Editor's note: This profile of Richard Stursberg was published in June, 2008. Writer Jennifer Wells won a National Newspaper Award in the arts and entertainment category for this piece.
Richard Stursberg smoothly glides through the sky-busting atrium of the CBC building, heading toward the sleekly tall Carole MacNeil, who stands, smiling, sunglasses perched on head. He brushes a kiss upon her cheek, a gift that MacNeil, co-host of CBC News: Sunday and Stursberg's "girlfriend" - his word - rises ever so slightly on the toe of one black patent pump to receive.
Taking the stage, the vice-president of English-language services for CBC radio and television smiles down upon his people. Diana Swain in a pantsuit as white as a nun's wimple. Heather Hiscox in a white-and-wheat ensemble. A spiky-haired Wendy Mesley in jeans. (Go Wendy.) The CBC-TV personalities are identified by name cards that have been placed on the tabletops. The presence of the cards is rather off-note, for one of Richard Stursberg's self-defined missions has been to transform his roster of hosts into stars needing no such identifiers.
Stursberg, up there on the stage, appears immensely comfortable, immensely pleased. To understand why this is so, you have to understand what, in Stursberg's view, the CBC is all about. "In the past, people had different views as to what the appropriate role of the CBC was," he will say in an interview. "While it's certainly true to say that the CBC is a cultural organization, we take the view that the biggest cultural challenge facing English Canadians is ultimately our failure to produce entertainment shows, Canadian shows that Canadians actually want to watch."
By this measure, Stursberg says the CBC is on "a very big roll." He's liking the public broadcaster's numbers, particularly a 7.8-per-cent prime-time share on CBC-TV, beating Global Television in the crucial post-suppertime hours. Across several conversations, he returns to this central theme: that the winning game at the CBC is about creating "popular programming" for television viewers. Prodded to come up with a more overarching vision for a multimedia broadcaster that is much deeper and broader than prime-time TV - seeding such words as "citizenship," "civil society" and "cultural excellence" into the conversation proves to be of no help - Stursberg replies, "I don't know why people want to sort of say the CBC has some high-art role. I don't quite understand that. The Canada Council is there to fund the high arts."
Inside the Mother Corp., it is Stursberg's job to steer a large, diverse constituency. There are high notes of anxiety in some quarters. Fear. Distrust. And proclamations of distaste for what they see as his imperious manner. "Trudeauesque," says one.
How does he feel he's being perceived within, say, the news department? "I would say that I think the news department is, um, thinking about me. I don't think they dislike me. I don't think they like me." Radio? "I think they've been actually pleasantly surprised to find out that I'm not the great Satan."
From his stage-centre vantage point in late May, Stursberg played to an audience gathered for the unveiling of the TV network's fall schedule. The main message: "We succeed when our content reaches and resonates with the broadest cross-section of the greatest number of Canadians."
For that to be proved to be commercially true, Stursberg must continually amass eyeballs: Viewership begets advertising. This explains why the Canadian-centric investigative consumer report Marketplace - a show that carries no commercials - is being pushed aside in the fall season to make way for the resolutely American game show Jeopardy!, a show that bears an exclamation mark.
This would also explain the incongruity of the scene before us, with Stursberg reassuring the crowd that the CBC remains "the most important cultural institution in Canada," while the button-eyed Alex Trebek looks on, well, gamely. In an interview, Stursberg responds this way to critics who see Jeopardy, or rather Jeopardy!, as nothing but artery-clogging junk: "The only reason we put American shows on in the first instance is to generate revenue. ... For every extra dollar of margin we can generate out of a show like Jeopardy!, it just means an extra dollar we can put into Canadian programming. It's not as though the money is going anywhere else."
Is this the slippery slope?
Marc Raboy is the Beaverbrook Chair in Ethics, Media and Communications at McGill University. "The CBC is doing some commercial programming that is simply aimed at getting the eyeballs in order to get advertising dollars," Raboy observes. "I think it has a downward-spiral effect. I think it has a perverse effect on the whole programming ethos."
'A COWBOY SOMETIMES'
"The CBC is so vast. It's like a country. Every month I find something new."
