King Richard’s Lament

He did his best, maintains the former CBC head, but the whole world was against him

There is a strong unifying theme in Richard Stursberg’s memoir of his years at the CBC: uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. In Stursberg’s portrait, the CBC is a kingdom plagued by constant budget cuts (yet another round this spring), an obtuse and obstructive board, rebellious employees, malevolent rivals from the private sector and a howling mob of “Annex intellectuals and the plutocrats of Rosedale” opposing all changes in the corporation’s programs.

You might find “crown” a grandiose term for the former head of CBC’s English-language services, but his former employees refer to him as “King Richard.” I believe they are thinking of Richard III, a.k.a. Crookback, but Stursberg clearly identifies with Richard I, the Lionheart. The self-image that emerges from these pages is of a modern-day warrior king, too passionate for pretence or diplomacy, cruelly driven into exile by cowards and jackals who lacked his vision and courage.

In other words, the title The Tower of Babble: Sins, Secrets and Successes Inside the CBC could be compressed to a single word: payback.

In 2004, Stursberg was wooed away from Telefilm by CBC president Robert Rabinovitch, for the avowed purpose of shaking things up. Stursberg delivered an earthquake: he decreed that CBC’s mission was to create programming that would attract large audiences. No more babbling about mandates or quality: ratings of a million or higher would become the sole measure of success.

It is as if Queen Elizabeth announced plans to convert Windsor Castle into a casino and theme park. But let’s give Stursberg his due. His reasoning makes some sense. If taxpayers are paying for it (a miserly $31 a year each under the current budget), then a Crown corporation ought to provide at least some products that those involuntary funders might enjoy. And certainly there were and are pockets within the CBC that sometimes lose sight of that truth.

On the other hand, CBC’s mandate, as articulated in the Broadcast Act of 1991, calls for programming that “informs, enlightens and entertains”—while, of course, promoting a distinctive Canadian culture and contributing to national unity, not to mention reflecting the country’s regions and multicultural and multiracial nature. No wonder Stursberg came to hate the word “mandate.”

Its vague and self-contradictory mandate is one of many factors that make any CBC leadership post a misery. But Stursberg’s regime was special. His only-the-numbers-matter policy set him instantly on a collision course with CBC’s workers, board and existing fan base—a group he dismisses contemptuously as “the Constituency.” In Tower of Babble, his enemies have no rational defence; he portrays a CBC creeping toward its death bed, with audience numbers dropping through the floor thanks to a slate of ponderous, self-regarding, outdated productions. He exempts only a handful of television and radio shows, most of them still on the air.

There is, to put it mildly, room for debate here. Stursberg has a great gift for massaging numbers, a charge he would no doubt hurl back at his enemies at the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. He certainly chooses his time frames to enhance his own achievements and to denigrate what preceded them. But you can also make a case for some of his claims—that some programs showed a consistent left-wing bias, that business coverage was weak, that the news was sometimes slow-paced and fixated on Ottawa, that live performances of high culture attract a minuscule number of Canadian viewers.

His term of office was not the unrelieved run of failures described gloatingly by some media critics and former employees, nor the generally victorious campaign he depicts. If you examine it, claim by claim, you find a seesaw. Despite the dire predictions of the pundits, the lockout of employees in 2005 did not prove a death blow and did give the CBC more power to use short-term workers. On the other hand, it is hard to endorse the book jacket’s boast that four years later Stursberg signed “the most harmonious labour contract to date,” whatever that means.

Stursberg did introduce some interesting programming—Being Erica, Little Mosque on the Prairie—along with duds like The One. The world did not end when he started running Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! on the network, although they do not seem to have brought the corporation as much money as he hoped. He did take steps to revive local news. His forced convergence of all news programming—radio, television and online—certainly suffered from some hiccups; I recall a radio report, obviously the soundtrack of a TV piece, that included the sentence “police are looking for this man,” followed by silence. But the Hub, as he dubbed his new central command, at least reduced the number of CBC trucks showing up at press conferences and events, a major source of irritation to politicians and the public for decades.

Stursberg managed to hold on to Hockey Night in Canada, although CBC lost the Olympics. The numbers watching news programming have not declined, in spite of the corporation’s tiresome, unrelenting emphasis on crime—one innovation that can certainly be traced back to Stursberg’s regime and his hiring of the Magid consulting organization. CBC’s internet service grew under his stewardship and now looks like the most promising and durable of all CBC formats.

