CBC lets an outsider in by Antonia Zerbisias

Jul 22, 2004

Source : Toronto Star

Stursberg vows to defend CBC News against bias claims; His boss sought new blood to 'mix the damn place up'

Last month at the Banff TV Festival, after Richard Stursberg, executive director of Telefilm, did a shtick about how he'd double everybody's budgets, CBC president Robert Rabinovitch cracked, "Keep your day job!"

Ironic considering that, yesterday, Rabinovitch announced that Stursberg, 57, will replace Harold Redekopp as executive vice-president, English television, effective Oct. 1.

That puts Stursberg in charge of a $500 million company comprised of CBC's English-language television operations, Newsworld and the digital Country Canada plus, because of Redekopp's consolidation of all information programming, CBC Radio News.

But, despite his 25-year career as a culturecrat and cable lobbyist, Stursberg has, unlike every CBC-TV VP before him, no experience as a programmer.

True, he had a quick rise through government's various cultural portfolios, where he previously worked for Rabinovitch. He's toiled for phone giants. When cable firms and consumers were having epic battles, he spoke on behalf of the former, against the interests of the latter - and against the CBC. He ran satellite companies, and chaired the Canadian Television Fund. For the past two years, he's been with Telefilm.

But does all that qualify him to run Canada's biggest network?

"I don't pretend that I'm an expert on programming - but I know a thing or two about television," he told me yesterday. "This is fundamentally a managerial challenge."

"The biggest thing is creating a environment where creativity can work," said Rabinovitch. "I hired a creative thinker. I didn't hire a programmer. We have those here and we'll get others as we need them."

So far the reviews of the appointment have been mixed.

Ian Morrison, spokesperson for the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, a group that fought the cable lobby while Stursberg ran it, said "I cannot think of anything good to say about Mr. Stursberg."

Trina McQueen, a former CBC-TV VP who became president of CTV, believes Stursberg is a great choice. "Richard is very strategically oriented," she said."He is able to understand this tremendously complex and difficult institution."

It won't be easy. First, because the place doesn't suffer outsiders gladly. Secondly, because there were top-ranking insiders in contention for the job.

Among them, Slawko Klymkiw, longtime executive director of network programming. He may quit and take advantage of an "output deal" guaranteeing him production contracts should he leave. He didn't return calls yesterday.

Rabinovitch discounted rumours that no outsiders were interested in the job, because the pay, said to be in the high $200,000 range, was too low."Some people definitely turned it down for price," Rabinovitch admitted. "We don't pay half of what they do in the private sector."

But getting an outsider was essential, Rabinovitch added: "You've got to mix the damn place up."

If he has plans for that, Stursberg wasn't revealing any of them yesterday. "I'd like CBC to keep moving in the direction it's going, as a distinctive public Canadian-oriented television service," he told me. "Obviously it's important to get good audiences. It's hard to be a public broadcaster without a public."

He faces two big challenges.

First is defending CBC News against those who call it biased and left-wing.

"I know that there is controversy with the direction of CBC's overall news orientation," he said. " But I am going there because I believe in the CBC and I believe it's completely on the right track."

Stursberg's second challenge? Don Cherry - and whether he'll be back in his Coach's Corner. "All I really know at this point is that they're having a conversation and I don't have anything to say while the discussions are going on," he said. "Let me get into the door first."

Stursberg has had a long time to think about CBC, considering how long he's been interested in running the place. The first time was 1993, when he was said to be after the president's job.

In 1996, he wrote a controversial memo as part of a bid to become vice-president. When it became public, all hell broke loose because it proposed splitting the broadcaster into three cable networks and shutting down all regional operations.

In 1999, before Rabinovitch was named CBC president, Stursberg was again rumoured to be after the job.

Now the fluently bilingual and bicultural Stursberg is poised to succeed Rabinovitch when his term expires in November. But Rabinovitch wants to stay and CBC's board has signalled he should be renewed for another five years. Prime Minister Paul Martin makes that call. Meanwhile, Stursberg has a steep learning curve to scale. He starts on Monday, getting to know CBC and its people.

As for Redekopp, whose legacy is a tighter, lighter CBC ship, he'll act as a senior adviser to Rabinovitch.

© Toronto Star