Dragon Done

Richard Stursberg’s controversial tenure at CBC
Photograph by Nigel Dickson
He was “a bad man,” I was told. Those exact words. And “a nasty piece of work.” That was one person’s opinion, of course, so I asked others. “Arrogant,” I heard. Actually, I heard that one a lot. “Dismissive.” Someone took pains to express it more fully: “You know he couldn’t give a rat’s ass about you.”

Understand, these were his employees talking, the folks whose cheques he signed. Said one of them, perhaps unnecessarily, “There are a lot of unhappy people.”

There were others, outsiders, who echoed that discontent. Some of them are famous. R. H. Thomson, for instance, that nice actor who exemplifies Canadianness in Canadian television, feared the man wasn’t deeply interested in the very thing he was supposed to be protecting. “He doesn’t have the instincts for it,” said Thomson.

You wouldn’t have cared about Richard Stursberg if he’d been in charge of a sheet metal factory. If he’d been known to be mean to people who make muffins. But he was the vice-president of English Services at cbc. He was the guiding force of, as he described it himself, “the largest and most influential cultural organization in the country.” He was the pilot of the last flying fortress of Canadianism. And plenty of alert and reasonable people were pretty sure he was steering it straight toward the edge of a cliff.

When Stursberg arrived in August 2004 as vice-president of English television (he annexed radio in January 2007), many people who concerned themselves with that sort of thing were dismayed. Ian Morrison, spokesperson for Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, an organization that concerns itself with nothing but, seemed to fear the End Times had come. “There is absolutely nothing positive I could say about his appointment,” said Morrison, adding that the outlook for the corporation was “bleak.”

Six years later, those who feared wholesale change at cbc in the wake of Stursberg’s appointment could clasp their chins and gravely nod, unable to celebrate even as his departure was announced in early August. His legacy at cbc is not likely to be undone soon: Every one of the network’s programming directors has been replaced. Its prime-time TV lineup has been overhauled, as has everything about its news specialty channel, including the name. To cries of outrage, the comfortable rug of classical music has been ripped from under Radio 2. More than 1,000 people in cbc’s news division have seen their jobs changed or redefined. Anything else? Oh yes, the entire philosophical foundation of cbc English-language TV programming has been rearranged.

“I knew Richard was going to be a bull in a china shop,” says former cbc president Robert Rabinovitch, the man who hired him. “That’s one of the reasons I brought him in.”

Had any bull ever appeared less threatening? Just four weeks before Stursberg’s exit, suited in a grey that matched his thinning hair and wearing old-fashioned tortoiseshell-and wire-rimmed spectacles, the sixty-year-old then vice-president walked slow and straight-backed through the atrium of the cbc building. Hands crossed lightly behind him, a small smile on his face, he carried himself with the repose of a plantation owner. In his office on the seventh floor, it pleased him to discuss the Miles Davis book on his coffee table, the John Lee Hooker photo behind his desk, and the artists whose work hung on his walls (a group of five Canadians, including Douglas Coupland, all from the same class at Emily Carr University in Vancouver). I knew Stursberg loved art, because I’d been told his home was “dripping” with paintings. “There’s no one more cultured than he is,” said a former colleague. And this was important to note, because what he did to cbc is seen to be the opposite of culture. He is seen to have followed the agenda of a philistine.

“By and large, people don’t like change,” said the man himself, lightly, in his way. “Many people who have not altogether agreed directionally with where we’re going have been upset. That’s okay.”

Directionally, Stursberg made cbc Television a network concerned principally with ratings. To an audience of cbc folk, he once put it this way: he wanted the corporation to be Tim Hortons, not Starbucks. From this simple pledge flowed all of the change, and much of the ire.

“I’d rather be Canadian and popular than American and elitist,” he told me. “Absolutely.” No one argued with the “Canadian” part of that, but the “popular” part led to consternation. Because wasn’t popularity the province of the commercial networks? Wasn’t the nation’s public broadcaster supposed to strive for the very thing suggested by the word “elite”: exceptional programming the marketplace alone cannot or will not support? “It depends who you think the cbc is here to serve,” replied Stursberg. “Me? I take the view that the cbc is here to serve the Canadian public.”

