate from nowhere; the real complaint, and almost every correspondent to CBC makes it clear, is the lack of serious journalism. The shallowness of the stories is paramount. The lack of any depth or context is what is really putting people off. And this is what the folks who run our tax payer financed national news seem unable to grasp.

The only way to prove this point is to let Peter Mansbridge, Jonathan Whitten and Richard Stursberg speak for themselves. Here’s what they had to say about last week’s disaster at the Ceeb:

First Richard Stursberg:

As we close out the first week of the new CBC News, let’s take a moment to consider the reaction our changes have wrought throughout the country. Judging from media coverage and associated commentary, you would be forgiven for thinking the nation has been seized by an obsession with Peter Mansbridge’s chair (more precisely, its absence). Peter himself called it first and correctly in a pre-launch interview for a Toronto Star TV guide cover story. When we change anything about our newscasts, we hear about it. Don’t be disheartened. The sets and graphics look fantastic; as good as any in the world. We’re quickly moving into a rhythm and pace with the new style and new programs. And– this is the most important part– our commitment to telling the relevant news stories of the day, as we’ve always done, remains undiminished, even as the tools change, as they always do. Don’t be worried about the cheap shots from some at our competitor news organizations. Remember it’s in their interest that we should fail. In a fast-changing game, we’re redefining how news is presented to Canadians. And big changes make big splashes. Don’t worry about the noise, which is already subsiding. Congratulations for the stories you broke this week and on the context and depth you provided.

Richard Stursberg
Executive Vice-President
English Services

Now Peter Mansbridge:

It’s always interesting and important to monitor reaction to change. So far, there is no doubt there has been lots of reaction to the changes we have instituted at The National this week. As expected, the comments cover the spectrum and we’re getting lots of good ideas from our viewers on what they like and what they’re not so sure of at this point.
If there’s one area that seems common to both points of view, it’s reaction to the fact that I do parts of the program standing. Some seem to suggest that this is a radical departure from the past. Well, sure, “sitting at the anchor desk” is a traditional mainstay of many newscasts, but standing is hardly anything new. I have been anchoring The National since 1988, and I’ve done the broadcast “standing”, on average, at least twenty times a year, and no one has said anything. Guess they didn’t notice.
Last year on election night, a lengthy eight-hour broadcast, I did the whole program standing, and it was extremely popular – if the ratings game is anything to go by. It also gave the program a flexibility and mobility that we feel is needed in this day and age, especially for our broadcasts. Some people seem to forget that The National is unlike any other network newscast in Canada. It’s a one-hour broadcast, not half an hour, and it deals with much more than news stories. We have feature interviews, panel discussions and short documentary and background features. And we do it all in prime time, unlike the other Canadian networks. Global’s main newscast airs in the late afternoon. CTV goes to air in post-prime-time late night. So the on-air competition for viewer’s eyeballs to The National at 10 p.m. isn’t news – it’s drama and entertainment, the CSI’s of this world. So for us, flexibility is key in showcasing what is still, and always will be, our most important product – solid journalism..
On the interview front, I will continue to do lots of sit-down interviews, both on The National and on Mansbridge One on One on the weekend. However, there will be times when in-studio interviews are done standing, because we think they bring a whole new energy to the moment. And again it’s not new. Just a few months ago, I had a 10-minute session with Prime Minister Harper in Ottawa. We were standing in the Parliamentary Library at the time. A few years ago, I did the same with
former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Much was made by some of my interview with General Rick Hillier on Monday night because we had that conversation “standing”. Perhaps those who thought that was something really different didn’t watch it very closely, because I even included, during that encounter, a taped segment of an interview the two of us had had five years ago in Afghanistan. And guess what – we were standing in that one, too.
Now the question has also come along about At Issue – Canada’s most-watched political panel. “Is Mansbridge going to make them all stand too?” The answer on that one is “no”. That conversation, a weekly appointment-television moment for hundreds of thousands of Canadians every week, is different and calls for a different look. This Thursday, Allan, Andrew and Chantal will all be in studio at a fancy new desk with fancy new chairs. Hope you join in the fun and watch.

