It’s early November and Richard Stursberg is sitting at CBC’s Toronto headquarters in his nicely appointed seventh-floor office, with its leather armchairs, gleaming wooden table, red Persian rug and big flat-screen TV. Dressed today in an olive blazer, green striped shirt and black pants—a much more conservative choice than the lime-green suit he has worn to work on occasion—Stursberg tells me what he wants CBC to do: put the “public” back into public broadcasting.
Because, he explains, the public provides much of CBC’s financing, so the programming should appeal to as many people as possible: “I measure our success as to whether our shows are being watched.” In particular, he’s talking about Canadian shows that attract large numbers. And, he adds, “We’re going to make some money. Get more audiences, get more money.”
Stursberg, who spent many years in private broadcasting as president and CEO of the Canadian Cable Television Association (1995 to 1999), president and CEO of Star Choice Communications and Cancom (1999 to 2001) as well as a stint as head of Telefilm Canada (2001 to 2004), is eerily sure of himself, fierce even.
Our discussion moves on to the 2005 lockout of 5,500 employees, which lasted two months and provoked untold amounts of acrimony and animosity toward Stursberg and Robert Rabinovitch, then CBC president and his boss.
What would Stursberg say to employees still angry about the lockout?
“Get over it,” he says quietly, then, almost shouting, “Get over it! One of two things was going to happen: either they were going to strike at a time of their own choosing and cause real serious damage to the Corporation, or we were going to lock them out in a way that caused less damage. So everyone should be happy to have less damage rather than more.”
I ask Stursberg about criticism that CBC TV is becoming more commercial.
“Well, I completely disagree with that view,” he replies. “No one inside will agree with that view, ’cause if they were here and they agree with that view, then why would they be here?”
What do you mean?
“Well, I mean, normally you’d want to work in places where you agree with the philosophy of the place, so all I’m saying is—Kirstine [Layfield, CBC programming director]—her view would be the same as my view. Robert [Rabinovitch]’s view on this would be the same as mine. The person who runs factual entertainment here, Julie Bristow, her view would be the same. Everybody’s view is the same. You know, otherwise we would find ourselves in circumstances where we’d all be running off in different directions, instead of the recipe for success.”
I tell Stursberg that this isn’t what others have said, particularly people from the news division.
He leans forward in his chair, a little smile on his face: “Give me their names.” His tone is light, but the look in his eyes is not.
“I can’t give you their names.”
I shake my head.
Stursberg relents, admitting he knows not everyone agrees with him. That’s inevitable when an organization is in the middle of changing its strategy, he explains: “People have been used to doing a certain thing for a long time.”
Maybe they’re not used to doing something else, I suggest later.
“Maybe,” he pauses. “Or maybe they like failure.”
And that was my introduction to the polarizing force that is Richard Stursberg, a figure I had heard plenty about in the weeks before and after that interview. What came up over and over again were charges that Stursberg—who in November became head of all of CBC’s English services after almost four years of leading just English TV—didn’t understand public broadcasting; that he had no programming experience; that he’s more interested in ratings than quality programs; that he’s turning the network into a second-rate commercial broadcaster; that his strong, “arrogant” personality fails to foster an environment where discussion can take place; that his focus is on entertainment, not news; that his goal of reinventing local news is a mistake; that steep cuts to news programs were coming; and that he wanted to divert millions from Newsworld’s budget into general network coffers.
So much heat. But what was the truth?
Beginning in September, I talked to dozens of CBCers, past and present, during almost 100 interviews. Some requested anonymity, afraid to speak on the record for fear they’d lose their jobs. Even several Corp heavyweights chose to keep quiet. Trina McQueen said her position on CBC’s board of directors, along with her “lack of ability to tread a fine diplomatic line,” prevented a discussion. Peter Mansbridge emailed that he had not yet formed a full opinion about developments at the network. Documentarian Terence McKenna wrote that it would be “unwise” for him to speak frankly on this topic. Veteran producer Kelly Crichton literally backed away from me when I asked for an interview. “No, no, no,” she laughed.