Stursberg failed in his plan to banish classical music from Radio 2. That thwarted wish is an odd one for the man who commissioned Mulroney: The Opera. In fact, he refers to Mulroney as “opéra bouffe”, a term you are unlikely to hear tripping off the tongues of the CBC’s Don Cherry or Kevin O’Leary. His publisher says he collects art and reads Flaubert for relaxation. Yet when he stripped live performance from the CBC’s lineup, he hoped to placate CBC fans of high culture by offering a “triple-threat” talent show. He never defines his sense of the CBC’s audience, but it is hard not to suspect an element of condescension. They remain numbers—“eyeballs” is a word he used often while he was in power—rather than people or citizens. In Stursberg’s vision, their value lies solely in the amount of programming they consume, even if it is the broadcast equivalent of junk food.

He is also, for a media mandarin, not the clearest communicator. I had to read this book to find out what he meant when he told an interviewer that most English Canadians had never heard of René Lévesque before the CBC ran a docudrama series about him. He meant that people under the age of 50 had no memories, and therefore no knowledge, of Lévesque’s political career. (He was wrong, by the way, at least for Ontario. The high school system there ensures that students who have never heard of Joseph Stalin or 1066 are junior experts on the October Crisis and its aftermath.) But he always works from the assumption that most Canadians are not interested in the past—even though nothing he oversaw except hockey matched the ratings claimed for the early episodes of Canada: A People’s History.

None of this is enough to fully explain why CBC workers and supporters still shudder at the mention of his name. Even on the evidence of this self-serving memoir, that traumatized reaction is the product of Stursberg’s personality, not his policies. He quotes board member Trina McQueen as saying that he has “a tin ear for the language of public broadcasting,” a charge that brings him pleasure. Although he does occasionally acknowledge some personal flaws (“everyone found me difficult and prickly and arrogant”), he does not seem to realize that he also has a tin ear for his own language and for other people’s. This is a man who seems puzzled that a meeting became even more rancorous when he suggested that he and one of his critics “should take this outside and settle it like men.”

He ascribes personal motives to most of the enemies he names—more on that later—but never appears to recognize that his own take-no-prisoners approach almost ensured that he would fail. Sneering at your company’s old friends and supporters is not a sound strategy. Employees are unenthusiastic about a new boss who starts by telling them that they are doing everything wrong. Monarchies are constitutional these days, which means that even a king sometimes has to listen.

The whole mess seems particularly sad because the two positions—elite culture versus mass appeal—are not irreconcilable. A corporation that still receives almost a billion dollars in government funding should be able to stage the occasional ballet or run investigative documentaries without killing off Dragon’s Den. (On the subject of Stursberg’s favourite broadcast children, Dragon’s Den and the now-cancelled Battle of the Blades, I can only quote Miss Jean Brodie: “For people who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.”)

With compromise, the corporation could have sought new audiences while holding on to the old one, the group Stursberg dismisses. That might have been a good idea, because the Constituency used to include a lot of media people and politicians, supporters whose goodwill proved helpful when trouble loomed. You do not notice many of them flocking to the corporation’s defence in its current time of need—or even taking up their cudgels against the relentless attacks by Pierre Karl Péladeau’s empire. In part, that is the harvest of Stursberg’s deliberate snubbing of them.

Stursberg does admit to some errors, but often with a catch. He is sorry that The One, a co-produced show starring George Stromboulopoulos, was a flop, but that was ABC’s fault. He is sorry CBC did not snag the Olympics, but CTV chief Ivan Fecan played dirty and paid too much for them. The consultants Bain & Company that “we” hired turned out not to know much. The sun was in his eyes. The ball bounced funny.

Still, the balance sheet of individual successes and failures is not the main point, for Stursberg or the reader. The question remains: was he right about the nature and future of public broadcasting in Canada? To me, his whole position seems based on a false premise. He argues that the CBC should provide popular Canadian programs because the privately owned networks never will. But CTV and even Global did and, to a lesser extent, still do. In the summer of 2004, the year Stursberg joined the CBC, CTV’s Canadian Idol was leading the ratings across Canada, while its sitcom Corner Gas attracted close to a million viewers even in reruns. A million was also a normal audience for CTV’s later So You Think You Can Dance Canada. Moreover, the network also produced programs and made-for-TV movies of some substance.

Stursberg leaves all that out. Throughout the book, he uses omission as a weapon. The publisher is plugging Tower of Babble as a tell-all book, but a lot of it is tell-part. In Stursberg’s version of history, for instance, former head of news Tony Burman resigns from the CBC and then disappears—end of story. In fact, Burman went on to run and expand the English-language version of Al Jazeera, a development that will affect the international media scene more profoundly than anything the CBC will ever produce.