Richard Stursberg is on the move, having suddenly issued a "Come with me" directive, exiting his seventh-floor office, heading down to the lobby, then hopping an escalator to the archival bowels of the corporation where the cool stuff resides. Not the gun collection, about which Stursberg was recently informed, and which, he says, ranges from muskets to modern. And not Rusty and Jerome, who left in a huff months ago. But Joyce Hahn's shoes. "I know it sounds weird," says Stursberg, "but the interesting thing is, she was tiny."
And there they are, teeny tiny black-leather DeMarco three-inch pumps, size 4B. "She was beautiful," says Stursberg of the star of Cross-Canada Hit Parade a half-century ago. "She was a great singer. She was a fantastic dancer."
The signposts are everywhere connoting the CBC's role in the creation of, for lack of a better term, Canadian culture, not least in the form of the diminutive Ms. Hahn, born 1929 in Eatonia, for Pete's sake, the Saskatchewan town named after Timothy E. himself.
This is the archival foundation of Richard Stursberg's empire, which extends coast to coast to coast and embraces roughly 4,700 employees and a budget of close to $800-million. Big picture, he aims to make the public broadcaster more commercial and more accountable. Frame by frame, he has recorded a seemingly endless reel of contentious decision-making. Most recently, the CBC failed to renew the rights to the Hockey Nightin Canada theme. "Was the jingle a nice jingle? Yeah, certainly it was," he says. "Were we disappointed to have it taken away? Sure. But on the other hand, it's something that's not going to make any difference to Hockey Night in Canada. People come to Hockey Night in Canada because they're coming for the hockey. They're not coming to listen to the jingle."
In an earlier interview, Stursberg defined as "colossal" the rights-holders' demand for between $2.5- and $3-million to secure clear title to Dunt-da-DUNT-da-dunt. "We're kind of damned if you do, damned if you don't," he said. "If we don't conclude the deal because we're not prepared to pay too much money, then people say, oh, you lost the jingle. But then if we pay too much money, we get trashed for paying too much money."
Skip back a step and you arrive at the moment last winter when the CBC sold off the U.S. and international rights to more than 1,000 hours of television "product" - Heartland, The Border - and a further 1,000 hours of television shows produced in-house to ContentFilm PLC of Britain. The sale came as a surprise, to say the least, to domestic distributors. "It wasn't proper and it wasn't right," says Peter Emerson, president of Oasis International, a film distributor based in Toronto.
In January, Stursberg fanned the flames by telling Carol Off, in an interview on CBC Radio's As it Happens, that Canadian companies did not have the reach, the financing, or the catalogue to be able to effectively sell the CBC properties abroad. "The absurdity of that is he was putting his library to a company that is not bigger than my own," counters Emerson. "If he was talking about Disney or Warner Brothers or Universal, then we wouldn't have taken up that fight. But he wasn't. He was doing a backdoor deal with ContentFilm."
Stursberg told Off that there was no need for a public bidding process because the deal was "below the tendering limits." When I ask him to clarify the financial threshold that would have compelled public tender, he responds thusly: "The way it works is, the signing authorities are delegated by the board to the president and the president to me. It fell way below my signing authority in terms of the value of it. We don't have any particular requirement in any of our policies to take any of that stuff to public tender."
This seems a cavalier approach to the management of CBC assets, regardless of their commercial value. It also goes against what is meant to be the corporate mantra of the day: Transparency is in, in, in. Does he have any regrets as to the way the matter was handled? "Not particularly."
Notes of self-assurance are easy to detect. Admirers and detractors alike say that Stursberg holds himself in high regard, that he adheres to a deeply rooted intellectual view of what he needs to do, that he is both sincerely motivated and ruthlessly effective at plan execution. The outstanding question: Is the plan the right plan?
"Richard's a cowboy sometimes," says Laszlo Barna, president of Barna-Alper Productions Inc., the production house behind Céline, the upcoming CBC biopic on Celine Dion. "He's a very logical person. If he's taken with the logic of what he does, he doesn't much care in terms of what's popular and what's not popular. He follows his reasoning, and from time to time that's gotten him into a little bit of trouble."
MULTIMILLION DOLLAR CEO
In one way, Stursberg is a child of the CBC, and in another he is not. He did not grow up watching Joyce Hahn singing You've Got the Love live in prime time. Nor was he raised on The Friendly Giant and the big guy's gentle sidekicks, Rusty and Jerome. Speaking last month on the future of the BBC in the wake of yet another report on the future of Britain's public broadcaster, the writer-producer-actor-humorist Stephen Fry spoke of the "fierce attachment to the broadcasting we grew up with" and how the BBC was "deeply stitched" into his being. (Fry remains bitter about having missed the second episode of Doctor Who, broadcast in 1963.)
