Upcoming book talks about hockey and the battle over funding at the CBC
THE SATURDAY INTERVIEW
A suggestion to Richard Stursberg, former head of CBC’s English services, that we pop into a bustling Starbucks for our chat is met with hesitation. Such popular cafes, he complains, are so impersonal. He offers as alternative the nearby Kit Kat, an iconic family run joint in the heart of Toronto’s entertainment district that features a gallery of the rich and famous who have visited.
“We’ll be well-received,” he says, and we are.
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Clearly, Mr. Stursberg’s renowned drive for mass consumer television does not extend to his culinary pleasures.
But during his raucous years at the CBC, steering English-language radio, television and online services, his drive to appeal to a mass audience rather than the cultural elites saw him remake the corporation.
He refocused and reinvigorated the news, brought reality television into a schedule once littered with performing arts, ordered new episodic series and forced Radio 2 to play more than just classical music.
For six years, Mr. Stursberg led a private culture war at the public broadcaster.
Now, in an entertaining memoir, he dishes out the inside story of his epic battles, his hits and misses, his fight with the unions, his negotiations for the NHL broadcast rights, his boast of delivering the highest ratings in a generation, and, eventually, of his firing in 2010.
As part of his promotion for The Tower of Babble: Sins, Secrets and Successes Inside the CBC, he sat down with the National Post. Here is part of that conversation:
QIn the spring of 2000, when I was covering Paul Bernardo’s appeal, I was told there was something like 19 seats in the courtroom for media — and that CBC wanted 16 of them. How did that experience prepare me for reading your book?
A The high handedness? The sheer waste of it? That was part of the problem. We got some ways towards dealing with it. We integrated all of the English newsrooms, all of the English news resources. There was no longer [separate] radio, online, local TV, network TV, but there was an integrated assigning of all the journalists.
We could not quite get all of the way there. I suggested to the French side that what we should do is they should produce the English newscasts in Quebec for us and we should produce the French newscasts in the rest of Canada for them. The stories are the same. If there is a fire in a hospital, it is the same story if you are French or English living in Regina, it doesn’t make any difference for the story. You can use the same pictures, the same interviews, the only difference is the person covering it needs to speak French. That would have been good and taken us further in the direction of not having to ask for 16 seats at the same event. But they didn’t want to do that.
Q‘They didn’t want to do that’ was something of a hallmark of a lot of your experiences at CBC. Your battles weren’t just about resources. What was the bigger foe to your vision: money or the culture?
A The biggest impediment at the beginning was certainly the culture of the place and the general theory of what people thought the CBC should be about. That came in a number of flavours. One flavour was that the CBC should be a kind of elitist organization that produces shows for elite audiences, performing arts shows, etc.
Another part was a deeply entrenched belief — and this seems an odd thing for a television network — that if you wanted to make popular shows they would be, by their very nature, of poor quality. That you faced a terrible choice all the time to make high-quality shows that would inevitably be unpopular or make popular shows that would inevitably be coarse in some way. These beliefs were very deeply entrenched.
For me, the fundamental thing was to say ‘You know what? We are not here to serve the elites — in fact, the elites don’t really watch TV; we’re here to serve the whole Canadian public.’ Everyone pays for the CBC … and we’re going to measure our success by how many Canadian like to watch our shows.
QWas that message really so revolutionary? Did they really almost wear it as a badge of honour that people weren’t enjoying their shows?
A In a curious kind of way, it was. In most places people are obsessed with whether people are watching; reading the ratings and trying to understand what the competitors were doing that was better than what you might be doing. But it was very internally focussed.
It had been a long time that they had been sinking in the ratings. Everything was sinking: news was sinking, television, prime time was sinking. You could see this from the very fact that they allowed it to go on for so long that they clearly weren’t preoccupied with serving Canadian audiences, they were preoccupied with other questions.
QWhat was driving the CBC, then?
A I tried to make this out myself because I found it really puzzling. Partly it was an historic inheritance. They had been very dominated by news for a long time, but despite that, their news shows were losing audience and were down to very, very little audience by the time I got there. They thought — they thought — their news was better than the competitors. I don’t think it was, but it was very difficult for them to know because they didn’t look at the ratings very hard and didn’t watch their competitors very hard.
