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Richard Stursberg, CBC Executive Vice-President English Services, poses for a photograph in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday June 24, 2008. (Darryl Dyck for The Globe and Mail)
Richard Stursberg, CBC Executive Vice-President English Services, poses for a photograph in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday June 24, 2008. (Darryl Dyck for The Globe and Mail)

Broadcasting

The post-Stursberg CBC: Tilt goes the tightrope Add to ...

The facts behind Richard Stursberg's recent, abrupt exit from the CBC remain unclear, but are probably mundane. The facts of CBC Television's current precarious situation, however, are far from mundane.

As far as I can tell, there were "irreconcilable differences" between Stursberg and CBC president Hubert Lacroix over certain details in the public broadcaster's new five-year strategic plan about to be implemented - not major differences, but enough tension over direction and interpretation of the plan to ensure that the boss, Lacroix, must prevail and thus it was an appropriate time for Stursberg to leave.

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Stursberg stirred emotions like few figures in the Canadian media world. One CBC executive told me, on condition of anonymity (nobody will speak on the record right now), that Stursberg simply didn't have the right temperament to deal with the egos at CBC. Simultaneously, the same person acknowledges that Stursberg was admirable in that he achieved a great deal in his six years there - he forced through change, streamlined operations, focused on ratings and centralized power, and he saw CBC-TV's audience share increase.

The CBC is a bizarre institution, a rats' nest of ego, bickering, backstabbing, rumour and sour dislike of anyone who either has power inside CBC, or anyone or anything that isn't part of the CBC. It's a wonder they ever get around to producing any shows. Inside CBC, Stursberg was demonized when he took charge because he was exactly what the place needed - someone strong-willed enough to be dismissive of the CBC's lazy internal culture. He dragged the CBC into the modern world of big-media companies.

And now what? Well, anyone who thinks that Stursberg's departure means a reversal of his various TV and radio implementations is kidding him- or herself. The five-year plan has more to do with capital spending, hardware and financial management systems than it has to do with dramas and sitcom on TV or the genre of music played on CBC radio channels. Things are not going backward. If you worship at the altar of the old CBC of Peter Gzowski and Barbara Frum, you are not going home again. We'll all be living with Stursberg's CBC for a long time to come.

Richard Stursberg, executive vice-president of english programming for CBC television, talks about the fall 2007 lineup.

Stursberg's CBC is ratings-driven, populist, pop-culture-obsessed in its news coverage, lightweight, disdainful of the arts and mortally afraid of appearing highbrow. Of course, Stursberg is undoubtedly proud of the CBC he's moulded and indeed it has brought some measure of ratings success.

But, post-Stursberg, CBC-TV now finds itself in a dangerous position. It walks a tightrope. What Stursberg did to CBC-TV has made it much harder to defend as a cultural institution. Months after a makeover, The National is still a farce. The awkward-looking scenario of stand-up anchors, inelegant poses and reporters speaking from giant screens makes the program look like some terrible, cheapo sci-fi movie. The fleeting news "bits" about trivial stories are the very definition of dumbed-down, and even the weather reports delivered by Claire Martin are so irrelevant they have the air of absurdist mini-dramas. Worse, the makeover has not given The National the ratings boost that was hoped.

The prime-time schedule has hits but it has so much light-and-easy viewing that the CBC-ness of it is non-existent. The key ingredient of provocative, challenging television has gone missing. The core problem for CBC in dealing with both its loyal audience and its enemies is that it has to justify its existence to two very different camps. On the one hand, airing ratings hits makes CBC a player in Canadian broadcasting, accumulating ad dollars and viewers. On the other hand, those who expect a public broadcaster to provide what commercial TV cannot are asking, where's the beef?

It's a fair question. CBC can justify the airing of, say, Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune if it also provides programming that's distinctive, original and culturally relevant - the type of programming associated with a strong public broadcaster. Being Erica and Republic of Doyle just don't fit that category.

A key event in Stursberg's tenure was the cancellation of the crime drama Intelligence and subsequent alienation of its creator, Chris Haddock. There are few television auteurs in Canada, and of them, Haddock is most eminent, pragmatic and successful. When the CBC cannot commit to airing a low-rated but excellent drama such as Intelligence, then it cannot claim to be remotely close to fulfilling its mandate as a public broadcaster to air what commercial TV will not air.

In recent months, CBC has also acquired a reputation in the Canadian TV industry for being outright leery of developing any one-hour dramas at all. CBC execs have complained about the excessive amount of "dark" dramas that are pitched to them. Understandably, this attitude makes a vast number of people in the Canadian industry very nervous - the TV creators, because they expect CBC to exhibit some courage in developing challenging drama, and a vast number of unions and guilds, because the production of one-hour dramas creates a lot of jobs and nourishes countless talents for the future.

Meanwhile, CBC News has been spooked by constant assaults on its integrity by the forces of the right in Canada. The Conservative Party and its allies have done what the minority Conservative government can now avoid doing directly - isolating CBC News as a lefty organization out of touch with Canadians. It's been deftly done, and CBC has reacted to the point of often appearing embarrassingly eager to over-accommodate right-wing views.

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Lacroix is aware of all of this, you can be certain. A successful bureaucrat who values inclusiveness, he has been described to me as "sharp and brainy, a sincere and earnest guy" and he certainly seems to be that in person. Another insider characterized him as "a guy who sees himself as the keeper of a kind of Trudeauvian flame. While Richard [Stursberg]sees the world very differently." This does not mean that the Stursberg era will now be erased. A senior CBC exec told me, "I imagine there may well be some de-emphasis, over time, of the Hollywood hitsville mogul-style commissioning of scripts and pilots in the laser-focused quest for eyeballs, and maybe more quality Canadian-orientation stuff, but they don't want to lose the audience gained and it won't be a revolution [back]to old times." Potential change in CBC's programming emphasis was further described to me as, "a slight tilt upwards. Toward the more Canadian, the somewhat more upscale and the cross-cultural."

For now, Lacroix has put much of the CBC in the hands of Kirstine Stewart, who takes over as executive vice-president English services (Stursberg's former title). In a memo to staff this week, Lacroix emphasized that while a search for someone to replace Stursberg goes on, Stewart "is not a caretaker" and "not a babysitter." He also said, "This is not about waiting or slowing down." Stewart, who came to CBC from Alliance Atlantis (as Kirstine Layfield), where she had overall programming responsibility for the company's eight lifestyle channels, is a more affable figure than Stursberg. She's a cultivator of relationships in the industry and the press, while Stursberg was notoriously single-minded when it came to the decision-making process and seemed extremely sensitive about negative press coverage.

Stewart is as responsible as Stursberg for CBC-TV's current prime-time schedule and if there is skepticism about her in the TV industry, it's based on a perception that she's more interested in lifestyle programming than drama. It is felt by some that lifestyle TV is her métier and drama is outside her comfort zone. Battle of the Blades is seen as her signature program. She has also, perhaps, fallen victim to a particular form of management hubris. Recent press releases about this or that CBC program have quoted Stewart extensively, not those involved in the creative side of the show. Alliance-Atlantis was notorious for this tactic, issuing breathless announcements in which some executive who had merely written a cheque was quoted at dreary length. None of the U.S. networks would make such announcements - they promote "the talent," not the network bosses.

For the coming TV season, it's Stewart in charge, with Lacroix as the big boss. They're rolling out a TV season that Stursberg oversaw. Viewers and advertisers will decide on what's a hit and what isn't. The precariousness of CBC's value as a public broadcaster and cultural institution will depend on that "tilt upwards." If it ever comes.

Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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