The CBC was not stitched early into Stursberg's being. His preadolescent years were spent free of Canada's public broadcaster, in Parkway Village, the postwar collection of residential housing constructed by the United Nations in Queens, N.Y. Stursberg's father, Peter, was the CBC's correspondent at the U.N. Richard attended the United Nations International School - "They didn't want children having to pledge allegiance to the American flag and all that jazz," he says. He not only coveted, but owned, the Davy Crockett coonskin cap and sang along to the Mickey Mouse Club song. "I was in love with Annette Funicello," he says of the perky brunette in the bullet bra. "Who was not?"
His first remembrance of the CBC is rooted in the early sixties, after the Stursbergs moved to Ottawa. "I was watching the CBC and they had a show, a play, Mr. Sycamore. And the gist of it is that it's about a man who's tired of the hurly-burly of life and so he decided that what he's going to do by way of solving this, he's going to dig himself a hole and he's going to plant himself in the hole, and he's going to transform himself into a sycamore tree."
It sounds dark and Beckett-like. Stursberg says that was not the case.
Stursberg ultimately made his way in Ottawa by tacking a bureaucrat's course, including time as assistant deputy minister, culture and broadcasting; as president of the Canadian Cable Television Association; and latterly in the private sector, as head of legal and governmental affairs at Unitel. His career-turning moment, at least in financial terms, dates to 1999, when he took on the job of chief executive officer at direct-to-home satellite provider Star Choice Communications Inc. It was Stursberg who steered the merger of Star Choice with Canadian Satellite Communications Inc., or Cancom.
"From a technical point of view, it was a great merger," says Anil Amlani, who was hand-picked by Stursberg to be the combined company's chief financial officer. "Cancom sold to cable companies, and Star Choice sold to consumers, and both of them had separate transponders. If you combine the company and get a single transponder, you get a tremendous amount of savings. ... That was one of his biggest accomplishments."
Stursberg's fan base at Cancom was nurtured by the riches reaped by the executive team. "When I joined the company, the stock was $17.50," says Amlani. "It went up to $57 and Shaw [Communications]bought it out at $63. Investors were excited. Ecstatic."
According to corporate filings, the potential value of Stursberg's share options when the stock was sitting at just under $30 was more than $7-million. "We ran the stock price up, more than quadrupled it actually," Stursberg says, declining to quantify his ultimate take. "I did okay. It was very nice. ... It allows you to go and do other things. Like be here."
"Here" is the seat of Stursberg's empire, a tastefully appointed office - art by Attila Richard Lukacs, Angela Grossman - appropriately adorned by an outsized TV screen tuned to CBC. Stursberg removes his suit jacket. He rolls up his shirt sleeves. He grasps his right knee between his hands, rocking back in his chair. His silver hair is combed back. The two side-by-side Mexican silver rings he sports on his right hand seem curiously West Coast laid-back for a man of his seemingly uptown tastes.
It has been seven months since Stursberg's job as executive vice-president in charge of English television was redefined as executive vice-president English services, encompassing CBC Radio and CBC.ca. As such, he is shaping the future of public broadcasting in Canada, perhaps unalterably.
In March, the corporation axed the CBC Vancouver Orchestra, the last of its kind. For Stursberg, this is a clear cost issue, the resolution for which lies in the outsourcing strategy he has deployed throughout the organization. "The problem is, it costs about $750,000 a year to run it. We said to ourselves, we can do that, or we could record with a bunch of other orchestras and not retain our own." What can't be calculated is whether there will be a cultural cost for reordering the corporation's DNA in this way.
Over time, Stursberg's thinking as to the nature of public broadcasting has shifted. Barry Kiefl, who was research director at the CBC from 1983 to 2001 and now runs his own company, Canadian Media Research Inc., says that once upon a time Stursberg expressed the view that the broadcaster was too reliant on sports, too reliant on commercial activity, and should reposition itself into a "true" public broadcaster, à la PBS.
"There was a point in time," Stursberg agrees, "when I thought perhaps it would have been a good idea for the CBC not to be so heavily involved in sports. That just betrayed the fact that my grip on the economics of the organization was not as strong as it should be." Key to Stursberg's grace of conversion is the realization that it would cost him "a ton of dough" to fill up all those hockey hours, "and then I would lose money on every single property."
