Richard Stursberg’s legacy at the CBC includes a massive employee lockout, a gutted arts program and a general disinterest for news and shows like the fifth estate and Market Place, which have lost half their viewership, writes Howard Bernstein. Who will take his job – and where will he or she take the CBC?
I could hear, or should I say see, the collective smile from coast to coast to coast as the politicians say. After six years the demon of Canadian public broadcasting is gone. Richard Stursberg, the Vice President of everything English language at the CBC has been fired, or according to some resigned. Who cares, so long as he is gone? Stursburg has been the most disruptive and hated V.P. of CBC I can ever remember.
Richard Stursberg’s biggest problem as CBC boss was that he just didn’t get it. He never understood the CBC mandate. He never saw a difference between what CBC has to do and what CTV and Global have to do. He never understood that if CBC were to lose Little Mosque on the Prairie or Being Erica it would still be the CBC and that the brutal massacre of news and current affairs he oversaw could destroy the people’s network. All Stursberg ever cared about was ratings. He did not care about quality TV. He did not care about serving the Canadian public who were paying his salary. He certainly had no time for news and even less time for shows like the fifth estate and Market Place.
Ironically the good-bye letter from CBC honcho Hubert Lacroix cites the fact that Stursberg leaves the CBC in better shape than he found it. I can only surmise that refers to the overall ratings. In fact the CBC ratings totals may be better than six years ago but why? It seems to me that all of the numbers increases can be attached to Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune, Hockey Night in Canada and The World Cup of Soccer. These are either non-Canadian or sports shows and, in fact, the numbers have been inflated by the new people meters that measure audience. Hey, CTV and Global have also seen their numbers rise and, in fact, while the total CBC viewership is up, the actual audience share is down. Yes, he had two real successes in six years: Dragon’s Den and Battle of the Blades, but shows like these can and do run on other networks, they are reality shows. As for the rest of King Richard’s offerings, the numbers range from mediocre to poor. Not much of a legacy when you consider that news ratings are down by about 40% and that current affairs ratings have dropped precipitously.
Oh, and let’s not forget the management tone Stursberg set. He never failed to let everyone know it was his way or the highway. He treated people poorly. He knew very few of the staff who worked for him. The stories are rampant about the on-air people he failed to recognize, especially if they came from news. CBC types were always asking whether he actually ever watched the CBC. His treatment of his staff may be an even bigger failure than his wrong-headed programming decisions.
Let’s look at just a few of his accomplishments:
*Stursberg got off to a bad start in his position by forcing a massive lock-out of CBC workers. What characterized that lockout was the refusal to negotiate and the refusal to recognize the input of the workers. There is still bad blood left over from that work stoppage in 2005. In past work stoppages, management always took great pains to be cordial to the striking workers. They always understood that when the strike was over they would have to go back to working side by side with the staff. Stursberg didn’t get that. He had to be the tough guy.
*He gutted arts programming on TV and under his rule, lost most of the classical music programming from CBC Radio 2. It’s true the arts did not generate huge audiences, but CBC was the sole serious purveyor of that programming in Canada. (Bravo had long since abandoned its commitment to the high arts.)
*He oversaw the changes in The National that have led to the most dramatic loss of viewership in CBC News history. At a time when the new rating system saw CTV and Global new audiences climb by 40%, the CBC dropped by the same amount. The “renewal” saw American news doctors come in and advise the CBC to move to shorter stories, more human interest, less serious news coverage, more weather, more fluffy animal stories…i.e. “Eyewitness News.” This was supposed to raise ratings and make younger people want to watch CBC news. It never took into account that loyal CBC news viewers were used to quality and depth and would not put up with the changes and that young people are not news viewers in general, and the ones who are, are not idiots looking to watch the kind of fluff The National has opted for.
*He moved the fifth estate, probably the best current affairs show in Canada, to the dead zone of Friday night so that Being Erica could get a better time slot on Wednesday. He buried Marketplace and The Nature of Things and cut way back on the number of episodes they produce each year. The result: shows that reached close to a million viewers in years gone by, barely attract half that today on their best days.
For the most part, Stursberg’s new programming was part of a dumbing down of the CBC. His new offerings were always light drama, inane comedy and reality. Gone were the serious movies and series that set the CBC above its rivals. In fact, CTV with shows like The Bridge and Flashpoint were tougher, harder and more provocative than any of the new fare that Stursberg championed.
It has been reported that Sturberg is gone because he didn’t like the new CBC “five year plan.” What does that mean? We have been given no explanation. Does the CBC want to worry less about ratings? Is management upset by what’s happened to its newscasts? Until we know the answer to these questions we won’t know who will take Stursberg’s job and in what direction he or she will be expected to take the CBC.
For my part, I would like the new boss to come from programming so that he or she can assess the quality of the new offerings. I want someone who will work in partnership with CBC staff rather than acting as a tyrant. I want someone who recognizes all of the kinds of programs that are important to a national broadcaster in order to serve all of its audiences, be they large or small…and that includes news, current affairs, the arts, drama, sports and comedy. Ratings are important but so is public service when you are being supported by tax dollars. Is this too much to ask? I think not when the future of our biggest and most important cultural institution is at stake.
Howard Bernstein is a former TV producer. He has worked at CBC,CTV, Global and has produced shows for most Canadian channels as an independent producer. This post originally appear on his blog Medium Close Up.