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Tower of Babble

Review: The Tower of Babble by Richard Stursberg

Written for J-Source Website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“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, , , , , ,

About the Author

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

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