The revenue battle today is engaged on an ever-shifting digital landscape. Recall a moment not all that long ago, but before the dawn of video on demand, when The Beachcombers drew two million viewers. "It was attracting this mass audience for programming that, if you saw it today, you'd say 'How in hell did anyone ever watch it?' " says Kiefl. "But TV was pretty compelling back then in its form."
That mass audience is no more. Today, as Kiefl points out, 500,000 sets of eyeballs is deemed a success. Stursberg has overseen the axing of shows - jPod, Intelligence - that displayed great promise but couldn't meet that benchmark. Little Mosque on the Prairie, on the other hand, has proved a hit and will be returning in the fall.
"I'll tell you what cultural product is," says Laszlo Barna. "Cultural product is when you depart from programming trends because you have other priorities in terms of the nation's storytelling. It doesn't mean indulge yourself in irrelevant, obscure, unpopular little films. In this sense, I think Richard has got it absolutely right. The two have to go together. You can't call something cultural product when nobody's watching it."
Buying Jeopardy! is an age-old broadcaster's trick aimed at wooing and then migrating viewers. "The theory is they're going to use Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! as an audience draw to hand over to their Canadian programming," says Barna, who has made a career out of producing quintessentially Canadian television movies - the FLQ crisis; the Sue Rodriguez story. "I hate to give up those slots to those shows, okay? Are they wrong? Are they right? I dunno. Time will tell."
In Stursberg's view, original Canadian programming offers a delicious revenue-building opportunity. "Because we make our own shows, or commission our own shows, we can build advertisers in from the beginning," he says. The trend of allowing advertisers into what Hollywood director Cameron Crowe called "the tent" has been on the march for the better part of a decade both in film and TV. Think: product placement. "What you find gets the high numbers is easily-appealing subjects: a baby; a big, broad joke; a high concept," Crowe told The New York Times in 1997.
Can quality programming that, as the CBC likes to say, "matters to Canadians," thrive in such an environment? Stursberg appears serene in responding to the concerns of such creative types as Crowe. "Did Cameron not think they were in the tent already? What planet is Cameron living on?"
In fact Stursberg appears serene in all of his judgments. Says a documentary producer, of the storm that Stursberg has kicked up around himself: "He revels in it."
Through two lengthy in-person interviews and two telephone chats, Richard Stursberg has put on display his passion for the CBC and the ways and means by which it must be remade.
"The way we put it to ourselves," explains Strusberg, "is we say, 'We have to stop thinking about ourselves as a radio company, or a TV company. We have to think of ourselves as a content company.' " This is not revolutionary talk, at least not outside of the CBC. Virtually all media companies are seeking ways to integrate what everyone now refers to as "content," delivering it across different "platforms." McGill's Raboy notes that the BBC has been masterful at this.
But underpinning the strategy of integration must lie the bedrock principle for the corporation, which in Raboy's view is this: "I think the CBC has a role to play in fostering public understanding, awareness and debate on the important questions of concern to Canadians. That sounds as though I'm talking about information programming, but it can also be done through entertainment programming as well. That's why we have a public broadcaster."
On the information-programming side, Stursberg speaks abstractly about a "more integrated news-gathering set of structures," and practically about plans to physically combine, say, the radio- and TV-news teams onto the same floor at CBC headquarters, which should prove an interesting cultural challenge in itself.
How that will translate for the television viewer is far less clear. "What does that mean for a news environment that is breaking continuously? You obviously have to be there all the time. ... What does it mean when you have a show like The National? Everybody already knows the news in some sense before they get there. Very interesting question."
The diaphanous answers on the news side quickly give way to a return to an exposition on entertainment programming. "As we've been pushing in a much more broadly populist direction ... a lot of people say, 'Well, aren't you dumbing down?' which I find an unbelievably patronizing kind of thing to say. We would say we would like to make more popular entertainments. ... It's as though they don't actually watch television. They don't watch what constitutes successful television."
Could this signal a lack of engagement in the news side of the file? Stursberg answers some questions with precision: He says there is no truth to the rumour that CBC News: Sunday, co-hosted by MacNeil and Evan Solomon, is on the block. And he rejects the suggestion that he asked Tony Burman, the former editor-in-chief of English-language news, to make cuts that he refused to make. "No, I didn't ask Tony Burman to make cuts that he would not make. In fact, as I mentioned, the top line for news has remained constant throughout the entire time I've been here. When we went to return to local news, Tony was in charge of local news and Tony agreed with that."
