CBC Insider tells all in new book

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

Richard Stursberg

Douglas & McIntyre, 341 pages, $20.65

Reviewed by Bob Tarantino

In public appearances promoting his book The Tower of Babble: Sins, Secrets and Successes Inside the CBC, Richard Stursberg describes with a sly sort of relish a recent article in Toronto Life magazine, a publication which strives to serve as both social mirror and instruction manual for members of “the Constituency” (Stursberg’s arch term for the “serious people” who are the CBC’s core audience). The article, about Kirstine Stewart, Stursberg’s successor as executive vice-president of the CBC in charge of English-language services, peevishly notes that Stewart is an improvement on Stursberg, in the same sense that Khrushchev was an improvement on Stalin. The line inevitably garners a laugh from the audience: who could compare this rather genial man, even in jest, to one of history’s true monsters?

Such is the fate of those who would question orthodoxy when it comes to running the CBC. The Constituency has a catechism, and those who sing from a different hymn book, as it were, are frowned upon. Within the world of CBC true believers, Richard Stursberg’s tenure as the man in charge of what engages the eyes and ears of CBC viewers and listeners constitutes a time when the barbarians had stormed the gates and stood atop the parapets, berating the cowed inhabitants of Fortress CBC. Online invocations of Stursberg’s name still seem inevitably accompanied by hisses and jeers from those who rue his legacy. But the man was and remains a CBC enthusiast and an ardent fan of those who work there, describing “some of the most gifted, dedicated, and imaginative programmers” in the country. The acrimony he prompts and describes in the book is ultimately the narcissism of small differences.

To those whose viewing habits or cultural worldview do not depend on the CBC, the hue and cry can seem somewhat overwrought, if not peculiar. For Stursberg, the CBC “was woven through [his] life and memory like an invisible thread, connecting the tissue of [his] family with the broader character of the country”. For those with a less elemental relationship with the CBC, the passions, even obsessions, recounted in The Tower of Babble can seem more than a little bizarre. But regardless of one’s ability to personally relate to the saga of the CBC, Stursberg does an admirable job of telling an engrossing tale of “the sheer weirdness of working at the CBC”.

Recruited to the CBC in 2004, near the tail-end of a thirty year decline in audience share and public funding, the problems confronting Stursberg were enormous. More than twenty years of successive cuts —particularly the Chretien/Martin cuts of the mid-1990s, which removed 25% of the government’s contribution — had left the CBC as the “worst-financed public broadcaster in the industrialized world.”  Rather than begging for more funds, Stursberg sought to make more money. He elected to try and solve the CBC’s problems in an amazingly ambitious program of confrontation: he would settle simmering labour issues (which prompted a notorious lock-out) before moving on to secure various sports properties such as curling, hockey, and the Olympics (he was unsuccessful on two out of three); then completely reform the way in which the CBC sought to entertain its TV audiences; and end with a flourish by trying to “fix” the news output. Those elements provide the framework for the story of a man who, in his telling, tried to take on Leviathan and found himself ground down by the wearying battle.

Interminable battles with unions, the byzantine machinations of navigating the backroom politics of the Canadian broadcasting industry, the “arcana of operating a modern media company” — these don’t seem promising grounds for an absorbing read. But the book describes in crisp, readable prose the challenges of running a television network at a time of unprecedented structural change and fiscal challenges. He renders snappy and approachable what could be turgid and plodding. It helps that Stursberg possesses a raconteur’s flair for anecdotes: the weather outside is always reaching a stormy crescendo at appropriate times, his language is constantly turning inappropriately purple and unrecorded conversations are detailed with an implausible level of specificity. His hyperbole knows few bounds: told that he has to fire Don Cherry in order to retain the respect of his Quebecois colleagues at Radio-Canada, Stursberg muses that “it felt like joining the Mob … I was being asked—in effect—to murder a family member”. It also helps that he tells his stories with a remarkable lack of bitterness and even a jaunty gleam in his eye: he’s happy to name his more prominent critics and flaunt the fact that during his tenure ratings climbed. The light comic touch he brings to what is essentially an absurd situation is the brio which carries the book. Among the more brilliant moments of absurdity: an ex-chairman of the board advocating that CBC cameras ignore major sports leagues in favour of games that “really occupy citizens —like children’s soccer”.

According to Stursberg, a number of interleaving factors caused the lowest ratings in the CBC’s history: the fiscal vise which seemed constantly to tighten and an almost comically dysfunctional corporate governance model, including a “legendary inability to meet the most elementary tests of good management,” were at the top of the list. But more inchoate factors also played a significant role: a striving for “distinctiveness” instead of an effort to entertain mass audiences coupled with “the vanity and self-regard of the institution,” supplemented by “soft left, anti-business, Toronto-centric, politically correct cultural assumptions.” The CBC was, at bottom, “the victim of its own weird sets of ideas and the elitist directions they suggested.” The critical failure, for Stursberg, was a belief that “popular success was inherently incompatible with quality” dictating that “a choice must be made between producing programs that were popular and making those that were good.” Into this mix steps Stursberg the reformer, who, to echo Mr. McGuire from The Graduate, had a bracingly simple idea: audiences. As Stursberg recounts: “I have only one idea. Audiences matter.”  Increasing audiences, that single measure of success, would be the lodestone for Sturberg’s efforts.