Finally Jonathan Whitten, one of the bosses at CBC News:

Hi all…

Thanks for all your hard work in putting (most!) of week one behind us…

For those on the front lines…it’s been exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. The task of turning the ship around overnight was a huge one,
and a smooth and clean start in week one is testament to the passion and dedication of everyone who works here.

What viewers saw this week was a modern set and a modern look, a faster pace, and new faces and personalities. What they also saw were the same standards of journalism, the same emphasis on news, context, and original and enterprise reporting. Though the on-air team surrounding him is now stronger than ever, they also saw Peter still doing what he does best, guiding viewers through the same range of stories and storytelling, and talking to news makers and opinion leaders on topics that matter to Canadians.

Equally important, our new website and “early” versions of the National generated a huge amount of interest, and marked our first big step toward serving a brand new audience at brand new times and in brand new ways.

And while we continue to try to understand how and why a chunk of our audience disappeared overnight with the new audience panel under the PPM system, it was heartening to see that the first four nights of the new look and format was our strongest four-day streak under the new system.

While much of the din this week has been focused on the weighty issues of color and posture, as a participant in at least three make overs of the National look I can tell you that the tone and weight of the response from those who have e-mailed us this time around, compared to those who sent us letters, phoned, and faxed us in earlier times, is pretty much the same. What I think is different this time is a much more positive response anecdotally from people outside the CBC who find the new look refreshing and modern.

Having said that, we are already making adjustments based on the feedback we’ve been getting, and we’ll continue to do that in the weeks and months ahead.

Once things settle down on the production side, we’ll also be looking closely at how we get to air, and who does what, and I’m sure we’ll be making changes there as well to try as we try to balance the workload.

It’s also important that we continue to get your feedback on the changes and your own workload.

Thanks again for everything this week….

Jon

How can two people who call themselves journalists and an experienced administrator get it so wrong? Are they kidding themselves and trying to prop up a beleaguered staff? I hope so, because they all miss or ignore the main criticism. The news has less depth, less insight, less context and most important less interest to news viewers, the people who may actually want to watch CBC News.

Just to give you a sense of what people are writing in answer to the above comments I’ve chosen just a few out of hundreds, maybe thousands of viewer complaints:
at 9:16 PM ETttkillian wrote (quoting Richard Stursberg):

First Mr Stursberg, I haven’t read a single daily since the re-launch and crash. My opinions, which were posted within minutes of the end of Monday’s show are my own and not derived from any print media.

Second sir, you are a public broadcaster, you do not HAVE competition! You are not spending the money of a corporation or wealthy family, you are spending MY money! And believe me sir, if CBC patrons wish to see you removed, do not think for one moment it is not within our power to do so. Sir, take your ego, and stuff it! You are a civil servant on the tax payers payroll, you do not dictate to us, you accept direction from us.

Finally, standing, sitting or lying in the nude…the new format with it’s wizkid graphics, newsreel musical overlays, and greatly reduced news time quite simply sucks! And if you do not heed the comments from your viewers, they, and your job, will be gone (the latter should have already taken place 10 minutes after Monday’s broadcast)

To quote a fictitious journalist (who is a far sight more real than anything CBC is now offering) “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not gonna take it anymore.”

We’re not your competition sir, we are your boss!

truebluetoronto wrote:Posted 2009/10/31
at 3:02 PM ETPeter,
I watched all of the CBC “new national” on Monday and Tuesday. I watched parts of the “new national” on Wednesday and Thursday, between innings of the World Series. I don’t think I will be watching it again. Next week I will be watching CTV News, and if at the end of next week I feel better informed than I am after this week’s shambles then I won’t be back.