In the weeks leading up to his firing, Stursberg had gone on what he must have considered a well-earned holiday in France. cbc’s board of directors had just concluded its yearly formal review of the corporation’s senior executives — a process that forms the basis of its bonus payouts — and had assigned both Stursberg and the network he ran its topmost rating. He was just settling back into the work of pushing cbc down its controversial path when president Hubert Lacroix informed him that his time was up. The styles of the two men had clashed repeatedly from the time Lacroix took over in the fall of 2007. Why he chose this moment to fire Stursberg, Lacroix won’t say, but in Rabinovitch’s view, “It was inevitable. The two of them never got along.” Some reports had Stursberg being escorted from cbc’s Front Street headquarters in Toronto, and though he also refuses to discuss the event he does admit, “It came as a surprise.”

It had all begun with such assurance. Back when Stursberg started, one of his first moves was to hire his eventual interim replacement, Kirstine Stewart (née Layfield). He lured her away from Alliance Atlantis, where she oversaw specialty channels such as hgtv, with the aim of revamping cbc’s programming. Under his direction, the network then set about rearranging its prime-time schedule to maximize its ratings and revenue potential. It purchased syndicated US shows such as Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy!, and Ghost Whisperer, at significant cost (one source placed the bill for the game shows at $12 million per year) and laid them like icing atop its nightly lineups. It killed the dark and acclaimed Canadian drama Intelligence, from Chris Haddock, creator of Da Vinci’s Inquest, when it failed to draw the targeted number of viewers. It made new efforts to integrate advertisers into the remaining shows, such as sliding references to TD Canada Trust into Little Mosque on the Prairie and others. It subjected iconic shows such as The Fifth Estate to sudden ratings pressures. “‘You guys have got to get audience,’” Linden MacIntyre remembers the show being told. “‘And you will live or die by the audience’… We were given a target of 800,000 a week. Well, my God, Rick Mercer can’t do that.” (Mercer does, occasionally, do that, but The Fifth’s target was nonetheless subsequently lowered to around 600,000.)

The emphasis on ratings also meant a new focus on entertainment, which disturbed many insiders, partly because it seemed to come at the expense of news and current affairs. Stursberg was seen to care not a whit about the gathering and reporting of information, even to disdain it. “He was always going, ‘Drama, drama, drama,’” says a veteran cbc employee. “He never talked about news.” This might have seemed strange, given that his father, Peter, was one of the country’s most acclaimed news correspondents during the Second World War. But all you had to do was look at the signals. All the initiatives of Stursberg’s first few years came on the entertainment side — new shows, new personnel, and a new programming division, Factual Entertainment, intended to fashion viewer-friendly reality programs such as Battle of the Blades and Dragons’ Den — while the news and current affairs side got short shrift. The Fifth Estate, already facing staff cuts due to budget pressures, was wrenched from its traditional slot on Wednesday nights at nine and moved to Friday night, which everyone knew was the graveyard of television. And it was moved — look, you see? — to accommodate a frothy new comedy, Being Erica.

As if more proof were needed, the long-time head of cbc News, Tony Burman, whose relationship with Stursberg was acrimonious and seemed to involve a lot of arguments over budgets, left the network in 2007. A little more than a year later, Burman’s replacement, respected newspaperman John Cruickshank, also resigned. Now publisher of the Toronto Star, Cruickshank says that during their initial conversations, he came to believe news was a priority for Stursberg: “I eventually understood that it wasn’t.”

Last January, Stursberg took the stage in the Glenn Gould Studio and delivered, to any cbcer who wished to attend, a condensed version of a presentation he had recently given before the organization’s new board of directors. “The thing that people sometimes forget,” he said, clearing his throat, “is that what TV is actually about — and I don’t say this to denigrate news, at all — but it is about entertainment. That is what television is deeply about.”

Here you get an image of cbc collectively sunk to its knees, holding its head in its hands, keening in memory of its lost golden age, when the network’s news resources were the envy of broadcasters around the world, when it had more African bureaus than anyone but the bbc. Gone, all gone. In the kitchen of his Toronto home, Linden MacIntyre slid a piece of text over to me and said, “Nail that on the mast of your sailboat.”

It was an excerpt from section three, subsection L of the Canadian Broadcasting Act: “The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, as the national public broadcaster, should provide radio and television services incorporating a wide range of programming that informs, enlightens and entertains.”
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11 comment(s)

AnonymousOctober 14, 2010 09:59 EST

radio 2 is 40 percent down! not 20.
first cancellations of programming began in 2007 and were parsed over 3 years.
check the facts people. you won't get them from the cbc. they're spinners.


AnonymousOctober 16, 2010 09:31 EST

Why did it take Hubert more than 2,5 years to figure this out?

What is Hubert going to do to repair the wreckage?

