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Richard Stursberg: early thoughts about a demonized man and his impossible job

Richard Stursberg fired. Those words aren’t in the official CBC release (see italics below), but they might as well be. Reports are that he was escorted out of the building today. I can’t think of a more significant development at the CBC in years.

“Hubert T. Lacroix, president and CEO of CBC/Radio Canada, announced today the departure of Richard Stursberg, executive vice-president, English services, from CBC/Radio-Canada effective today.”

Stursberg has been the head of English-language programming since 2004. I often thought of him as the Dick Cheney of the CBC, in the way he approached his power, his influence and the way he was openly derisive of different points of view. He took on battles that changed peoples lives, yet he seemed oblivious to the impact he had.

Most significantly, Stursberg took the CBC — our public broadcaster — down a very commercial road. It was his way of dealing with tepid funding and unreliable support from the federal government. Programs were judged as successful only by ratings, not by the value they may contain for public discourse or the public record. In fact, he rarely talked about the CBC as a public broadcaster. He once referred to programs about Rene Levesque and Pierre Trudeau as “goddamned legacy programming” in one heated discussion with me about his approach to public broadcasting.

Under his tenure, the CBC locked out its employees in 2005, shut down the CBC design department in 2007 — ending the CBC’s own ability to make sets and create costumes and props, and hired U-S based TV consultant Frank Magid to advise local news programs about how to be quick and snappy — and talk alot about crime and weather.

Yet it should be said that Stursberg resuscitated local TV programming too by creating the 90-minute supper-time newscasts and the 10-minute late night newscasts — even if wasn’t necessarily because of the value of local journalism but because of the chase for the elusive eyeballs. He brought a lot of in-house production back to the network (even if he dismantled the department that supported that production).

He was a lightning rod for all kinds of opinion, a man easy to demonize. He was mercurial and surprisingly undiplomatic in meetings with staff.

Yet at the end of the day, what matters is why he’s leaving.

“We are in the midst of developing a new strategic plan that will guide CBC/Radio-Canada through the next five years. This is the opportune time to bring new leadership….” the release says.

It seems apparent by reading between the lines of the CBC release is that the “new strategic plan” is linked to his departure/firing. What is that strategic plan? Let’s hope it’s a departure from the overly commercial approach that Stursberg pushed for so many years. Let’s hope the new strategic plan values programming that’s made in the public interest as much as for the potential “eyeball” numbers. Even better, let’s hope this marks the end of the “Ottawa isn’t going to give us any more money, so let’s just deal with it” approach that’s particularly depressing. It’s time for this CBC administration to move forward post-Stursberg by embracing its public mandate, by reaching out to Canadians and working with them to make a strong case for a really public public broadcaster.

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