That of course bumped against the ideas of the Constituency, with its article of faith that the CBC existed to fulfil a “mandate.” A recurring presence throughout the book, occasionally taking corporeal form as the CBC board of directors, the Constituency consists of “the mandarins of Ottawa, the editors of the Globe and Mail, and the chattering classes more generally.” The “good and the great” who want the CBC to remain “sober and a little dull … like them,” they were the rock against which Stursberg set his shoulder.

I use religious allusions advisedly—even Stursberg does when he talks about Hockey Night in Canada, the CBC’s crown jewel, as constituting a “Shrine”—because looking at the story of the CBC over the last decade as involving competing visions of faith provides the simplest lens through which to understand what was happening. It’s all there: endless arguments over obscure doctrinal points (in which aboriginal languages should CBC North broadcast? Is it revolutionary to consolidate news teams so that only a single CBC news team covers a story, instead of four—one for both CBC Radio and CBC TV and in both official languages? The outsider’s sneaking suspicion that the combatants are pershaps focusing their energies in the wrong place. Viewed in this way, Stursberg is best understood as a heretic, not an apostate: he believes, fervently, in the CBC and the need for a CBC, he just desires a somewhat different CBC than the ideal envisioned by the Constituency.  For those we might call CBC skeptics, the bitterness and rancour of the disputes all smacks of feuding schismatics, the People’s Front of Judea against the Judean People’s Front.

For all of his brashness and the supposed radicalness of his initiatives, they seem remarkably banal. But then that’s partly explained by the distinction between the true believer and the atheist: what is earth-shattering for one is mundane for the other.  Stursberg involved things like ending the broadcast of awards ceremonies nobody watched, and instead striving for TV that appealed to the largest possible audience. Stursberg sought to make “Canadian shows that would be popular with Canadian audiences.”  This inevitably devolves into a discursive discussion about what constitutes “Canadian”: the concept slips among a variety of possible meanings. It could mean “made by Canadians” (meaning shot in Canada, written and directed by Canadians, starring Canadians) and/or “about Canadians” (meaning set in Canada and addressing idiosyncratically Canadian topics, history, sensibilities, politics,  and “narrative preoccupations”), or some combination of the two. His goal was to forego “edgy,” unwatchable, and unwatched television in favour of “police procedurals, situation comedies, reality eliminations, lifestyle shows, and quiz contests.”

Described that way, we back into the major failing of the book. The book’s subject points to a fundamental question which Stursberg grapples with in only an unsatisfactory way: does the CBC deserve a billion dollars a year in public subsidy? Put differently, why should a public broadcaster exist at all? Stursberg finesses the issue, electing not to press the matter, assuming everyone agrees about the foundational necessity of a public broadcaster. For someone who otherwise appears to revel in his reputation as an iconoclast, the lack of introspection on the point is a disappointment.

The closest the book offers to an engagement with the CBC’s existential question is an assertion that there exist “market failures in our national cultural life that require the intervention of a public broadcaster.” But when he describes the programs on which the CBC should focus, it’s unclear the extent to which a market failure exists. Stursberg’s CBC would undertake news, entertainment, kids, sports, music, and “smart talk” programming. His grounds for these ventures fail to make the case. He asserts that the CBC brings something “unique” to news, kids programming and music—but never explains what constitutes the “unique” qualities or why the private broadcasters are unable to match it. He argues that CBC news is and needs to be “genuinely different” from the news offered by Global and CTV —different in the sense of “deeper and more thoughtful.” But even if we concede that CBC is relevantly “different”, we’re still left with the question of quite why that constitutes sufficient justification for public money. The notion that the private sector “cannot work” in entertainment (and “smart talk,” whatever that might mean) is plainly refuted by reference to some of the most successful Canadian TV shows of the last decade —Corner Gas and Flashpoint —both entirely the product of private broadcasters. Even Stursberg admits that the CBC’s only claim to sports programming (especially Hockey Night in Canada) is that it provides the profits which help finance the rest of the schedule. In the end, the guiding principle which Stursberg cites for the transformation of CBC News to enable it to “make a contribution to the public debate that was not only valuable but would not otherwise occur,” remains the unexamined assertion of his tale: what makes the contribution sufficiently valuable to warrant government funding, and why would it not otherwise occur?

The Tower of Babble ends up being alternately fascinating and frustrating, the story of a rebel oddly reticent to vigorously interrogate his own core assumptions. Late in the book Stursberg poses the question which seems most pressing: “Why spend public money on what the privates are prepared to do?” Unfortunately, while compelling arguments can be mustered, they are only briefly made in The Tower of Babble, and so a satisfactory answer is never offered. To borrow Stursberg’s description, “the CBC is not a real mirror of the country; it is a distorted one”—if true, it again begs the question: why do we need the government to buy us a mirror?

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