But from those who did speak, one name kept popping up: Tony Burman, the former editor-in-chief. For those in news and current affairs, his departure in July 2007 signaled ominous times ahead. The 35-year CBC veteran was a respected leader and a voice of journalistic integrity in the higher echelons of a senior management team that was increasingly viewed as not caring enough about it. Even before the announcement, there was a growing suspicion, skepticism and, at times, outright anger at what management was doing—and might do—to a division that has done much to define what public broadcasting means in Canada. Of particular concern was the current state and future of TV news at the Corp. What was Stursberg’s plan?
Over seven months, I put together a fuller picture of the dynamics prompting not all, but many of the accusations leveled against Stursburg. My intention was to arrange a follow-up interview with him in early March so he’d have the opportunity to respond further to the charges and also to answer some questions that had arisen after our November interview. Though I contacted his office more than a month before the Review’s deadline, following up with numerous emails and phone calls, Stursberg’s assistant said he was unavailable to talk for even 15 minutes. He was busy. He was out of town. He was prepping for a CBC board meeting. But after a last-ditch effort, just before the Review went to press, Stursberg did get back to us.
That Stursberg is starving TV news in his quest to beef up entertainment
During our November interview, Stursberg happily trumpets the fact that CBC has “more new shows this year and more hours of drama and comedy than we’ve ever had.”
I ask if he thinks CBC should focus more on getting back into entertainment.
“Yeah,” he replies with a smile, “I think [TV] is an entertainment medium.”
We move on to rumours of coming budget cuts. Entertain-ment costs a lot of money, I suggest, but then so does news.
“Yes,” he drawls.
Who will get the brunt of the cutbacks?
“There’s no cutting,” he says. “I’m growing. Keep growing, you make more money; you make more money, you have more money to spend. It’s very nice.”
But David Studer, executive producer of the fifth estate, says there was some cutting. He says during the 2006–2007 season he didn’t receive some funds he’d anticipated, which is why the show ran more reruns than usual. This season, in the middle of the fiscal year, the fifth’s budget suffered another slash mid-season; Studer won’t deny a figure of 20 per cent of the production budget. “It’s all we had left,” he sighs. He also confirms cuts have been made across the board at The National, Marketplace and CBC News: Sunday.
Studer can’t say for sure why his show faced two cuts, or what the money went towards, but he knows the consequences: even more reruns.
Mark Starowicz, whose documentary department also saw cuts this year, says there will be more reruns across the network, including in sports and drama, for the next couple of years. But news will be hurt more because dramas are funded, in part, with money from the Canadian Television Fund, and news isn’t. “Right now there is a serious budget deficit in the network,” Starowicz adds, explaining there’s been a buildup of inventory, which often happens with a crop of new shows. These include CBC’s latest slate of programs: jPod, MVP: The Secret Lives of Hockey Wives, Sophie, The Border, Heartland and The Week the Women Went. The network announced it was cancelling the first two on March 7 due to poor ratings; the last one was a hit, debuting with 1.2 million viewers.
Although he supports CBC’s investment in drama and entertainment, the fortunes of Starowicz’s documentary department can be tied to the success of the Corp’s other programming. Hockey, of course, is the biggest factor when it comes to lost ad revenue. The hardest hit happens when the Toronto Maple Leafs fail to make the playoffs. About 40 per cent of the Corp’s ad revenue and 48 per cent of its prime-time viewers come from sports, especially hockey—and despite going four decades without winning the Stanley Cup, the Leafs remain the most watched team in English Canada. This spring, the team started golfing early for the third year in a row.
But documentaries also suffer when entertainment fails to do well. “If Little Mosque on the Prairie doesn’t hover between 700,000 and a million [viewers], it means such a significant loss of money that it actually threatens us,” Starowicz explains. “You can see it: if we don’t have that income, there is no Afghanistan documentary”—a reference to a two-hour March special that involved sending three crews to Afghanistan over a period of two months.
That Stursberg wanted to divert millions from Newsworld into general network coffers
Throughout my research I kept hearing of an elliptical warning Burman gave friends at his September going-away party: “Follow the money.”