AnonymousOctober 18, 2010 07:53 EST

Last summer Stursberg stepped onto the elevator once with a co-worker and I. My co-worker attempted to make a bit of idle chit-chat about the lousy summer weather we'd been having.

Stursberg casually replied "I wouldn't know. I've been in Sardinia the past three weeks".

It was such a perfect shutdown it was actually funny. Stursberg was a true menefreghista and in many ways that is exactly what the CBC needs. I've seen him stand in front of 1,000 employees and explain why and how 600 jobs were going to be cut, then take questions for an hour from a couple dozen surprisingly hostile and aggressive staffers. He had the balls to put himself out there when he could have hid behind corporate communuications. He had fortitude to stick to his vision, which undoubtedly was a mixed bag, but has left CBC in a much better financial situation than when he arrived.

His downfall was, perhaps that he didn't listen enough or trusted that results would be enough to carry the day.

TodOctober 22, 2010 08:14 EST

Some good discussion about this article is happening at http://www.facebook.com/thecbc

AnonymousOctober 22, 2010 10:21 EST

Thanks Stursberg, I actually listen and watch more cbc than I ever have because of the quality, progressive and relevant (to me) programming. cbc2 rocks! Yes, there are lots of people who prefer it, they just don't work at cbc (which is where most of these negative comments seem to be coming from)

AnonymousNovember 05, 2010 05:35 EST

CBC Radio 2 was my go to station before 2008. Now it lies in the vast wasteland of peon inspired music most of which is available on commercial radio. There was CBC 3 that already pandered to the lot that now listen to 2. What a waste of a wonderful alternative that now only exists on streaming (not effective in the car), PBS (ie. WXXI in Rochester, NY ) or on Satellite (all American programming...ironic, eh?). Thanks pal!

Marhe LépineNovember 07, 2010 09:17 EST

For most of my working life (starting somewhere in the 60's) I have used cbc FM radio, later Radio 2, to start my day. And for at least 25 years, I was listening to the same station almost every evening while doing my work (Since I have been self-employed I have anways done my best work after 10 p.m.) However, for the last 3 or 4 years, my stereo clock radio has remained silent... Why? Because classical music and good jazz have disappeared from the station, and it grates my nerves to wake up to guitar-strumming semi-pop music... Note that I do enjoy almost every kind of music, but I need to hear soft good classical music on awakening to a day that is usually stressful! While driving in the afternoon, I always listened to Disk Drive - it has been gone for a long time... From what I heard from my fellow travellers on the Russell to Ottawa commuter bus, many people have given up on cbc Radio 2. May we were elitists, but elitist people pay taxes too, why could there not have been one single station that met their needs. No wonder ratings have gone down: cbc lost much of its "traditional" audience and tried to compete with all the other more popular stations.

NFBNovember 19, 2010 07:47 EST

A golden calf offering Velveeta from the teat.
For your sour, bacterial culture we say: \"Thanks for the mammaries\"
Good riddance, sir.

DisabuserDecember 22, 2010 08:56 EST

The major revelation here is how responsible Rabinovitch is for the Stursberg disaster.

Too bad the article doesn't say more about the sinking news operation. Yes, Stursberg focused on the gloss, but lack of substance is also part of the reason. Worse, CBC News so obviously curries favour in the corridors of power it perceives that it doesn't represent the public. No wonder its reputation and independence are much less respected than 'Auntie's' — even after Tony Blair mauled the BBC with the fake Hutton inquiry.

Randy BrownApril 01, 2011 08:17 EST

Rick Terfry from 3-6:00 is a moron, with no references outside music, a tin ear for words & music (seen his videos?) and a narcisisst who can only praise unstintingly because that's what he expects back. What a shame for this country - I tremble in embarrassment. Somebody PLEASE fire him!

AlbinApril 23, 2012 18:14 EST

Thanks for the background on obnoxious CEO "change agent" style, though with no real discrimination as between "change" and "improvement." This character didn't improve the CBC, and in practical fact positioned for the current level of taxpayer indifference as to what becomes of it.

Taxpayers do not object to paying for programming that they don't necessarily watch or listen to themselves, so long as they know it is programming they ought to, in faith to their children, the nation and their better selves, watch or listen to. Instead of moving in this direction to retain and build on taxpayer loyalty, CBC management has rushed to sell self-delighting and incestuous "banter" as something is made for "me" - well I don't like and neither do many others. So CBC will be trimmed to essentials and nobody will think to miss what it might have been.

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