Editor's note: This profile of Richard Stursberg was published in June, 2008. Writer Jennifer Wells won a National Newspaper Award in the arts and entertainment category for this piece.
Richard Stursberg smoothly glides through the sky-busting atrium of the CBC building, heading toward the sleekly tall Carole MacNeil, who stands, smiling, sunglasses perched on head. He brushes a kiss upon her cheek, a gift that MacNeil, co-host of CBC News: Sunday and Stursberg's "girlfriend" - his word - rises ever so slightly on the toe of one black patent pump to receive.
Taking the stage, the vice-president of English-language services for CBC radio and television smiles down upon his people. Diana Swain in a pantsuit as white as a nun's wimple. Heather Hiscox in a white-and-wheat ensemble. A spiky-haired Wendy Mesley in jeans. (Go Wendy.) The CBC-TV personalities are identified by name cards that have been placed on the tabletops. The presence of the cards is rather off-note, for one of Richard Stursberg's self-defined missions has been to transform his roster of hosts into stars needing no such identifiers.
Stursberg, up there on the stage, appears immensely comfortable, immensely pleased. To understand why this is so, you have to understand what, in Stursberg's view, the CBC is all about. "In the past, people had different views as to what the appropriate role of the CBC was," he will say in an interview. "While it's certainly true to say that the CBC is a cultural organization, we take the view that the biggest cultural challenge facing English Canadians is ultimately our failure to produce entertainment shows, Canadian shows that Canadians actually want to watch."
By this measure, Stursberg says the CBC is on "a very big roll." He's liking the public broadcaster's numbers, particularly a 7.8-per-cent prime-time share on CBC-TV, beating Global Television in the crucial post-suppertime hours. Across several conversations, he returns to this central theme: that the winning game at the CBC is about creating "popular programming" for television viewers. Prodded to come up with a more overarching vision for a multimedia broadcaster that is much deeper and broader than prime-time TV - seeding such words as "citizenship," "civil society" and "cultural excellence" into the conversation proves to be of no help - Stursberg replies, "I don't know why people want to sort of say the CBC has some high-art role. I don't quite understand that. The Canada Council is there to fund the high arts."
Inside the Mother Corp., it is Stursberg's job to steer a large, diverse constituency. There are high notes of anxiety in some quarters. Fear. Distrust. And proclamations of distaste for what they see as his imperious manner. "Trudeauesque," says one.
How does he feel he's being perceived within, say, the news department? "I would say that I think the news department is, um, thinking about me. I don't think they dislike me. I don't think they like me." Radio? "I think they've been actually pleasantly surprised to find out that I'm not the great Satan."
From his stage-centre vantage point in late May, Stursberg played to an audience gathered for the unveiling of the TV network's fall schedule. The main message: "We succeed when our content reaches and resonates with the broadest cross-section of the greatest number of Canadians."
For that to be proved to be commercially true, Stursberg must continually amass eyeballs: Viewership begets advertising. This explains why the Canadian-centric investigative consumer report Marketplace - a show that carries no commercials - is being pushed aside in the fall season to make way for the resolutely American game show Jeopardy!, a show that bears an exclamation mark.
This would also explain the incongruity of the scene before us, with Stursberg reassuring the crowd that the CBC remains "the most important cultural institution in Canada," while the button-eyed Alex Trebek looks on, well, gamely. In an interview, Stursberg responds this way to critics who see Jeopardy, or rather Jeopardy!, as nothing but artery-clogging junk: "The only reason we put American shows on in the first instance is to generate revenue. ... For every extra dollar of margin we can generate out of a show like Jeopardy!, it just means an extra dollar we can put into Canadian programming. It's not as though the money is going anywhere else."