The Tower of Babble: Sins, Secrets and Successes Inside the CBC

By Richard Stursberg
Douglas & McIntyre, November 30, 2011, $32.95

When Richard Stursberg took over as head of English services at the CBC in July 2004, he was determined to set a new course for the Mother Corp’s television operations. As far as he was concerned, CBC TV was plagued by elitism, mediocrity and, worst of all, indifference to its audience. Stursberg launched a new strategy to attract viewers by providing programming that was above all else entertaining. “There would be only one measure for success: audiences,” he writes in his new memoir, The Tower of Babble: Sins, Secrets and Successes Inside the CBC. “Everything would be pinned on rebuilding the audiences.”

As he looked around for ways to implement this new strategy, his eyes fell on a docu-drama already in production about the 1970 FLQ crisis. In his view the show was going to be everything he hated about the “old” CBC. “It felt news-like, fact-oriented and not very entertaining,” Stursberg writes. “Besides, the events had taken place almost 35 years earlier. The only people who could remember them were more than 55 years old, hardly the demographic that was going to renew the CBC.”

At this point Stursberg had what he calls “a great brainwave” but what I can only describe as a great brain cramp. He approached the producer of the program with his idea: the events of October 1970 should be re-staged just as they happened but in the present. Less docu, more drama. Instead of history it would be fiction, and therefore “immediately more relevant,” at least to Stursberg. “The promise of the series would be that these things really happened, but now it’s not just boring old history, it’s of the moment.”

Where to start? This story, intended by Stursberg to show how hidebound the CBC was when he took over, is depressing in several ways. First of all, it confirms that my public broadcaster has abandoned me because I am too old (something I’ve been suspecting every time I turn on Jian Ghomeshi anyway). Second, it means that the CBC has no interest in “boring old history”; that is, anything that happened before the current crop of twenty-somethings came of age. The only people thought to be interested in an event are the people who lived through it. But most important, as his comments make clear, Stursberg has no sympathy at all for the objectives of public broadcasting. The real question his book raises is not why he was fired, which he was in August 2010, but how the hell he got the job in the first place.

Stursberg begins his book by laying out the problem as he saw it when he took over his new position. Canadians were not watching their own television programs. All the most popular shows were American. (Not so for radio, but that is a different subject.) “The truth is that English Canada’s situation is unique in the industrialized world,” he writes. “Nowhere else… do the citizens overwhelmingly prefer the television shows of a foreign country.” Now, there are good reasons for this — chiefly the fact that Canada shares a language with and an immediate proximity to the American media empire, a situation that does not afflict France or Italy or any of the other countries Stursberg cites. Of course we are going to be swamped by “foreign” programming.

But no, Stursberg believed that the only reason not enough Canadians were watching CBC television was that the programs were so awful. Having identified the problem, he set out to solve it by adopting a straightforward strategy: make programs that attract viewers. In his opinion, the size of the audience is the only thing that matters. He is essentially an accountant. He counts numbers. For Stursberg, quality is an elitist term, a four-letter word. Let the audience decide. If a show is popular, then it is by definition good. The only way to determine quality is to count the number of people who are willing to watch. Everything else, he says, is “self-absorption and entitlement.” Public broadcasting is really just a case of doing the math.

As he set about transforming the CBC in his own image, it is difficult to tell who Stursberg disdained more, his employees or his board of directors. In his telling, both conspired to keep him from achieving his grand plan and both come in for heavy criticism in his book. First, the employees. Shortly after he began his job, the corporation became locked in a labour dispute with its workforce, most of whom were represented by the Canadian Media Guild. The most important issue was the use of contract labour. Stursberg argues that rapidly changing technology required a more skilled and “flexible” labour force; i.e., he needed the option to use more contract workers. The union reasonably supposed that this was an assault on job security and bargaining rights. After making the (dubious) point that the CBC shouldn’t be unionized to begin with because unions strangle creativity, Stursberg describes how he decided to lock his employees out rather than wait for them to strike. It was a matter of timing: he assumed the union would wait for the autumn and the beginning of the hockey season, when a strike would inflict maximum damage on the corporation, so he acted first, locking them out in mid-August. In Stursberg’s version of events, the lockout ended in victory for the corporation. The union, naturally, does not agree. I’ll leave that debate to the experts. What I was struck by in Stursberg’s account was his condescending, at times sneering, attitude toward his own workforce. It is no wonder he found himself the target of so much dislike within the corporation.

As for the board of directors, Stursberg describes them as a group of patronage appointees with no experience in media who barely watch any television at all. His favourite whipping boy is Peter Herrndorf, a board member, perhaps because Herrndorf actually does know something about the media, having been a television executive and a magazine publisher. Stursberg describes Herrn­dorf as “a guy with a reputation for wanting to be liked by everyone,” not something you would ever accuse Stursberg of. But Herrndorf’s greatest sin was being too fond of consensus, another of the book’s four-letter words. Stursberg much preferred to manage by diktat and intimidation.

In Stursberg’s telling, he is always the smartest person in the room. He suffers from an over-developed sense of his own worth and writes with considerable, and off-putting, arrogance. His book is basically about how he tried to save the CBC from the elitist highbrows who dominated it, only to be dumped by an ignorant board of directors before he could complete his far-sighted revolution.

But personalities aside, there is a fundamental problem with Stursberg’s mantra that only size matters. “If not audiences,” he asks, “then what?” Well, what about that dreaded word quality? During his term, Stursberg filled the television schedule with shows like Battle of the Blades, Dragon’s Den and MVP, a soap opera about hockey players and their girlfriends, all shows that undeniably were popular but also shows that were simply Canadian versions of programs that were already available on the commercial channels. Stursberg wanted to make the CBC popular by making it look like everyone else. But if it becomes like everyone else, then why bother to have it at all? The conundrum seems to be that if the CBC accepts Stursberg’s standard of success, it may be ensuring its own irrelevance and ultimate demise.

The CBC is in need of a champion to fight for its survival against a government that is obviously hostile to public broadcasting. Possibly Stursberg sees his book as a manifesto in support of that fight. But after reading The Tower of Babble I’d say that with friends like him, public broadcasting doesn’t need any enemies.—Daniel Francis

This review first appeared in Geist Magazine.