What happens when the captain of the ship is replaced after six years? Not very much, according to the CBC
As CBC/Radio-Canada's executive vice-president of English-language services, Richard Stursberg- who was abruptly dismissed by the public broadcaster on Aug. 6-was revered and reviled in almost equal measure.
Supporters argue that CBC Television was revitalized during his six years with the institution. A prime-time schedule that had been reliant on period dramas, documentaries and low-budget sitcoms became a haven for programming boasting the ambition and upscale production values of its U.S. competition, yet imbued with a distinctly Canadian sensibility.
Detractors argue that Stursberg's CBC strayed from its public service mandate, placing far too much emphasis on wooing advertisers. They point to the 2008 addition of U.S. game shows Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, and the promotion of lightweight fare like Battle of the Blades over high-minded programming such as the cancelled Intelligence, as an example of how it went astray.
With Stursberg's former lieutenant Kirstine Stewart appointed interim head of English services, however, it's unlikely CBC Television will revert to the "good for you" programming that once characterized its prime-time schedule. Viewers, senior executives say, will continue to be a yardstick for success.
"Ratings are always important," explains Scott Moore, general manager of media sales and marketing. "We're not delusional in thinking that we will always win the ratings war, but as a public broadcaster, we are only successful if we matter to Canadians-not just a small slice who want their particular type of programming represented."
So there'll continue to be an emphasis on populist entertainment? "Absolutely," he says. "We're totally unashamed by that."
Still, it is not surprising the abrupt departure of Stursberg had many people talking (there were rumours he was escorted from the building, though quickly denied, see "Hubert Lacroix," pg. 44) and more than a few suggested it was proof of fundamental differences between Stursberg and president and CEO Hubert Lacroix about the future of the CBC-Lacroix rejecting a single-minded focus on ratings that neglected the CBC's traditional public broadcaster responsibility of championing Canadian culture.
"That is people reading tea leaves," says Moore. "Hubert has time and again come out in support of the current schedule."
The split was about conflicting personalities not conflicting visions, says Moore. "They did not see eye to eye...It was not a philosophical programming difference, it was a management style difference," he says.
"I think both [Lacroix and Stursberg] would agree CBC is only successful when we are being watched and listened to by the largest number of Canadians possible." If that is true and Lacroix is still committed to generating the biggest possible audiences, that's no doubt good news for advertisers, who applaud the continued emergence of CBC as a challenger to the likes of CTV and Global Television, a role enhanced by both its ability and willingness to offer clients everything from product placement to script integration opportunities.
ZenithOptimedia Canada president and CEO Sunni Boot believes the broadcaster was forced to place greater emphasis on programming and its relationship with advertisers after losing the 2010 and 2012 Olympics to the CTVglobemedia-Rogers Media consortium. Along with the NHL, marquee events like the Olympics had ensured the CBC was always in demand with a certain number of advertisers.
"The Olympics gave them revenue and a profile they weren't going to have once they were gone," she reasons. "They had to look at how they could take the loss of the Olympics and build relationships with advertisers they didn't have with the Olympics.
"I think they looked at all of their products and said 'Can we do a better job from the client service and client relationship aspects?' and providing the right media product, because at the end of the day it has to be effective."
Even in early 2009, when former general manager, media sales and marketing Dave Scapillati was replaced by Moore-who had come up through CBC Sports and had no sales background-the transition was seamless.
Moore jokingly downplays his role within the ad community: "The individual sales reps are the ones that have to do the hard work. I get to shake their hands," he says. But buyers say he has provided continuity and demonstrated a continued willingness to work with advertising partners. "At first I was skeptical, because Scott was a sports guy," says Boot. "But I think it's been amazing. They've been very advertiser receptive, looking at solutions, how can we work together."
Moore says he spent the days immediately after Stursberg's departure reaching out to the CBC's major advertising partners, assuring them it would have no impact on future direction. What was his core message? "It's not a change in philosophy or strategy," he says. "Our schedule is set for the next 12 months [and] the Corporation remains committed to programming that Canadians want to watch." (That said, one big change will soon take place, with The Hour undergoing big changes though they had nothing to do with Stursberg's departure, see This Hour sidebar.)
For now, buyers appear unconcerned, although they will continue to watch the situation closely. "There's a little concern because [Stursberg] drove the agenda and he made it very clear that success was ratings and revenue-acting more like a private than a public broadcaster," says Boot.
"When you have a change in management that suggests a change in philosophy, you're always going to take a little bit of a wait and see approach."
Certainly in the weeks and months before Stursberg's sudden removal advertisers were implicitly supportive. Moore says this year's upfront sales are up 30% over last year-"that was a vote of confidence from the buying community," he says- and that it had secured spending commitments from three agencies, compared with just one last year.
It has also assembled numerous integration deals, including a new partnership between Ford and Being Erica that Moore calls "incredibly groundbreaking." Other integration deals will see General Motors Canada extend its association with the reality show Dragon's Den, while the second season of Battle of the Blades will feature partnerships with advertisers including Ford and Mott's Clamato. There is also a new role for Scotiabank as title sponsor of the annual Hockey Day in Canada telecast (a role formerly held by Tim Hortons).
For the CBC's critics, this proliferation of advertiser deals embodies everything that's wrong with the public broadcaster. Ian Morrison, spokesperson for the broadcast watchdog Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, says it has become too beholden to its advertisers. "For a public broadcaster, advertising shouldn't drive everything," he says.
Morrison says the CBC is straying from its mandate of reflecting Canadian culture, pointing out that the amount of Canadian content in prime time has fallen from 27 hours in 2004 to 21 hours this year. "We would never condemn the programming they put on," he stresses. "But, for example, killing [cop drama] Intelligence and putting on Being Erica sort of sums it all up.
"Intelligence was hard-hitting programming that they kept moving around on the schedule so that people couldn't find it," he adds. "Most television professionals would tell you it takes about three years for a program to really catch on."
Morrison stresses that he doesn't have a problem with shows like Battle of the Blades and Being Erica, but would like to see them co-exist with more cerebral programs. "We'd like the CBC to be a little better, a little more in-depth, a little more serious," he says. "There's a place for [these types of shows], it's just a question of balance."
The Canadian production community, too, seems to be taking a wait-and-see approach to how the management change affects the type of shows the CBC commissions. "I don't think we are expecting any dramatic changes right away," said Anne Truemann, director of communications and media for the Canadian Media Production Association (formerly the Canadian Film and Television Production Association) in an e-mail exchange with Marketing.
"We know the CBC is developing a five-year strategic plan and we are very interested in seeing how [it] will showcase Canadian content on multiple platforms."
There will always be debates about CBC's role defending some ill-defined concept of Canadian culture, says Moore. And in the future the platforms may in fact change and funding shift, but the focus on ratings does not change the CBC's commitment to Canadian content.
"I don't think you want to go for the lowest common denominator, and we don't," he says, calling Being Erica "one of the great success stories of the CBC" that is "unapologetically" set in Toronto.
"We are Canadian stories, produced by Canadians, written by Canadians featuring Canadians in Canadian locales," he says. That was the case when Stursberg was in charge and it will remain so now that he's gone.
BY CHRIS POWELL
Source: Marketing, September 13, 2010
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