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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Why is Managing the CBC So Damn Difficult?

The recent departure (removal?) of Richard Stursberg as Executive VP of CBC Radio, TV and Online is being viewed in the usual manner of these things: some inside the shop are relieved; others are defending Stursberg's achievement of high ratings for popular entertainment shows, especially on the television side.

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.


  1. What do you think about Hubert Lacroix's most recent note about Stursberg's departure. He says "there is nothing (and I mean nothing) in our current programming strategies that I don’t stand by: so, those out there who think this is in any way a repudiation of where we stand today will be disappointed big time."

    the full note is here:

  2. Dude. Little Mosque as “mass entertainment”? For a “mass” audience as illusory as the characters on the show?

  3. "Like senior managers in many news organizations, power and control once achieved, are difficult to convey downward."

    "Downward"? As a long time, award-winning (hopefully humble and altruistic)journalist and broadcaster with the CBC (now freelancing - so I guess I'm free to say what I think) this is one phrase that rankled. This concept that managers are looking 'downward' at the creatives: the artists; writers, journalists, producers, broadcasters - frankly - the people that Canadians relate to AS the CBC - bugs me. We've lost a concept - already on the wane when I was a 'cub reporter' with CBC in 1985....the 60's and 70's were what some would call the 'golden age' in Canada culturally of the National Film Board and the CBC of news, current affairs, documentary film, arts and culture being right up there with the other natural resources and imperatives of our community: that artists, writers, and creatives were deserving of an equal place - or at least a voice - in decision-making in management and on boards of CBC and other cultural organizations. Not disimilar to my family doctor who told me recently that doctors and nurses used to be much higher in the 'org chart' of hospitals and health authorities before they became corporatized entities that were completely divorced from the front lines of healing, health care and medicine. Is health care delivery improving? Are we better informed now? We used to have a world-famous National Film Board ..and reporters who could dig for a month...and not be distracted by the latest drive-by shooting. I totally get the reality of media fragmentation and the need to keep an audience...and the opportunities of social media; but what I've observed is that when the US news media started to pander to ratings....we got independent filmmakers spring up who started giving us: Roger and Me; Bowling for Columbine; The Corporation; Supersize Me; Sicko; The Cove;....(there were a few Academy Award winners in there).There will always be an audience for probitive, independent, investigative, artful journalism. It would be nice if our national broadcaster realized that - and instead of hiring 'Magid'consultants from the US - which everyone who had to go through this ridiculous 'training' called 'Maggots' - and gave us back a voice in deciding what direction we should move in - both from a compelling, socially relevant and community-minded, story-telling perspective - and a view to bringing back an audience. Maybe it could be a win-win. My Modest Proposal. By the way, even though I only worked for him for about a year in the CBC national radio newsroom - Jeffrey Dvorkin was a great CBC manager!

  4. "He removed most classical music from Radio Two and replaced it with more pop music offerings."

    That's not really what happened and it's not really "pop music," or at least in terms of what is known as pop music in North America at all. It's mostly Canadian indie music and indepedenent singer-songwriters that previoiusly were getting extremely little air play on our public broadcaster, and pretty much none anywhere else. This despite the fact that Canada's indie music scene is huge and internationally recognized.

  5. It's true the CBC hasn't figured out how to effectively connect with its internet-based audience. But they're not alone in their inability to decide how to use social media in broadcasts.

    I don't think any network has fully figured out the most effective way to use social media, and until then, we won't really know to what extent we can use it to enhance the quality of information in news broadcasts, or even if that's possible!

  6. To respond: Paul, I am sure that Mr. Lacroix means what he says I am would not gainsay him. Now is an opportunity to revisit the CBC mandate to see if indeed the public broadcaster is doing what it should.
    Joe Clark: I think that LMOTP was/is mass entertainment. The ratings were solid. Not as many as HNIC, but so what?
    Anonymous: No comment.
    Jason Paris: You are right and I should have referred to the genre as "indie." Not my cup of tea especially in the am, but there should be room for all. The question about music is not, I repeat, about personal preference but about how programming values serve the core audience and core values of pubcasting in Canada. The over-reliance on "indie" does not because that's not how the CBC audience is best served. Surveys tell us that the target audience for indie music is online, not over the air.
    Sachin Seth: We've talked about this and the search for the most effective use of new and social media esp. in pubcasting is still being discovered. My guess is that you'll be the one to figure it out...

  7. Keep in mind that most of RS's "successes" were put into play by the previous administration. His specific programming successes were buying The Tudors, Wheel of Fortune etc and....???