According to one former CBC insider, Stursberg referred to news as "the black hole" of spending. Beefing up local news coverage, which has been a Stursberg directive, logically must translate into cuts elsewhere within the division. Stursberg won't say where. Burman left last summer, and could not be reached for comment.
Last September, a group of more than two dozen managers gathered to hear the news that John Cruickshank, former publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times, had been named as Burman's replacement. A question was asked of Stursberg: How should the corporation respond to media queries about why someone with no experience in radio and television had been hired to fill such an essential post? To which Stursberg is said to have replied: "Well, I was hired as vice-president for television and I have no experience creating television programs." It is believed that Stursberg intended to sprinkle the moment with a dusting of levity. Instead, he was met with Kremlinesque silence.
DON CHERRY, ANNE BOLEYN
Sunlight is splashing through the CBC atrium. Strusberg is pumped. Upbeat. "We're right in the midst of the selling season," he says enthusiastically. "There's lots of interesting things going on."
The other day, the broadcaster played host to the advertising community. A few cocktails. The opportunity to dress up in Henry VIII's togs and pose for a Tudors photo.
Outsized photographs of the CBC's stars have been posted on the lobby walls. David Suzuki. Peter Mansbridge. Don Cherry.
Stursberg stops to remark upon these images, which he wants to show off in order to make a point. Notice the intriguingly placed CBC logo on the shoulder of Natalie Dormer, a.k.a. The Tudors' Anne Boleyn. And there, on Sophie's apples.
To the visitors who drift through this space, the logo placements will seem nothing more than whimsically placed exploding Cs.
Are the logos meant to signal how branded the shows can be?
"Yes," crows Stursberg, his voice rising high and light. "Absolutely. And that we can work with the advertiser to integrate them into how we evolve the shows."
Stursberg appears inestimably happy and at home here. It's as if he's been handed the best job ever. He asks a question, seeking no answer: "Who hasn't always loved the CBC?"
The word, from Richard Stursberg
On CBC choosing not to renew the rights
to the Hockey Night in Canada theme song:
Was the jingle a nice jingle? Yeah, certainly it was.
Were we disappointed to have it taken away? Sure.
But on the other hand, it's something that's not going to make any difference to Hockey Night in Canada.
People come to Hockey Night in Canada because
they're coming for the hockey. They're not coming
to listen to the jingleOn selling the U.S. and international rights to more than 1,000 hours of television product, including The Border, and 1,000
more hours of television shows produced in-house,
to ContentFilm PLC of Britain:
The way it works is, the signing authorities are delegated by the board to the president and
the president to me. It fell way below my signing authority in terms of the value of it. We don't have
any particular requirement in any of our policies
to take any of that stuff to public tender.
On why the investigative consumer-report show Marketplace
is being pushed aside in the fall season to make way for
the resolutely American game show, Jeopardy!
The only reason we put American shows on
in the first instance is to generate revenue. ... For every extra dollar of margin we can generate out of a show like Jeopardy!, it just means an extra dollar
we can put into Canadian programming.
It's not as though the money is going anywhere else.
A declining share
"One of the problems that faces the CBC today is that it has lost its importance in the market," says Barry Kiefl, the CBC's research director from 1983 to 2001, and now president of his own firm, Canadian Media Research Inc. Earlier this month, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission released a report it commissioned from CMRI on audience measurement. Kiefl's data show declines in the CBC's audience share of all Canadian programs (see graphic below). "I believe that now is the time to seriously evaluate what the role of the CBC television service is," says Kiefl, who favours a hybrid model: akin to PBS, but with advertising that would be restricted largely to sports programming.
CBC-TV (including Newsworld)
Canadian private TV
Canadian pay and specialty
Percentages may not add up to 100 due to rounding
THE GLOBE AND MAIL : SOURCE: CMRI
Where the money comes from
The CBC English Services budget (excluding the Olympics) for 2008-09 is $773-million - $632-million for television, $141-million for radio.
Comes from the federal government
Is generated from advertising
Comes from subscriber fees
Is made from syndication sales
Derives from other self-generated revenues
Comes from the federal government
Comes from self-generated revenues