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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.

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

The Best TV Ever

For years I have been hearing the whining and complaining of a whole lot of old timers about how bad TV is today, or worse, that there is nothing to watch on television, “500 channels and nothing good to watch,” is a paraphrase of a comment I have heard time and again.

Those close to me, in fact anyone who has had this conversation with me, has to have heard that I think this a bunch of hooey. It is my belief that TV has never been better than it is today.

I don’t know whether the entire baby boom generation has false memory syndrome, but sometimes I suspect it.

All it takes is a look back at what was popular in the past. In the 50s, which some call “the Golden Age of Television”, the top rated shows were I Love Lucy , Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver and Make Room for Daddy (The Danny Thomas Show). There were some great comedy shows like Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, Ernie Kovacs and Milton Berle, but these were exceptions to the very thin norm. There were also some excellent dramas, especially the live dramas like Playhouse 90. Why do we always remember the good stuff and forget the garbage?

In Canada, the only shows I remember from that era are The Plouffe Family, Wayne and Shuster and the daily 6:00 O’clock news show, Tabloid.

More important, we had few choices. There was but one Canadian network, CBC, and if you were lucky to live near the U.S. border, you might have had access to CBS, NBC and ABC.

TV was so new to us that we watched whatever was on, good or bad. I know people who actually sat in front of their televisions staring at the Indian head card that was displayed before the broadcast day began.

In the 60s, 70s, and 80s we saw the growth of the one hour drama. Police and detective shows became a staple. Everything from The Naked City and Dragnet to Columbo and Hill Street Blues, you could see the growing power of great writing and directing. The acting was still less than stellar for the most part, and the stories didn’t always ring true, but TV was coming of age. Doctors and lawyers also became prime time stars with Ben Casey and The Defenders leading up to St. Elsewhere and L.A. Law. If you can wipe the nostalgia away from your eyes, you cannot help but see the progression.

Even the sitcom, which remained the staple for big audience numbers began to come of age. From shows like The Dick Vandyke Show, where the Petrie’s had to sleep in twin beds, we saw the growth in quality of TV and the television audience with programs like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and eventually the sublime Seinfeld.

Let’s not forget, however, the top rated sitcom for a whole lot of that time was The Beverly Hillbillies, nobodies idea of a great program.

In Canada we saw little in the way of great series during that time. There were a few successes like Seeing Things, but we had to wait for Da Vinci’s Inquest and the highly underrated This is Wonderland to get an idea of what Canadian talent could produce when given the money and the airtime.

In Canada these decades were more well-known for the rise of some of the best current affairs in the world, starting with W5 and This Hour has Seven Days and culminating in The 5th Estate and The Journal.

For the most part though, CBC and CTV made their money and grabbed their audiences with American fare. When upstart Global Television became a third Canadian network it survived its early years becoming known as The Love Boat network.

During the last 20 years TV has become a writers’ medium. I have heard many television professionals, critics and producers extolling the quality of TV writing. Many, if not most, see TV writing as far surpassing the quality of writing in feature films, where the director, not the writer, has the most power.

Drama continues to be the staple. The ten o’clock time slot on network TV has given us some of the best drama ever seen on North American Television. The West Wing, Boston Legal, and now The Good Wife, have taken television to a higher plane. Certainly the broadcast networks have been pushed by the cable networks. The brilliance of The Sopranos, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Treme, Damages, and Rescue Me have never been equaled in the 60 odd year history of television as a medium. This is the kind of quality we had never even dreamed of. Even the sitcom is making a comeback both on cable and broadcast with shows like Modern Family and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

And, to make matters even better, technology is making it easier and easier to enjoy all that TV has to offer today. First there’s that 500 channel universe that has created more choice than we have ever seen. Then there’s the PVR or DVR that allow the easy taping of programs when you cannot watch them live, or even if they are on one station while you are watching another station. There’s the time shifting that satellite and cable allow. You can’t be home for a show in prime time, no matter, you can watch it from Vancouver of Seattle later on in the evening. Finally, there is the web, where whether legally or illegally everyone has the opportunity to find any show they want to see.

So, from this comfortable seat in front of the television it is all too obvious that television programming, quality and technology have never been better. I hope to never hear another whine about TV today, the truth is: if you can’t find great television today, you are at fault, not the TV networks, producers and writers.

I’m sure I missed some your favorite shows, please let me know what you think I missed.

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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