The relationship between Newsworld and CBC main operations can be confusing. Parliamentary funding accounts for almost half of CBC English Television’s budget, which for 2006–2007 was $634 million. Advertising revenue and other sources cover the rest. Taxpayers contribute $33 per capita annually for CBC English TV. Of that, only about nine dollars goes to news. After New Zealand and the United States, Canada’s is the lowest publicly funded broadcaster among 18 major Western countries. Funding for CBC hasn’t increased in over 30 years, save for salary increases. And the Corp is still dealing with the effects of budget cuts totaling $415 million made in the 1990s by both the Conservatives and, in particular, the Liberals.
Furthermore, the CRTC regulates all broadcasting and telecommunications activities in Canada. On June 1, 1999, Burman, then head of Newsworld, and a senior management team made a presentation to the CRTC, proposing a wholesale subscriber fee increase from 55 cents per month to 63 cents in the anglophone markets.
The Commission approved the request, acknowledging how the 63 cents and, in particular, the eight new cents would be used by Newsworld to expand live programming, create a network of video journalists, develop more joint projects with Réseau de l’information (RDI), and provide increased support for independent journalists.
Philip Savage, who worked at CBC from 1989 to 2005 in a variety of positions, including senior manager of policy and planning for CBC English television, radio and new media, says Newsworld can provide money to the main network but only if it is for projects that benefit the all-news channel.
Savage, now an assistant professor of communication studies at McMaster University, gives me an example of an allowable project: if CBC opened a news bureau, management could ask Newsworld to pay a portion of that cost if it would also be taking advantage of the bureau.
But what if it used the money for entertainment?
Savage says that decision would go against the spirit of the subscription fee and there’d likely be consequences. “I suspect,” he explains, “if for some reason it happened, then the next time the CBC was reviewed by the CRTC… ”He goes on to explain the consequences. “If the CBC said, ‘We need more money because of inflation—we need 75 cents instead of 63 cents,’ then the CRTC would say to that, ‘Hold on, if 10 per cent of every dollar goes to the CBC for entertainment, we can’t do that.’ Newsworld would look stupid,” concludes Savage. “The CRTC would look stupid. Paying for drama… it would be a risky procedure and people at the CBC would know that. The CRTC would say, ‘No way.’”
In late October, at our first interview, I ask Burman to elaborate on his “follow the money” comment. He explains that months earlier Stursberg told him he had the right to take $12 to $20 million out of Newsworld’s budget and spend it in any way that he saw fit.
It was, says Burman, a tense conversation.
“I said, ‘You can’t do that, that’s contrary to our commitment to the CRTC!’”
Stursberg’s response, according to Burman, was: “Fuck the CRTC.”
“You can’t fuck the CRTC as long as I’m still around.”
The relationship between CBC and Newsworld is confusing, and it is possible that Burman, despite his many years of CBC experience, doesn’t completely understand it either. That’s certainly Stursberg’s view. When he got back to us just before press time, Stursberg said, “This sounds like a Tony Burman fantasy to me. Burman’s view of what the CRTC requirements are with respect to Newsworld is wrong … The requirement of the CRTC is simply that there be no cross-subsidies from the main channel to Newsworld.”
Also, the CRTC expects CBC, its French language count-erpart and Newsworld to share resources—and the all-news network would be expected to repay CBC for the use of its resources.
Twelve to $20 million is a significant chunk of Newsworld’s expenses. If that kind of cut were ever made, the channel would not be able to afford documentaries, Burman says, and bureaus would shut down. If Stursberg does not take Newsworld’s money, Burman will be a happy camper. If it does happen, he says he would be open to testifying in front of the CRTC at CBC’s next license hearing: “Given the kind of experience that I’ve had with [the senior management] crowd before, I don’t think it’s time to fall asleep.”
That in the Stursberg era, the quality of The National has continued to diminish, a process that began long before his arrival
Don Young, a former journalist at As It Happens, The Journal and The National, has known the CBC VP for a long time and is no fan of him. He says Stursberg “does not like journal-ists” and is well known in the private sector as a critic of CBC and the way it is run. Even 25 years ago, Stursberg argued at dinner parties that CBC should be more efficient: “He was always going on about ‘Why do we need a radio guy and a TV guy covering the same report?’ Well, there are different skills for radio and TV, and just because you’re a good TV reporter you may not be the best radio reporter.”
