The Tower of Bable; Sins, Secrets and Successes inside the CBC.
Richard Stursberg, Douglas and McIntyre, 2012.
Stursberg was Head of English Services at CBC from early 2004 to the end of 2010. He claims to have ‘saved’ the CBC by focusing on one thing – audience. His credentials in journalism go back to his father, Peter Stursberg, who reported in the 1950’s and earlier, during the latter part of WWII.
The ten chapters begin with his look at the problem facing the CBC. The context is being a public institution and “the worst-financed public broadcaster in the industrialized world, apart from PBS in the United States, and TVNZ in New Zealand” is glossed over. Stursberg sees the problems as being “weak management and a corrosive internal structure”. In his chapter on The Union his opinion is clear, The Union is the problem. His analysis is simplistic seeing unions as being designed to protect members and unable to be creative. “What unions cherish is often the opposite of what creativity requires”. This is very much like the argument that public servants are ‘lazy’ because they have a pension to look forward to. It is an ideological dispute that is toxic and ultimately disrespectful of everyone.
I found the tone throughout this book slightly spiteful. There is a sarcastic aside on every third page to accompany whatever tale he is telling at the time. But I digress, so back to the argument of the book or how the author ‘saved’ the CBC.
Stursberg’s analysis of the need to transition the CBC to become a ‘content’ company rather than a ‘broadcaster’ is more interesting than his polemics. “Greater flexibility and higher levels of cross-skilling and professional competence” however, all sound like the same ideological divide continued. Stursberg reveals his ideological paranoia when he describes the union as wanting to ‘take back’ the CBC, adding, “Perhaps they hoped to see a series of CBC soviets established across the country”. This is just redbaiting and doesn’t advance his ideas about becoming a ‘content’ company.
Entertainment is a product for content providers and according to Stursberg the CBC was a failure largely because of its perceived constituency, that he calls the “chattering class”. They, he contends, wanted the CBC to be a news corporation with some highbrow shows thrown in. The old strategy was to be distinct from the private broadcasters who programmed American shows almost exclusively. Mini-series and movies-of-the-week were offered as the entertainment component of CBC’s lineup of shows. CFL football and Hockey Night in Canada filled out the sports options (and curling, a very popular winter sport across Canada). Stursberg’s strategy was the opposite. He wanted series with episodes that resolved in sixty minutes. He wanted situation comedies, police procedural shows, reality elimination shows, lifestyle shows and quiz contests. The management attitude to his initiatives was negative. “If it involved anything that appeared to be a lot of fun, was vaguely associated with the USA or seemed to compromise even marginally CBC’s news brand, we would be attacked”.
It seems Stursberg can’t stop himself from throwing out zingers – “The hue and cry in Ottawa and the Globe and Mail about Jeopardy! was breathtaking. One would have thought we were putting on insect-eating contests or plastic surgery competitions”. He uses the colloquial style to bolster his outrage at the high-brows; lots of ‘nope’ or ‘cut no ice’ or references to ‘The Constituency’ keep it clear that he is the voice of the common man. But then he switches to some interesting analysis of the challenges facing the CBC, for instance, the cultural challenge of serving an English audience in Canada compared to the French network. In French-speaking Canada “women in hair salons don’t talk about going to bed with Brad Pitt or George Clooney, they fantasize about Roy Dupuis”, English Canada has no stars. They are all American.
His record on the Sports lineup is dismal. He lost the Vancouver and London Olympics to CTV, curling to TSN, CFL to TSN and took a hit on the NHL flagship Hockey Night in Canada.
Stursberg’s chapter on the News opens with his mock somber description of the National, the brand flagship of the CBC. He mocks ‘generations came and went’, and referring to news anchors sitting in ‘The Big Chair’. The ‘News Problem’ in an environment where Canadians preferred Canadian news, was that viewers were gong over to CTV and Global. The problem was two-fold according to Stursberg, audience and distinctiveness. In italics, he adds that to gain audience share back and be distinctive “it would have to result in CBC’s making a contribution to the public debate that was not only valuable but that would not otherwise occur”. Local News had been number one in audience numbers until a series of cuts in the 1990’s. Local news audience share is larger than national news by two thirds (and echoed by advertising revenues). Stursberg describes how the privates did better work, real reporting, getting the story first with fewer resources than the CBC. It was a strategy problem. CBC was too Toronto and national centric. By 2006 all local news providers, print and electronic, were feeling the pressure of the Internet option. Stursberg’s strategy was to expand the CBC local news where the competition was going in the opposite direction. He delights in describing how he hired and American research firm (Frank N. Magid Associates) and an ex-private (CTV) executive to advise the CBC management and Board how to do local news.
The re-launch of CBC local news in 2007 focused on two things confirmed by the studies, Canadians wanted breaking news, when it broke and they wanted context and meaning. In addition, Stursberg wanted a common news department across all CBC platforms, radio, TV and Internet. The Hub would control everything. The rollout was October 2009. Audience numbers began to climb. The change, integrating national and local news was called CBC News Network (some people saw it as very close to CNN in concept).
On the issue of bias in the news the standard perception was and still is, that Radio-Canada favoured separatists and English news service was left-Liberal and anti-business, and anti-Alberta. A Fairness and Balance study was done (it is public) in 2009 and it showed the CBC more positive to government than CTV or Global.
The Radio platform of CBC is much more successful than TV. Stursberg explains how advertising was dropped in the 1970’s because audience share was so low it would be less expensive to be ad-free. He credits Margaret Lyons as the producer of As It Happens with changing Radio into a more informal, populist and engaging medium in the late ‘70’s. By the 1990’s the focus on radio was local communities and local cultures. A third wave of changes in 2010 saw the re-make of Radio to include shows like ‘Q’ and a bigger focus on books and music. CBC Book and CBC Music were planned with CBC Music rolled out in 2012, after Stursberg left the CBC.
In 2009, under the new CBC President, Hubert Lacroix, an overall plan for CBC was being developed. This was the beginning of the era of FaceBook, Twitter and YouTube dominance and CBC was able to make a strategic partnership with Apple to have its content promoted in the iTunes Store. I used the CBC Radio App from China to listen to the Afternoon Show from Vancouver although it was already the next day in Xiamen, where I was.
The competition, Shaw/Global and Bell/CTV, were well-funded giants. A new CBC Plan had to compete with these powerful opponents. In order to do this it had to clarify some uncertainties – was it a vehicle for popular culture or the higher arts; did it serve small towns or big cities; did it have advertising or was it ad-free? And, it had to resolve what ‘quality’ and ‘enlightenment’ meant in terms of the Broadcast Act. Stursberg was accountable to producing the Plan or agreeing with one produced by either the hired consultant (Bain) or the Board. If he didn’t agree then he would leave. He didn’t get the chance. The Plan, called “2015: Everyone, Everywhere” was released a few months after his departure (fired).