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Like many TV execs, Kirstine Stewart leaves a mixed legacy of hits and misses. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Like many TV execs, Kirstine Stewart leaves a mixed legacy of hits and misses. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

John Doyle

Sexism, spite and Kirstine Stewart’s CBC legacy Add to ...

‘Heh, heh, heh,” the Canadian TV big shot said to me as I sat down. I had a feeling about what was coming, that it wouldn’t actually be funny. “You know what somebody said about critics?” he asked, smiling. I waited. “Critics are like eunuchs in a brothel; they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves.”

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There followed another “Heh, heh, heh.” I was obliged to correct him, being a good critic. So I told him, the exact quotation was about “eunuchs in a harem” and it wasn’t “somebody”, it was Brendan Behan, who was himself a fine critic, being a Dublin wit and all. And since Behan drank himself to an early death, he probably wasn’t the best authority to quote. “Heh, heh, heh.”

Kirstine Stewart would never have said what the guy said. Eunuchs, and such. Women don’t tend to do that. In her seven years as a senior CBC executive she was, among other things, approachable, polite, cordial and often funny. In my dealings with her, anyway. Oh, she could be brisk. She may well have thought, “Mother of God, they don’t pay me enough to deal with people like John Doyle.” Once she gave me a look expressing that thought. But she didn’t say it and couldn’t do the macho putdown thing.

I was saddened but not surprised to learn of her sudden departure from CBC for Twitter Canada, a company that barely exists and doesn’t even have an office or staff. It is, for now, more notional than real. That it was Twitter Canada was unexpected. I was saddened because there are so few women execs at the very top of the Canadian TV racket. Mostly it’s a boys’ club. Not surprised, though, that she left CBC at this time. That’s one soul-destroying job. I do wonder, as anyone must, about the sexism and spite that was aimed at her and might have propelled her to the new media frontier.

Her legacy at CBC TV: some successes and some failures. And little wonder. CBC TV is in an almost impossible situation. It walks a tightrope. Attacked from inside and outside, by disgruntled staff, angry competitors, the jeering and the jealous. It has lived for years now with the nastiness of noisy, absurdly CBC-obsessed Sun News, and a government that seems more friendly to Sun News than to our major cultural institution. Cutbacks and criticism have been ceaseless.

The knock against Stewart, from the start, was that she seemed more interested in, and comfortable with, lifestyle programming, than drama and comedy. Lifestyle TV is her métier and drama is outside her comfort zone. That’s what people said. And that Battle of the Blades is her signature program.

In assessing her legacy now, the knock isn’t quite fair. She put Being Erica and Little Mosque on the air, but probably supported them for too long. She supported Republic of Doyle with admirable fortitude and it paid off. The most recent major CBC drama, Cracked, is a disappointment. And to many it will stand as example of CBC doing ordinary drama when it should be airing something much more challenging. Mind you, acquiring and nurturing Murdoch Mysteries was a masterstroke – it’s a big hit with a fanatical following. Dragons’ Den and Battle of the Blades did well, ratings hits and talked-about shows. Cover Me Canada was awful and those vehicles for Debbie Travis never clicked. Failure there. But, at the same time, Marketplace and The Nature of Things have thrived under her.

Under Stewart, CBC TV fled from arts programming, a tactic initiated, it seems, by her predecessor Richard Stursberg. That has always seemed to me a terrible failing, a breach of CBC’s contract with Canadians. Sorry, but reality show Over The Rainbow, about finding a new Dorothy for The Wizard of Oz, is not arts programming. There’s a lot of mediocrity in the schedule that could be balanced by good arts programming.

All TV execs leave a mixed legacy of hits and misses. Television isn’t easily done. There’s no formula and, for all the criticism of CBC being overstaffed and overfunded, Stewart was stuck with tight budgets, fewer resources, a smaller pool of talent, and competition from commercial broadcasters with a great deal more money and resources to splash around. That’s why CBC lost some of its signature sports franchises.

It’s been said, jokingly, that a Canadian-TV executive needs only two skills – 1) figuring out which U.S. shows to buy and 2) the ability to tell lies to the CRTC. That doesn’t apply to a CBC executive. It’s a much, much tougher job.

The facts behind Stewart’s departure from CBC may well be banal. Fatigue. Fed up with it all. What was not banal was the amount of hostility aimed at her over the years – the undercurrent of whispered, sexist spite, the scurrilous rumours and dismissive attitude about her abilities. Much of it came from men, and some of it transcended ungraciousness to become hatred. She could laugh at it, but maybe she was just fed up with all that – the world of cracking jokes about eunuchs and brothels, the “Heh, heh, heh” of the old boy’s club of old media.

Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

 

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