Tuesday, August 10, 2010
Why is Managing the CBC So Damn Difficult?
Stursberg was, by all accounts, a demanding boss. But as difficult as he was for his colleagues, he made enormous changes at the CBC that called into question the value of a public broadcaster in the 21st century.
In only six years, Stursberg changed the news and current affairs services of both Radio and Television by popularizing the content of news programs. He hired an American news doctor (Frank Magid and Associates) who brought urgency to newscasts by concentrating on crime reporting at a time when national crime rates are falling. He introduced a new flashiness to television news which gave CBC TV News a remarkable visual similarity to CNN. He removed most classical music from Radio Two and replaced it with more pop music offerings.
Stursberg pushed for mass appeal entertainment shows such as "Little Mosque on the Prairie," "Battle of the Blades" and other similar fare, and he was successful by the standards of commercial broadcasting. Critics claimed that successful ratings were being used to ensure continued government support for the CBC as long as the public broadcaster was more amusing than enlightening.
Stursberg was a hero to those who worked the non-news side of the CBC. But his relations with the CBC Board of Directors was reportedly shaky, even confrontational, especially once his previous mentor, former CBC president Robert Rabinovitch left the corporation three years ago.
Stursberg was ousted despite his ratings successes, in part because he neglected the news and current affairs side of the CBC - regarded by many as the crown jewel of the crown corporation. It was an aspect of public broadcasting that he openly questioned and allegedly disdained, and the feeling was mutual.
Like senior managers in many news organizations, power and control once achieved, are difficult to convey downward. Without buy-in from the troops, even the most brilliant manager is doomed to fail.
In the especially skeptical culture of news, staffers are frequently and openly unimpressed by bosses - a legacy of a strong union tradition in many media organizations. Power and control are antithetical in news cultures; they are more easily exercised and communicated in other more hierarchical organizations.
CBC's strength is that it has an excellent cadre of journalists, editors, producers and managers. They are the ones who understand the deepest values of broadcast journalism and convey the passion and the obligations that great journalism requires. Stursberg was never able to connect with that aspect of the CBC.
Ironically, as CBC became more successful in terms of ratings, the clarity of purpose of the organization became more confused. There is a new audience of online visitors, and that is a good thing and a positive legacy of the Stursberg years. But like many media organizations, the quest for the holy cyber-grail of news audiences is pursued, without knowing whether or how the enormous amounts of time and money spent in pursuit of that goal will pay off. Too often, on air attempts by the CBC to connect with an internet-based audience feels more like pandering to them than engaging with them.
Richard Stursberg's departure came about because his vision for the CBC and the traditional mission of public service became increasingly irreconcilable. Inevitably, these competing visions were bound to clash. Managers who ignore that reality do so at their peril.
Managing in public broadcasting, it is said, is like herding cats. It can be difficult, often exasperating, but not completely impossible. There are moments when it can even be quite satisfying. But it can also break your heart and end a career.