Not any more

CBC risks turning off its audience

In Canada on August 12, 2010 at 21:51

That Richard Stursberg is a controversial figure is no secret to anyone inside or outside of the CBC who has bothered to pay attention to Canada’s broadcasting industry in the last six years. As his former chief of staff at CBC Television I can attest to the fact that Stursberg is opinionated, aggressive and yes, at times, even arrogant.

But he is also thoughtful, generous, and, most important for someone who has held senior positions in Canadian film, broadcasting and communications, deeply committed to protecting, preserving and promoting Canadian cultural expression in all its forms. His tenure at the CBC generated no end of interest and passionate debate over the role and the future of English public broadcasting in this country. So it comes as no surprise to me that in the wake of his sudden departure from the CBC his detractors have been quick to offer comment on the perceived shortcomings of the Stursberg years.

Some, like the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting’s Ian Morrison, have said they are “hard-pressed to define Stursberg’s legacy.”

How about this for a legacy?: In an era when Canada’s public broadcaster receives less than half of the public financial support that public broadcasters in other OECD countries receive, Stursberg was able to turn CBC Television into the second-most-watched network in the country.

In prime time, (the evening viewing period from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. when most Canadians are actually watching television) he was able to secure an audience share of 10 per cent. How significant is that? When he took over as head of CBC Television the network’s share was at an all-time low, at just over six per cent.

He was able to increase the audience share every year of his tenure because he made CBC Television relevant again for Canadians. And he did it at a time when Canadians have more channels and more foreign programming options than ever before. Canadians had a public broadcaster that mattered; and they had a public broadcaster they actually wanted to watch.

More importantly, he did it with a slate of overwhelmingly Canadian dramas, comedies, reality, news and current affairs programming. For example, last year’s prime time fall schedule was virtually all Canadian content.

Sure, the early evening schedule, from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m., featured two U.S. game shows, something the “Friends” of Canadian Broadcasting make much of, but there is method to that madness: those shows are low-cost to acquire and generate desperately needed funds for a CBC that has been forced to secure more than half of the revenue required to fulfil its mandate from commercial sources. Those shows are also popular and help to bring audiences to the Canadian programming that occupies the remaining 75 per cent of the CBC’s prime time schedule every night of the week. For a cash-starved public broadcaster that’s smart strategy, one that actually brought the public back to their broadcaster.

CBC president Hubert Lacroix’s comment that Stursberg left the CBC better off than it was when he first arrived is, in my admittedly biased view, an accurate one.

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