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Kirstine Stewart
Kirstine Stewart

Television

New CBC head to undo predecessor's controversial legacy Add to ...

Kirstine Stewart, the new head of CBC English-language services, plans to undo one of the most controversial recent moves by the broadcaster.

When the CBC began airing the game shows Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! in 2008, Stewart's predecessor Richard Stursberg often described the decision to offer the programs - criticized as American fare widely available on the dial - as necessary to attract "eyeballs."

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But Stewart, who formally replaced Stursberg in the job last week, sees it differently. She wants to replace Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! with Canadian shows - which she insists can pull in the same kind of ratings. Dragons' Den, for instance, attracts two million viewers.

"Now that the fix has happened, and we can make shows like Dragons' Den or Battle of the Blades that are consistently making big numbers, I believe that we have the talent in the country now to make those kinds of shows," she says. "We are looking to replace [ Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!] for sure."

It's all the result, she adds, of a much larger fix at the CBC over the last few years, particularly in its TV operation. This has allowed the broadcaster to compete with private networks and to become "a real player in an industry that needs a strong public broadcaster." Within the CBC, Stewart says, that meant "a lot of changes."

Stewart first took over as acting vice-president of CBC English-language services back in August, following Stursberg's surprise departure.

The common view within the CBC is that Stursberg's highly focused business strategy ultimately clashed too much with CBC president Hubert Lacroix's view of the public broadcaster as serving a larger cultural purpose. Neither has spoken publicly about Stursberg's departure.

When Stewart was appointed to her position on a permanent basis, the news was generally seen as a foregone conclusion, even though Stewart, 42, had been viewed by many outside the CBC as Stursberg's faithful lieutenant.

Stewart left Alliance Atlantis for a job heading up CBC-TV programming in 2006. At the time, there had been a few disastrous programming decisions under Stursberg's watch, such as the green-lighting of the music reality show The One: Making a Music Star (which debuted in the summer of 2006), as well as a demoralizing CBC employee lockout. But then Stursberg and Stewart together had their successes, such as reality shows such as Battle of the Blades and Dragons' Den, a version of a Japanese hit TV show .

While Stursberg tended to talk about "eyeballs" and hard numbers, Stewart isn't afraid to speak in terms of the intuitive "magic" that goes into programming. She is loath to repeat Stursberg's much quoted remark that it takes one million viewers for a show to considered a hit. There are many other ways to judge success, she says.

"Not everything is expressed in numbers. It's a matter of what you do and how it is accepted [by audiences]" Stewart says. One small success can trigger another, "and it starts to build."

The CBC has also had to go through a marked turnaround in morale, she says. She notes that "for the longest time, there was this sense that it didn't matter what the CBC did. Canadians just weren't watching." The mood was so downbeat that there was a running joke inside the corporation that if CTV's sitcom Corner Gas had aired on CBC instead, it wouldn't have been a success.

Little Mosque on the Prairies, which debuted in 2007, was the turning point, Stewart says.

She recalls the day after the series launched. She was coming out of a meeting and looked at her Blackberry. A message read "2318 OMG." She wasn't even sure what that meant. Was "OMG" an oh-my-God good, or bad? Did "2318" just mean the usual, lowly 200,000 viewers plus change?

Then she heard screaming down the hallway. The show had actually drawn an astonishing 2.318 million viewers. "The feeling in the organization changed to one of opportunity … Now these shows are being shown worldwide. And there's an industry being built around the idea of long-running series," she says.

Stewart hints of changes elsewhere as well at the CBC, such as in CBC Radio, which she suggests could start offering new ways to stream music digitally, possibly packaging it as an additional CBC service.

"You look at the opportunities that have happened for music in technology … We also have those possibilities. We have the possibilities of streaming [music digitally] we have the possibilities of expanding. I think technology is going to enable us to actually deliver all kinds of genres to many different people, but in the way that we at the CBC have always framed things," she says, careful not to reveal too much at this stage.

She also acknowledges CBC's unique role as a public broadcaster - and that public perception very much affects how she foresees going about any changes.

"It's not a top-down vision plan. I don't intend for the CBC to do anything that hasn't been the subject of a lot of input. That's what we have been doing, and we need to do even more," she says. "It is the communal- meeting-place-as-public-broadcaster for Canadians."

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