Young, the executive producer of documentaries and features for the CTV-Rogers 2010 and 2012 Olympics, believes The National is the weakest it’s been in 20 years. One segment he remembers featured Joe Schlesinger in an elephant park in North Carolina after an elephant had killed its trainer. It could have been a sweet five or six minutes, he says, but it felt endless. “It’s filler.”
Another critic is Christopher Waddell, a former National senior producer who now teaches at Carleton University’s journalism school and writes for CBC News Online. He maintains that because of changes in news funding in the last five or six years, The National is no longer a flagship program, it’s “the tail at the end of the dog” and does not have enough resources to do what it should be doing, or even the independence to decide its own agenda.
So reporters seldom have enough time to report in depth, he explains, adding there is a growing lack of depth and experience in the corps of reporters. Journalists used to graduate from local TV newsrooms to The National, where only the most accomplished would make the grade. Waddell contends that audiences aren’t making connections with the new personalities they see, as they used to with Barbara Frum, Patrick Brown or Dan Bjarnason.
Another factor that will hinder development of the next generation of top National journalists is the coming death of the “farm system,” which produced CBCers such as Wendy Mesley, Brian McKenna and Burman. In the aftermath of the 2005 lockout, CBC can now hire contract employees up to a number equal to 9.5 per cent of the permanent workforce. An employee might get a contract for a few months, maybe a year, with no guarantee of renewal. Though the contract status was not meant for reporters, says Karen Wirsig, communications coordinator of the Canadian Media Guild, CBC is now hiring all kinds of core employees, including reporters, on contract. It may be cheaper for the network, but it has led to decreased loyalty and morale—and young journalists are looking elsewhere. Short contract positions, according to Mark Bulgutch, senior executive producer of CBC TV News programming, mean the network is in effect grooming young journalists for other broadcasters.
Vince Carlin, CBC’s ombudsman, understands the negative side of the “lifetime employment” previously attainable at the network: it requires better management to deal with people who can’t be fired, and most managers aren’t good at it. But he disagrees with shrinking the permanent core of journalists, pointing out that to be able to report without fear of falling out of favour with management, they must feel protected. Through the farm system, says Peter Herrndorf, a former English network vice-president and a current board member, “CBC allowed us to learn and make mistakes, and almost burn the place down.”
Still, as Waddell and many others point out, there remains much to praise—Terry Milewski’s Air India reporting, for example. Another positive, says Studer: the “At Issue” panel, which is “marvellous” and reminds him of Peter Gzowski’s Morningside on CBC Radio, which featured a lively panel of three respected former politicians—Eric Kierans, Dalton Camp and Stephen Lewis. Studer also praises Mansbridge’s interview with Karlheinz Schreiber, which broke new ground in the story, and adds that Adrienne Arsenault, Keith Boag and Paul Hunter provide layered, insightful reporting.
Stursberg’s view is that the quality of The National has not diminished. The charge, he says, is “potently untrue.”
Brian Stewart, currently The National’s senior correspondent and host of CBC News: Our World, says the network will likely never recapture the status it had abroad in the 1980s in terms of international coverage. There is much more competition now, so CBC must fight harder for access and interviews. In a lengthy email interview, Stewart wrote that “international coverage is brutally expensive and stagnant CBC budgets don’t allow for a lot of growth.” Yet, Stewart believes the network has some continuing strengths and the general quality of journalism remains the same: overseas reporters are still good, and it’s now possible to do more substantial analysis pieces without leaving Canada by using overseas interviews and better editing facilities. As well, graphics are incomparably better now, he says, as is the Corp’s ability to quickly put high-quality production values into an item.
Stewart doubts he would be able to report from Ethiopia today the way he did in the 1980s, partly due to budget and time restraints. Though print reporters might still have great flexibility, television reporters do not. In the past, Stewart was able to spend much more time with a variety of people. Now downloading research from the Internet has replaced much of that fieldwork, leading to less variety in sources and coverage. He points out that CBC has mounted major news operations during major crises, such as the Iraq invasion, the 2004 tsunami and, currently, Afghanistan. “But we had more freedom to roam in the past and were also not tied down by the constant need to meet satellite feeds and also phone in reports.”
