CBC's Richard Stursberg era: Swapping quality for numbers

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New school year. New TV season.

For CBC, that means launching Over the Rainbow next week, its Canadian franchise of a British reality show, seeking a Dorothy and Toto for the Toronto version of a U.K. stage knockoff of the 1939 Hollywood movie, The Wizard of Oz, based on an American precursor novel to Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.

CBC is promoting it strongly, including 'news' items on its 'newscasts.' This is the fruit of CBC's Stursberg era, though Richard Stursberg himself was ejected in 2010, after running the English networks since 2004. He published a book last spring justifying his regime. Since arguing about the CBC is as primal a Canadian cultural activity as watching it, here goes.

Stursberg says he entered the lists at CBC to heroically battle against its entrenched "elitism." He says it's trapped in a bind because it's "supposed to make popular Canadian shows for all taxpayers," but also "is supposed to make shows for elites." Now it's not hard to win an argument when you get to frame it yourself. That's the technique used by top government bureaucrats (accurately depicted on TV in Yes, Minister), which is how Stursberg got his start.

But you won't find anyone who ever actually said the CBC ought to produce for the elites, even if there once were those who felt it should make stuff to 'raise' the cultural level of the masses. Call that condescending if you want but they weren't in it for themselves and it's bogus to say they were.

Stursberg says he went into his post with only "one idea. Audiences matter." He claims -- more framing here -- that he alone held that bold view. He says he aimed for "great Canadian content" and "We would know whether we won or lost based on whether Canadians watched . . ." But hold on. Anyone sentient, and especially anyone sentient who watches TV, knows you can get similar numbers for fine shows and for garbage. Big audiences come with and without taste. Here's where you start to see Stursberg's real problem. The guy, as Steve Jobs said about Microsoft, simply has no taste.

Want evidence? Stursberg cites Friends as a quality show that got big audiences. But Friends was seldom perceptive about human nature or society -- unlike, say, Two and a Half Men (before Charlie left) or Big Bang Theory. Among crime shows, he praises Castle. Castle! Maybe he really does think only eyeballs matter.

Yet NCIS has far better numbers than Castle, plus writing and character, for which Stursberg seems to have no ear. In Canada, he admired CTV's Corner Gas, but gave us CBC's Little Mosque on the Prairie, a one-note show with no sign of subtext, which people watched to feel daring or socially conscientious. It can't have been for fun or insight. I know these judgments are debatable and I'd love to debate them. That's the point. It's never just about audience size.

Or take what he did to CBC news. He spins a good yarn but try watching it. He says it used to be filled (quoting Star publisher John Cruickshank) with news "takers" instead of "news breakers." So what did we get after Stursberg courageously stormed and occupied "Fort News"? Reporters standing in expensive, rebuilt studios describing stories they're "tracking," i.e., lifting from newspapers and other networks -- or At Issue panels on The National, telling us what to think about stories they haven't covered.

He deploys other Yes Minister tricks, like wit, misdirection and implying that he created things that were already there, like Andy Barrie's morning radio show, which actually took the opposite route. It built quality, hoping audiences would follow, as they did, rather than assuming numbers automatically mean quality.

I get the feeling Stursberg wishes he'd been a movie mogul like Harry Cohn, the legendary Hollywood bastard and studio head. The tipoff is that he loves to recount brilliant ideas he had for shows, which nobody was smart enough to make.

But Cohn never called himself a public servant. He served himself. Or said his aim was making quality films, even if he sometimes did. And he never ever claimed to be Prince Valiant. Only in Canada.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Rick Chung/Flickr

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