Sometimes omission spills over into something more serious. Stursberg proclaims that he was nervous about the CBC board’s response to the 2009 budget cuts: “With nobody in the room having any deep understanding of broadcasting, the CBC, its economics or its competitors, we were concerned that the outcome of their deliberations would end up being arbitrary.” At that time, board members included Peter Herrndorf, a former CBC vice-president and CEO of TVOntario, and Trina McQueen, one-time chief of news, current affairs and Newsworld at CBC and former president and COO of CTV Inc. No one (except perhaps Ivan Fecan of CTV) knew the Canadian broadcast scene better.

When Stursberg cannot ignore his enemies, he defaults to invective. Tony Burman is “pugnacious” and “a notorious hot head.” (Admittedly Stursberg adds, “So was I.”) CITY-TV founder Moses Znaimer can be “regarded as a charlatan” by some observers. CTV’s Ivan Fecan is almost always “dreaded.” Indeed, Fecan emerges repeatedly as the arch-villain of the piece, the evil Sheriff of Nottingham to Stursberg’s Robin Hood: “At the same time, many people wondered if Fecan harboured some strange grudge against the CBC … He had apparently been heard cackling in dark corners of expensive boardrooms as he laid out his plans for domination of the Canadian broadcasting industry.”

That is what I mean by ascribing personal motives only to other people. Fecan was doing his job, boosting the profile and profits of his company. Nowhere is it written that the CBC—or King Richard—has a divine right to first place in Canada’s broadcast industry. Yet in Stursberg’s accounts of their many tussles, Fecan’s desire to get the best products and deals for his network are portrayed in terms that suggest CTV was demanding Sudetenland and then Poland for obscure motives of revenge.

The author does try to sweeten his bile with frequent dollops of humour, often through the literary device of hyperbole. Early on, when he tells a group of French-Canadian film people that English-Canadian audiences prefer U.S. programming (can this really have been news to them?), he claims, “one of Quebec’s most distinguished screenplay writers had to be revived with smelling salts.” Later, two radio executives barely survive proposing to the board that Radio 2 give up classical music: “They were bruised and cut. One of them had a black eye and the other was walking with a cane.”

His highest flights of fancy are reserved for what he calls “Fort News” within the CBC. He describes repeatedly the dangers of pushing “past its moats and crenellated battlements” and his plans one day to penetrate as far as “its most heavily defended keeps and bunkers.”

The flavour of these laboured jokes sometimes calls to mind an ancient CBC tradition, the humour of Wayne and Shuster, with its reliance on scraps of erudition gleaned in high school. The effect is sometimes close to Johnny Wayne’s arch twinkle to the camera after he had got off a good one about Julius Caesar or the French Revolution.

That raises another area of contention: while Stursberg carefully acknowledges that he liked some CBC programming, mostly radio, when he took over the job, he seems to regard the programs he commissioned as a total departure from the corporation’s past. And that is simply untrue. The CBC was never simply an isolated tower of high culture. This is the network that brought Canadians The Happy Gang, Don Messer’s Jubilee, Front Page Challenge and The Tommy Hunter Show. Republic of Doyle clearly owes a debt to The Beachcombers. Little Mosque on the Prairie, charming as it is, can seem eerily reminiscent of King of Kensington in its essentially bland exploration of Canadian multiculturalism.

But those programs, past and present, could never be enough to save the CBC if the government decided to abandon it. And there lies the crux of the CBC’s eternal problem. If Ottawa is going to continue to fund it, the corporation has to provide added value—not just numbers, but some less tangible benefit that the private networks cannot provide. Stursberg does—twice, by my count—acknowledge that CBC has to do more than simply swell its ratings. He mentions the need for “a contribution to the public debate that was not only valuable but that would not otherwise occur.” I had to wait until almost the final pages to find out his plan for that: news was supposed to come up with something. As vision goes, that strikes me as inadequate.

Finally, it is interesting that the champion of mass appeal broadcast and the internet chose that quaint relic, the printed book, to try to erect his own monument. As an effort to define history in his own terms, he has probably already failed: the May issue of Toronto Life included a puff piece on his successor, Kirstine Stewart, which suggests the CBC’s history may be defined as pre- and post-Stewart, rather than pre- and post-Stursberg.

Tower of Babble’s success, by Stursberg’s own standards, will have to be measured by sales. Yet aside from past and present CBC employees, especially those it savages, it is hard to imagine who would want to slog through its endless battles with boards and sports leagues and unions. Ironically, this is a very narrowcast product. A reader needs an intense interest in public broadcasting simply to keep going.

I do have one suggestion that might help sales. It would make an excellent case study for business management students. I can even provide the exam question: had Stursberg been a different kind of person—someone more like one of his arch enemies, the charming Peter Herrndorf, more capable of compromise and generosity and respect—could the outcome have been different? Because that is what I learned from reading Tower of Babble: if you want to create a network with mass appeal, you really need some yourself.