For Stewart, more financial resources and more bodies is only part of the solution: “I also believe we need more introspection about our business, more time to study, to regroup, and more moments to reflect on where we’re likely going. It’s been a long time since I’ve sat around having a ‘blue sky’ session with anyone about future coverage. Everyone’s too damn busy, and attention spans grow shorter … we have to be aware just how frazzled we are and how in need of the quiet moments of reflection. To grow stronger we need to become more ‘sure’ of who we are, and that always needs some serious contemplation.”
That kind of contemplation time was available in the early 1970s, says Herrndorf. Even though weekly newsmagazines had fallen out of favour with Canadians, CBC created the fifth estate, which is still popular.
“Good programming decisions are made, somewhat tautologically, by good programmers, people who have good instincts that are counterintuitive to the general herd,” adds Carlin, the former chief news editor of CBC Television. “They are almost never made by survey.”
That Stursberg wants more news-lite
John Doyle, The Globe and Mail’s TV critic, says CBC is trying to become more commercial. The Corp, he explains, used to be a reliable source for good coverage of Canadian culture. On Newsworld, for example, Nancy Wilson had discussions with the arts and entertainment producer in the studio about the latest Canadian book or film, sometimes interviewing the artists. Now, CBC covers less of the high arts. He believes Newsworld’s The Scene with Jelena Adzec looks almost identical to CTV’s eTalk and Global’s ET Canada, from her Mary Hart–like pose to the “itsy bitsy parts of information” that it broadcasts.
If CBC is taking on the challenge of being more like the commercial broadcasters, then “its challenge is to make sure it’s not dumb,” says Doyle. “You can be slick, sleek, you can be populist, you can be entertaining, but you don’t be dumb, because the CBC audience is not dumb.” He argues some of the network’s arts and entertainment coverage is dumb. He’s noticed a change in the entertainment programming as well, particularly an emphasis on “light pop” and what CBC calls factual entertainment. Shows such as No Opportunity Wasted, Test the Nation and Triple Sensation can be marketed easily, he says, recalling the marketing campaign for No Opportunity Wasted, which saw people rappelling down the side of CBC headquarters. “Instead of saying, ‘Is this show part of what the CBC should be doing as an alternative to commercial broadcasting?’” says Doyle, “the primary concern is: ‘Oh, this is a show where we can do this kind of marketing, we can run an ad, we can reduce it all to a buzzword and get people interested.’ Television sometimes works like that. As to whether the CBC has to, I think is an entirely different question.”
John Cruickshank, the new publisher of CBC News—a position created following Burman’s departure—has a different view. He agrees that CBC does too little arts and entertainment coverage, but contends what it does do is too focused on the high arts. Cruickshank, formerly editor of The Vancouver Sun and chief operating officer of Chicago-based Sun-Times Media Group, goes on to explain he wouldn’t want to lose the focus on high arts, but would like to supplement it with more entertainment.
Would CBC do a book review, not for just two minutes, but bring in the author and have a real discussion?
“Those things are all possible, and there may be times we may pursue the longer form,” replies Cruickshank. “Usually what people are saying when they say ‘serious’ or ‘mandate’ is things should be really, really long. As it turns out, television isn’t a form that is really conducive to really, really long … The complaints I hear about the shortness of items, I think, are kind of goofy, especially on Newsworld.” Cruickshank points out that a 24-hour news channel is “supposed to be short stuff. It’s supposed to be breaking news. It’s supposed to be exciting stuff. People don’t come to it for something long.”
Documentary filmmaker Jon Kalina, who worked on shows such as The Journal, Midday, and Daybreak and continues to do documentaries for the CBC and other networks, says he has the “distinct impression that the CBC is interested in less serious topics.” He believes it has to do with its perception of what the audience wants. “It’s easier to air lighter, more popular [shows] because CBC thinks that people like those things,” he says. “If people like Paris Hilton, let’s give them Paris Hilton.”
