First aired on The Sunday Edition (22/4/12)
In the summer of 2004, there were rumblings of a seismic shift at the CBC. It came with the arrival of a man who would come to be known in these halls as King Richard. The new head of English television for the national public broadcaster, Richard Stursberg, was seen as imperious, arrogant, absolutist, dogmatic, bull-headed and self-righteous. He was also viewed as the man who would turn around the Queen Mary.
Stursberg's arrival meant out with any talk of mandates and missions and in with populist programming. Out with a schedule dominated by news and current affairs; in with reality TV. His goal was to build the ratings. That was Stursberg's only measure of success: increasing the size of the audience. And by that measure, he declared himself to be a resounding success while he was here and even after he was fired. His six years at the helm of CBC's English programming are chronicled in his new book, The Tower of Babble: Sins, Secrets and Successes Inside the CBC.
During the 40 years prior to Stursberg's arrival, CBC's audience share had steadily declined. Private broadcasters were regularly beating CBC in the ratings and CNN -- an American news network -- was scoring almost double the viewers that the homegrown network, CBC Newsworld, brought in. His mission, as he outlined to Michael Enright during a recent interview on The Sunday Edition, "was to see whether we could reverse that sense, to see whether we could take the CBC along, to see if we could make some shows that Canadians would like to watch, that we could excite and amuse Canadians, [and get viewers] to come back to the CBC."
Stursberg knew the CBC would be difficult to change -- his own father, a veteran CBC war correspondent called the network "a snake pit" -- but he didn't see any point in taking the job if he was okay with the status quo. He decided he wasn't, accepted the job, and came prepared to battle. "I thought for sure I would be resisted when I came, I thought that the views I would express would be unwelcome," he said."But on the other hand, I thought to myself, if it were possible to actually change the course of television, that would be a wonderful achievement."
While trying to usher this change through, Stursberg found himself constantly at odds with CBC's various departments. He struggled with what he thought was a strongly held belief by CBC producers that popular programming wasn't good and good programming wasn't popular. "I thought this particular belief was corrosive because no matter which way you go on it, you lose," he said. Not only did he see this belief as "destructive," but he thinks it is simply not true. He points to today's television programming as a shining example, calling it a "golden age," where "the shows that get the best ratings are, by and large, extraordinarily good shows."
Stursberg saw the engagement of the Canadian public as the ultimate goal, but the public is also the corporation's ultimate critic. "The real test of accountability -- certainly if you are going to spend a billion dollars of public money every year and you're going to be a public broadcaster -- is does the public like or admire what you're doing?" For Stursberg, the best way to answer that question is with ratings.
Stursberg indeed delivered the ratings. During his reign, there were success stories like Little Mosque on the Prairie and Dragons' Den and the remake of CBC institutions like The National -- which led to increased ratings for the flagship news show. But there were also resounding flops, like the reality series The One. Stursberg took the flops in stride, as he saw the CBC as a whole moving forward. So when he was fired in 2010, he was shocked. When asked why he was let go, he responded, "I honestly don't know."
What he does know, however, is that he "loved being at the CBC" and is proud of his legacy.
"I considered it an extraordinary honour to be able to preside over what is English Canada's greatest cultural institution and its most important one," he said. "It was sad for me and I didn't want to go."
Image of Richard Stursberg at the unveiling of CBC Television's fall schedule in 2009. Photo Credit: Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press