The National should be re-named “The Trivial” as it lacks substance and in-depth reporting; looks like it has been produced by teenagers and computer whizz-kids.

I have lived in this country for 30 years, and initially tried all the local TV news stations until I found my new home at CBC. It was until recently the nearest thing to the BBC on this side of the pond.

CBC now looks like the trailers at the movies, fast, swooshing noises and whizzy graphics, all teasing, but no substance. CBC now looks like so many American cable shows, all huff and puff, no thoughtful analysis

dudemeister wrote:Posted 2009/10/30
at 10:30 AM ETPlease rewrite this blog with the Title:

About the “lack of news”

This is the issue that is really matters and what people are mostly responding to here. Stupid flashy graphics, standing up, sitting down or delivering the news in Kundalini yoga poses – who cares. Everyone/all/tout le monde here hates this change for the actual content or lack thereof more than anything – Where is the international news – the thing on shoes was pathetic if that is what passes for international news stories now, where is the “depth”. Local news sucks now too – there isn’t anythign happening except people lining up for vaccinations apparently.

The reason it upsets people more than if it was another TV channel – this is our national broadcaster, and it appears to have been sabotaged.

-PeBo- wrote:Posted 2009/10/29
at 4:21 PM ETPeter, it’s unfair to point out special event news broadcasts where you have stood throughout the broadcast. If the news is covering an election or special event, then a change of format is expected.

You would look ridiculous (or pompous) sitting during a Town Hall.

I have also read through most of the coments that have been posted, and to say that they cover the entire spectrum, is simply playing with the facts. The comments have been overwhelmingly negative. The fact that we pay your salaries seem lost on all of you. Our opinions only matter when we are in agreement with your direction. If this is how you judge polls, then so much for trusting your analysis in future…not that it matters, I won’t be watching.

The music overlays, the standing, the speaking to co-workers and guest at your “take-out” counter, the crass sound effects and animations…it all comes together to make the National look cheap and derivative.

Sorry Peter, I have always trusted you and your broadcast, but tonight, I’ll tune in for Chantal, Alan and Andrew, but will not turn to to CBC until that time. I will simply get my news from Maclean’s and selected websites. The last vestige of respectable television news broadcasting is gone.

And quite simply, you should feel ashamed for defending the changes. (Then again, I remember when the National had enough respect for the news that it was shown without commercial interruption for the first half hour, so what could I possibly expect!)

Goodbye CBC news. You’ve been a trusted friend my entire adult life, but I demand more from my friends than what you have chosen to offer.

umarek wrote:Posted 2009/10/28
at 2:24 PM ETMr. Mansbridge,

If there was one thing I was afraid of, it was a comment coming from the management, saying that new format often provokes reactions. I am surprised that it comes from you.

Judging by the comments you have been getting, where the lack of “the chair” is a minor and ridiculous detail, in comparison to the format in which the news now is being presented, it is a disaster.

Your assertion that the comments “cover the spectrum” when in fact there is hardly anyone who has anything positive to say about, what is commonly perceived as FOX style news, tells us that your comment is a dishonest public relations press release.

I agree with you on one point however. Yes, you are getting a lot of good ideas, and for the most part they are telling you to scrap this horrible experiment. It is not only an insult on our eyeballs, but also on our intelligence.

Marek Urban
Ottawa

I guess you get the idea by now. Forget the lack of chairs, deal with the lack of news.

Filed under: Media Commentary, , , ,

Newman on the Block

There has been a steady flow of rumors floating around the TV news business in Canada for over two years about the future of both Lloyd Roberstson at CTV News and Peter Mansbridge at CBC News. If the scuttlebutt is to be believed, both networks are looking for a replacement host for their flagship newscasts.

Loyal viewers are sure to be surprised by this news, mainly because, as the research shows, most people watch just one major television newscast and having made that choice, are either satisfied with what they are getting or they don’t know what the other channels have to offer.