In November, CBC aired Doc Zone’s Paris Hilton Inc. But the audience, admits Starowicz, didn’t want it. Not only did Paris Hilton Inc. not get the ratings CBC managers hoped it would but, Starowicz remembers “our own contract manager boycotted it.” That said, Starowicz also points out his documentary department is still doing more serious fare, including Nuclear Jihad, Battle for Bagdad and China Rises, which garnered approximately 760,000 viewers against such stiff competition as Desperate Housewives.
The man who directed Battle for Baghdad and Nuclear Jihad, investigative journalist Julian Sher, a 10-year fifth estate veteran, says that although the doc unit is “an island of sanity; a beacon of hope” for excellent journalism. “There’s not enough airtime, not enough priority given to it.” Sher says when he left the fifth in 2000, there was a flourishing current affairs unit that was getting high numbers and attracted young, engaged journalists: “Now a lot of that is a wasteland. Current affairs doesn’t exist as a current affairs department.” Disclosure is gone and so is Undercurrents. What’s more, says Sher, few of the people he worked with at CBC are there anymore. Their work still airs on the network sometimes, but they don’t work for the Corp because “there are no shows to work for.”
That Stursberg has no overall plan for CBC TV news
A huge frustration for staffers in news and current affairs is continuing management vagueness about its plan for them. “When you find out, let us know!” laughed Renée Pellerin, a producer in charge of special projects at Newsworld, in late January. “Now there’s new leadership, so you would expect things to change,” she says. “We had the same leadership under Tony Burman for a long time. No one knows John Cruickshank like we knew Burman. Managers have told me they have respect for him.”
Adds Studer: “It’s the big unknown. Everybody, including the new CBC president [Hubert Lacroix], says, ‘Can’t wait to see more of your plan, Richard!’ I don’t know—I mean, you hear rumours about everything from a detailed change and cabinet shuffles, and then you hear, ‘No, no, no, it’s just about harmonizing newsgathering,’ which is kind of funny because I thought we already had it.”
On February 20, CBC News announced a reorganization that split the news division into two main areas: programming, run by Jennifer McGuire, who will set the tone and mandate of news programming for all media platforms; and newsgathering, under the leadership of Todd Spencer, whose title will be executive director of news content. It’s an encouraging sign—the two are respected professionals with impressive resumés. McGuire is an award-winning journalist who has been with the Corp since 1988, most recently as executive director of CBC Radio.
Before that, she led the creation of The Current, the popular morning radio show hosted by Anna Maria Tremonti. After joining CBC in 1994, Spencer worked his way up from editorial assistant for national news to become a writer and lineup producer, and helped establish Newsworld’s business unit. He left in 1997 to work in Hong Kong, then joined CNN International as executive producer for the Asia bureau in 1999. He returned to CBC in 2004 as executive director of production and resources.
While there were no immediate clues about what these changes meant, there was uncertainty and anger. The day after the announcement, Stursberg and Cruickshank walked into the main Toronto newsroom around 3 p.m. Stursberg gave a two-minute speech to more than 50 employees. He argued that the restructuring would be good for the network and talked about the need for change at CBC TV. “It sounded like he was saying we don’t work hard enough, that television ratings aren’t high enough,” says a producer who was there. Stursberg claimed there was a tense relationship between radio and TV; that radio was perfect, says the producer, and TV had problems. Mansbridge walked right up to Stursberg and refuted all of his assertions. “That’s horseshit,” he said angrily. A fierce discussion followed. It lasted for at least 30 minutes as the journalists defended what they do and argued about CBC TV’s role. They demanded to know if Stursberg would take money from radio, asked why there was so much entertainment programming and even wanted to know how much money he made.
Stursberg, however, had a different view of the event. “Actually, Peter did not refute anything I said. He refuted something Michael Enright said.”
A day after the heated scene, I ask Studer if employees have a clearer sense of CBC’s big plan. He says all he knows is he’s got a new boss, McGuire, who has a good reputation: “Other than that I don’t know much about the future.”
When I interviewed Esther Enkin in mid-January, she was the deputy editor-in-chief and I wanted to know more about Stursberg’s grand plan.