As far as the non-news stuff, the entertainment, they did a plan that was designed to make it more distinctive. I would have thought making big, Canadian shows was distinctive enough because CTV and Global are not going to put any of that on in prime time. But they had a distinctiveness doctrine around doing things that weren’t very television friendly: like putting the performing arts on TV — they had two hours of it on Thursday nights without commercials…
Not surprising the shows didn’t do too well.
QDid you find allies in your view?
A The funny part is, people within the organization would talk this talk but everybody secretly knew it mattered to have good audiences; but since they weren’t getting them, they had to console themselves with something else. And what was fascinating was that when the audiences started to rise, morale dramatically improved.
They were thrilled their shows were being talked about at the dentist or hairdressers. They were thrilled that people were watching them and they were covered in the papers. So when people started to see that Canadians were watching and being thrilled by their shows, they felt better about themselves and some of the old beliefs started to fall away.
QOne popular show is Hockey Night in Canada, but I was shocked by your assessment of just how important it is to the CBC. What might happen if CBC fails to renew broadcast rights with the NHL?
A They have two more years. When I did the deal, the original notion was to do a four year deal or a five year deal and I said I’d take the longest deal I could, thanks, so we took six.
The challenge they face is two-fold. One is that Hockey Night in Canada makes a fair amount of money. It’s one of their very few profitable properties. So they lose the margin associated with it. But that, in some ways, is the lesser of the two problems.
The bigger problem is that it [accounts for] about 400 to 450 hours of prime time Canadian programming. So what do you replace that with?
They don’t have the money to fully fill the schedule as it stands. They are already doing repeats and, as I understand it, with the last round of cuts they are cutting back even more. It’s a problem. People don’t understand how central Hockey Night in Canada is…
If they don’t [renew it] they will have to fill the time with repeats or very old shows and if they do that, of course, the audiences will collapse. That will be bad all around, in terms of the relevance of it, in terms of its attractiveness of the network, in terms of its ability to generate advertising revenue.
I do think it is time we had a really serious conversation about what we want from the CBC. I think it behooves the government to say something, directionally, in terms of where it thinks the corporation should be going. But no government has. It’s not unique to the Tories. The Liberals never said anything either, they just cut the CBC, in fact the cuts were even bigger, without having a conversation of what they were trying to accomplish. It is very difficult for everybody.
QTell me about the difference between English and French services funding. How is this impacting what we see and hear?
A The difference between the English and French markets, generally, not just with the CBC, is that Canadian shows are very successful in French. All the top shows in French are Canadian and that is not so in English Canada. If I show you the top 20 shows in English Canada they are almost all American.
That problem is compounded by the fact that the money gets split 60/40. So of the total Parliamentary appropriation, 40% goes to the French side, where they are already successful because they prefer Canadian shows, and 60% comes to the English side … that overstates the size of the French population, which is about 25% of the country.
The reason I think it’s odd is that the place that has the bigger cultural challenge — i.e. making Canadian shows that Canadians like to watch — is English Canada and it gets proportionally less money than its population warrants.
Sometimes we get a little overwhelmed by political correctness as opposed to being sensible as to what is fair. It did strike me as odd we would have full local television news shows in French in places where there is almost no French population.
QWould you recommend making the split more representative of the population?
A Yeah. The problem is, right now, it is a negative-sum game and playing a hand in a negative-sum game is a very unpleasant thing to have to do. But I do think what is a reasonable thing to do is to have a conversation as to what is fair and what is right given the cultural challenges, given everything that is going on, the size of the population and this and that.
QYou mean there is no clamour from English Canada to have more money shifted to them but there would be an outcry from French Canada if any money actually was?
A When you put it that way, it is interesting. I hadn’t thought of it that way but I think it is probably true. In French Canada, culture stuff matters.
Read an excerpt from The Tower of Babble next week in the National Post.
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Upcoming book talks about hockey and the battle over funding at the CBC