Sun, 29 April 2012
Interview with Richard Stursberg on his book The Tower of Babble: Sins, Secrets and Successes Inside the CBC
Jacket design by Jessica Sullivan
Unlike Britain, which opted to invest in public non-commercial broadcasting in the early ’60s, Canada chose a hybrid model that freed the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) to augment its Parliamentary appropriation with advertising revenues.
Canada’s 1968 Broadcast Act prescribed a broadcasting system controlled by Canadians that ‘safeguards and strengthens our cultural, political, social and economic fabric, promotes unity and national identity, and provides challenging, entertaining, informative programming that caters to a wide range of audiences.’
This conflicted mandate parked the CBC at a particularly congested intersection, one that today invites more collisions than ever before, what with the significant funding cuts just announced and profits from the Hockey Night in Canada franchise in jeopardy.
In addition to the impossible task of simultaneously promoting a single, nebulous national identity and culture, and providing programming for a wide variety of tastes and audiences, the CBC is also under pressure to produce “popular” shows that Canadians will watch and advertisers will support.
One solution is to abandon the old commercial hybrid model and fund the CBC not through Parliament, but directly from licence fees levied on consumers. This way the CBC could, similar to TVOntario, carve out a more distinctive, unique role for itself by eliminating advertising (and much of the glib, manipulative, audience-spinning crap one finds on commercial television) from most of its schedule, and delivering ‘high’ quality Canadian alternative programming without regard for ‘lowest-common-denominator’ audience share. Replacing a chubby old confused mongrel, with a lean, alert purebred puppy dog.
Good idea. Perhaps that’s why it stands little chance of seeing daylight. Anything that resembles a new tax, or loosens the leash that government holds on public broacasting is unlikely to fly in Harperland, or for that matter in any other party-that’s-in-power land.
The alternative, one which Peter Stursberg championed as Vice President of English language programming at the CBC (2004-2010), is to focus on audience. ‘ What use are ‘good’ television shows if nobody watches them? Stursberg asks in his recent book The Tower of Babble: Sins, Secrets and Successes Inside the CBC which documents his tenure with the public broadcaster.
While ‘Little Mosque on the Prairie’ is no ‘Mad Men’, it is watched by lots of Canadians. And this is more than can be said of much CBC programming prior to Stursberg’s arrival. By pushing one component of a decidedly messed-up mandate he created much controversy during his time at the CBC, and, eventually, got himself fired. One hopes that his book, and his bold efforts will, if nothing else, encourage debate, and ultimately produce from government a clearer mandate for this important, troubled institution.
I met with Richard (not Peter) Stursberg recently in Ottawa to talk about his new book.