“Well it’s very early days,” she said. “I have very little to tell you, and what I have to tell you, some of it has to do with competitive edge, so I’m not about to tell you detail, but I’m also going to tell you that it’s very early on and I can’t tell you—not only can’t I tell you because I don’t want to tell you, but because it is a work in progress, there’s not a lot of details that I could share with you. So I’m sorry for that, but that’s where it’s at.”
Enkin talked to me again after the restructuring announce-ment. She now had a new title—executive editor of news— and explained how CBC’s big picture is to connect with more Canadians, to be more available 24 hours a day, to be more responsive to the audience, to offer a broader range of storytelling, to make online content a greater priority, to put as many boots on the street as possible. None of this was new—Stursberg and Cruickshank had said as much months before.
Stursberg is enthusiastic about local news and wants to reinvent it. To do that, CBC will focus on three pillars. First: editorial priorities will be specific to local markets. Second: there will be a multi-platform offering, running on TV, radio, Internet and mobile simultaneously—and increasing cross-promotion. The third pillar is based on citizen journalism. “How we find out the news and report it will be a joint undertaking between us and the people who used to be called the audience,” Stursberg says.
But there must be something more to his plan than local news, which, he explains, is an “important part of total news … Two-thirds of revenue sits in local news.” So I asked Cruickshank. “Richard has been working here for a couple of years developing a plan for CBC News he’s sold to the former president and sold to the board, and I’ve signed up for the plan,” he says. “I think it’s a very good one, a very strong one, and that is to ensure that all of the folks working in news, on new media, radio and television, are communicating fully amongst themselves, that we’re using all of the news we have in the most efficient way possible.”
But how will this efficiency be implemented?
“There’s a very large number of reporters across the country in radio and television,” explains Cruickshank. “It certainly is a matter of maximizing the work that these folks do—and to some extent, rationalizing the work that they do—making certain that we’re not duplicating efforts, that national reporters aren’t doing the same stories as local reporters; that when television reporters can file for radio they do, when radio reporters can take a VJ with them and file for television that they do—that allows us to extend the reach that we have across the country.”
Starowicz told me he suspects there are only five reporters for all of Toronto, I tell Cruickshank, wondering how much more work five reporters can handle.
“That’s an accounting issue more than anything else,” he says. “The issue is: are we harnessing the activities of all of those folks effectively for the Toronto broadcast, or the Vancouver broadcast, or the Calgary broadcast? And the answer today is no, we’re not, so we’ve got to rethink that in a way that we can use all those people doing that work more effectively.” He says just because employees might not be assigned to a local broadcast doesn’t mean they can’t file for newscasts across Canada.
It’s still not clear how the plan will be carried out. “It’s a work in progress,” says Enkin. “Step one was John coming, step one and a half was him enunciating where he wanted to go. Now, step two, he’s put his team together.”
As for Stursberg’s response to the charge he has no overall plan for news, when he replied to us just before press time, he said:“This is also rubbish…We are now moving to the next stage by overhauling our entire newsgathering and programming operations.
Running any major part of CBC is among the most difficult of jobs—and with millions of owners, accusations of bias, budgets constraints, labour disputes, no real political support, technological advances, changing audience tastes and more, Stursberg can only accomplish so much.
To get a better idea of the challenges he faces, I talk to Phyllis Platt, a former CBC director of network programming and executive director of arts and entertainment, now an independent producer, to add the perspective of someone who has seen the view from the top.
If CBC English TV had been non-commercial, she says, it would have made everybody’s life a lot easier. “Sales drives certain agendas—it doesn’t control agendas, but it pushes agendas,” she says, and there are a whole lot of agendas to satisfy, including those of governments, which “tend not to be friends of the CBC.”
Platt believes Stursberg’s dilemma is that for a public broadcaster to survive in this environment, it must attract a significant number of viewers, because, “sooner or later, whatever government of the day is looking around for money to move someplace else, or is in trouble economically, will likely turn its gaze to the CBC and decide, ‘Well, there aren’t enough people supporting it, so now we can get rid of it.’”
She believes Stursberg’s agenda is to build popular support for CBC to a level where its future is more secure. How to do that, Platt concludes, is always tricky.
About the author
Rachel Barsky was the Production Editor for the Summer 2008 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.