- Former head of the CBC Richard Stursberg will be interviewed by the Globe & Mail's arts reporter Marsha Lederman as part of Vancouver International Writers Festival's Incite Reading Series, Tuesday, May 15, 7: 30 p.m. at the Vancouver Public Library Central Branch, 350 West Georgia. Free admission.
HE'S a populist crusader for crowd-pleasing Canadian programming, or he's the Genghis Khan of public broadcasting, leaving only darkness and reality TV in his wake, depending on whom you believe.
Richard Stursberg was the head of the CBC's English services from 2004 to 2010, a period in which he revamped the broadcaster's approach to both news and entertainment.
In his new book, The Tower of Babble: Sins, Secrets and Successes Inside the CBC, Stursberg delves into the backstabbings, secret summits, and Little Mosque on the Prairie story meetings that comprised his tumultuous reign at the head of the CBC.
"My first little while there was a little rocky," he acknowledges. "My situation was not improved by locking out all the employees shortly after arriving."
After taking over at the CBC in 2004, Stursberg says he encountered an elitist culture that bred employees who felt like "superior losers."
"A war of all against all," Stursberg says of his first days calling the shots for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's radio, TV, and online departments.
With the CBC reeling from repeated government cutbacks, Stursberg encountered a rash rivalry as each department tried to protect its resources and its turf.
"They began to see the competitors for resources as being inside and not outside," he says.
Stursberg's job was not made easier by the NHL lockout that put the CBC's flagship show on the bench for a full season.
While Ron MacLean hosted family films, Stursberg became embroiled in the burgeoning labour strife at the CBC.
For Stursberg, the notion of a union is largely incompatible with the work done at the CBC.
"It is odd that the CBC is unionized, let alone so heavily unionized," he writes. "What unions cherish is often the opposite of what creativity requires."
Management's decision to hire more contract workers was a major point of contention in the 2005 lockout.
"I was optimistic in my ignorance and confident in the good sense of the employees - and I turned out to be utterly and completely wrong," Stursberg writes.
Stursberg's descriptions of the duct tape repairs that kept the CBC afloat without core staff are some of the most entertaining in the book, as he paints a picture of management-types sneaking broadcast trucks into CFL arenas and airing football games with play-by-play commentary provided by the arena announcer.
While that move chagrinned the CFL commissioner, Stursberg says he received words of support from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
"You may find it quite salubrious," he quotes Bettman as saying about the lockout. "I have done it twice and always feel much the better for it."
After a seven-week standstill, the two sides of CBC came to an agreement.
"It was an unexpected and welcome victory," Stursberg writes.
The triumph was tempered by the decision to allow labour to claim victory so the union would ratify the deal, according to Stursberg.
"A bitter pill," he writes.
The number of contract workers at the CBC was capped at 9.5 per cent plus 80, which represented a significant victory for labour, according to a recent article by the Canadian Media Guild.
With the CBC once again functioning with a full staff, Stursberg was faced with the rising costs of one of Canada's most famous songs, as the Hockey Night in Canada theme song was picked up by CTV.
"It was extremely annoying," Stursberg says of losing the song. "Ultimately, CTV paid $3 million for what amounts to a jingle."
CBC's inability to access capital markets or sell major assets without government approval often makes the broadcaster a dairy cow amid timber wolves, according to Stursberg.
"Ted could make a deal in a weekend," Stursberg says, referring to former CEO of Rogers Communications, Ted Rogers. "In fact I think he bought CityTV in a weekend. For CBC to have done that, it would've taken us a year."
Asked if he would have been happier with a position at another network, Stursberg is quick to point out the charm of the CBC.
"Global and CTV, they make a few Canadian shows but not many," he says. "Their biggest and most important job is to go down to Los Angeles once a year and buy shows. We didn't do that. We made our own shows, so we developed them from scratch."