Let’s begin with the situation at CTV. For years now, people in the know have been asking when Lloyd Roberstson is going to retire. He’s well into his seventies now. I wonder why he would want to. He works about three hours per day for about four days per week. Sprinkle in the generous vacation times, a massive six figure salary and you have the Johnny Carson of Canadian news. He’s still popular with the audience and his ratings have held up for decades. So why change a good thing? The only obvious reason is that Lloyd will have to retire sometime and CTV would prefer to set the timing so they can be prepared with a replacement.

Peter Mansbridge, on the other hand, has never really been loved by the audience the way Lloyd is. He is respected but he is not an audience grabber. More to the point, before he signed a two year contract extension a year ago, CBC insiders were saying that a rift between Peter and Vice President and chief poobah, Richard Stursberg, would mean the end of Peter’s tenure at CBC. Within the newsroom there’s a list of grievances against Peter. The most frequently heard complaint is that he demands a say in every decision, especially about news content and hiring. Both lead to problems. Peter has an unhealthy love of Ottawa politics. He is fascinated by the minutia that the viewing audience could care less about and that hurts ratings. As far as hiring is concerned, he is said to surround himself with people who agree with him, any argument and you could find yourself sent to the Siberia of CBC News, Newsworld, or worse. I am not sure whether this is true, but I can vouch for the fact that some extremely talented newsroom staff have been banished, pushed and prodded off The National. Many of those people would be assets to a newsroom short on experienced assets.

While all of this is fascinating the real reason for dumping the icons of national news in Canada could be even more interesting. The real prize, it seems, is Kevin Newman the star of Canwest/Global’s First National. With no obvious replacement from within for their stars at the major networks Kevin is, or at least should be, everyone’s first choice to replace either Peter or Lloyd.

Kevin has been highly successful, garnering, if you can believe Canwest/Global’s publicity, a larger audience than both Peter and Lloyd, and, he does this at a time slot that is hardly traditional for national news in Canada. In Toronto he’s on at 5:30. Add to this the fact that he is host of a mediocre newscast at best, with a poor reporting staff and few international bureaus and his success is all the more amazing. Since nobody I know attributes the success of the newscast to the program that Canwaest/Global produces, it must, they believe, be Kevin.

Kevin Newman is a highly thought of journalist with arguably more field experience than either of the other options, a fact the audience doesn’t care about but is very important to news insiders. He is also considered one of the really good people working in news in Canada. Those who know Kevin, both like and respect him.

But why leave Canwest/Global? The argument is that any serious news person wants to work on a high quality newscast with good budgets, foreign bureaus, high-caliber reporters, and at a network that has shown a serious interest in news as something other than a CRTC requirement and loss leader for purchased U.S. programming.

The speculation today is about where Kevin Newman would prefer to go. Insiders say he was treated quite poorly by CBC when he was the host of Midday. Shortly afterwards he went to Good Morning America and later Nightline at ABC in New York. But CBC still offers the biggest most prestigious newscast in Canada, the prize any Canadian newsreader is supposed to covet. Is it big enough to let bygones-be-bygones and return to the network where he began his climb to stardom?

CTV seems to be the perfect solution. It is bigger and more prestigious than Canwest/Global. There is certainly a commitment to news, maybe even greater in the long run than CBC based on recent CBC cuts and maneuvering. There is just the one roadblock: Lloyd.

I don’t know where Kevin Newman will wind up. Will he jump to CBC or CTV or will he stay to help build a serious newscast at Canwest/Global? What I do know is that his contract has about a year left on it and both major networks will want to take a crack at getting him on board, if for no other reason, to keep him off the other guys’ team.

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.

Recent Comments

barbara pedersen Aha… on A Failure to Communicate
evilstew on The Rape of Citytv
Raymond Hietapakka on The Rape of Citytv
Jason on The Rape of Citytv
theeuprise on The Rape of Citytv

Pages

Categories