The decision to introduce shows like Dragon's Den and Battle of the Blades that aspired to big ratings flew against the CBC mindset, according to Stursberg.
"The fact that Canadians yawned with indifference at their offerings confirmed that they must be on the right track," he writes.
While the entertainment shows went through the difficult phase of finding an audience, Stursberg remained an unwelcome figure at the CBC, particularly when it came to the news department.
While Global and CTV accounted for 88 per cent of the audience for Canadian news, CBC was left with 12 per cent, according to Stursberg.
"Your local shows, basically, were dead, The National was OK but it was really in third place. . . . This was not a happy situation. My sense was that if it was allowed to carry on the way it was going, it would eventually lose its audience altogether," he says.
The news department immediately resorted to sabotaging the new boss, according to Stursberg.
"I wanted to learn something about the news," Stursberg says. "So I suggested I should have maybe just a seat on the newsroom floor. .
. . Sure enough, the proposal was leaked to the Star, and an article was published the very next day, excoriating me for the temerity to suggest that this might be a good idea."
Stursberg's account of changing the practices of the "lordly news department" reads more like the diary of a battlefield general.
"This would then set the stage for the final assault," he writes, "the breaching of Fort News' watchtowers and defensive walls, and the entry into the city itself, where the hand-to-hand combat would occur."
Stursberg's book portrays insulated CBC newsrooms focused on networks like BBC or CNN, rather than local networks that were routinely trouncing CBC in the ratings.
Stursberg's changes included altering the sets, adding graphics to the broadcast, and experimenting with having Peter Mansbridge deliver the news standing up.
"The news is better than it was, certainly if you judge by the basis of whether people are watching it or not. . . . The local shows, now their ratings are two, three times what they were before. The news network is very, very dominant, and The National's numbers are significantly improved," he says.
"Until the most recent round of cuts. . . the numbers have continued to improve both for television and radio," Stursberg says. "Radio's at its highest audiences in 75 years."
Excluding the years affected by the NHL lockout, there has been a slight decrease in CBC's ratings over the past 10 years, according to Barry Kieifl, president of Canada Media Research.
The increase described by Stursberg is due to a new method of calculating ratings and cherrypicking the numbers, according to Kieifl.
"He's totally wrong," Stursberg says of Kiefl. "All the numbers in my book are the numbers from the CBC research department."
The new programming has also made CBC more attractive to major companies, according to Stursberg.
"The CBC is selling significantly more advertising than it has in the past," he says.
For Stursberg, changing the CBC meant changing the network's prevailing philosophy.
While the CBC has withstood numerous government cuts over the years, the problems went deeper than a lack of funding, according to Stursberg.
"The CBC's legendary inability to meet the most elementary tests of good management, and its soft left, anti-business, Toronto-centric, politically correct cultural assumptions created significant problems for the Corporation."
Part of Stursberg's answer included recruiting Kevin O'Leary, who has regularly appeared on three CBC shows and was once reprimanded for referring to author and activist Chris Hedges as "a left-wing nutbar."
"When I was trying to convince him to come over, he was a little bit nervous also because it had a reputation of being a left-wing kind of place," Stursberg says.
"'How will it ever get greater balance if everybody who's on the right refuses to come and appear on the CBC?'" Stursberg recalls asking O'Leary, who conceded his point.
While his detractors reveled in his termination in 2010, Stursberg sees his time at CBC as a success.
"What really drove it was. . . just pointing out to people, that the truth is you can do beautiful things that are popular," he says. "By the time I left, that old belief that you had to choose between success and quality was largely gone."
Stursberg's book records many of the insults he's endured.
He mentions the Globe and Mail's characterization of him as a "spineless rat," and even the book jacket includes the phrase: "He was a bad man."
Despite the marketing, Stursberg says he doesn't enjoy his notoriety.
"If you try to do things and it unsettles people who are very used to a certain way of doing things, then you're going to cause controversy. And we're notoriously a very controversy-adverse country."