Monday, November 27, 2006

Wither the CBC?

I know I'm in London and the last thing on earth I should be paying attention to back home is the eternal "Whither the CBC?" debate. But something Richard Stursberg -- the CBC's newish executive vice-president of English TV -- said in a Toronto Star profile of him this weekend just smelt to high mendacity heaven and I have to call him on it.

For those of you who haven't been following the Stursberg debate: Critics of Stursberg say he is single-mindedly chasing ratings and ignoring the higher ideals of public broadcasting. He doesn't neccesarily do much to dispel this view of him; he's the one who wants a succesful CBC show to attract one million pairs of eyeballs and has said that the CBC needs shows that are "less issue-driven," "fast-paced," "positive and redemptive" and "escapist."

Fair enough, though, I say -- that's a valid view of what the CBC should be doing...

But here is Stursberg in The Star making his point in a totally misleading manner:
"You've got to have some shows that really connect with English Canadians. And I don't know how else to measure that connection other than, `Are they watching? Do they like it?'

"We had six hours of the early life of René Lévesque," says Stursberg, hands upturned, shrugging. "Well, that's nice. He's a very interesting guy. Nobody in English Canada had ever heard of him. So we put it on. And that's fine.

"Same with October 1970" — a recent miniseries developed before his arrival — "which got fantastic reviews. And you know what? Nobody's watching. And the thing you have to ask yourself is why?

"If you're going to be constantly lecturing and hectoring people — honestly, first, I think it's patronizing, and secondly, it's not the nature of television. If you want a lecture, go to the university."
Okay, I know what you're thinking, but it's not the fact that Stursberg thinks "nobody in English Canada" has heard of René Lévesque that got my Irish up. It's what he says about October 1970. You know the main reason why October 1970 didn't get good ratings? Because the Stursberg's CBC didn't tell anyone it was on. And now I suspect the conspiracy theorists were right about why: Stursberg wanted it to do badly so that he could use its bad ratings in order to back up his view of where the CBC should be headed.

What the heck am I talking about? Well, last month, on TV writer Denis McGrath's blog, a commenter named blueglow, one of the people involved in October 1970, wrote about how the CBC abandoned the miniseries that they had commissioned:
It's also a problem when you put [a mini-series] on the air without a single promo or advertisement (it is not our policy to promote mini-series!! yes, they said that) until we surprised them and actually got good reviews (Doyle -- remarkable, the French Press -- who would have thought a bunch of Anglo's would have done so well --which is pretty great praise from La Belle Province). So, finally had to relent and did ONE promotional spot on Dragon's Den the night before the show. That, to date, has been the extent of their "ad campaign".

An eight hour mini series about French Canada that went to air with one "on air" promo, no print ads, no nothing is not going to get eyeballs. (the conspiracy theorist says -- this was also the last mini series bought by the old regime so it was really not in the new regime's interests that this do well. If it did it would fly in the face of their "no coloured faces, no more boring history on the CBC becuase we know niether of these play in Oakville" mandate. Jozi H also fell victim to this mandate.

I don't think any of us ever expected big numbers for a mini series about the FLQ (even though we tried to make it entertaining -- imagine eight hours on the FLQ crisis with not a single scene in Ottawa) I don't think we expected the complete and utter abandonment by our broadcaster.
Later on in the comments, blueglow explains about his or her attempts to promote October 1970 without the CBC:
We did try and promote it ourselves which was the only reason that reviewers in the Province where this event actually happened got screeners. This action also caused grief and in future there will be provisions written into contracts that no contact with the press can be made without prior approval of the network.

Also Canadian production companies, for the most part, are not in the postion to afford to buy "on air" spots on national TV or afford to buy four colour advertisements in newspapers or magazines to promote their own material.

In terms of press, we didn't do badly, but reviews are only one quiver in the arsenal needed to promote TV shows. You need a print, radio and TV campaign on air at least six weeks before the thing airs. In this case there was one ad. So the broadcaster and major financial investor ie, producer took ten million dollars of taxpayer's money making a show they had no intention of promoting.
Can you believe that? According to blueglow, the CBC not only did not promote October 1970, but gave other people "grief" for promoting it without their approval!

That Stursberg simply told the Star that October 1970 didn't attract viewers because Canadians don't want to watch "lecturing" and "hectoring" is at best an incomplete view of what happened with that particular mini-series. At worst, it is deliberate misinformation intended to boost support for the questionable direction he is taking the CBC.

As writer McGrath said of blueglow's jaw-dropping account of what happened with October 1970:
There's the perfect storm of Canadian accountability on any level. The politics behind those decisions, the incompetence in the promotional end -- the fact that self-promotion was discouraged...

...someone should lose their job over this.


Colin said...

I watched a bit of October 1970.

Promotion would not have saved it.

It suffered from the same problem that Corner Gas suffers from. To put it bluntly it is not very good.

J. Kelly said...

Okay, so you didn't like October 1970, but you're comparing it's quality to the highest-rated scripted Canadian show currently on...

Corner Gas gets over 1 million viewers an episode; October 1970 got a miserable 58,000. October 1970 only wishes it suffered from the "same problem that Corner Gas suffers from."

wkh said...

Strusberg is one of those people I just think of as someone I'd like to tell "See You Next Tuesday!"

Am I allowed to use that word since I am not British? Having British roomies does that to you, ya know.

And the "fact" no one in English Canada had ever heard of Levesque... well that's everything wrong with English Canada. No wonder people want to separate. Believe me, they know who the ROC Heroes are. Oh the other hand... Strusberg just gave more proof for why La Société Radio-Canada needs to exist. I wish they existed in English for those of us who would actually like a whole Canada.

wkh said...

Stursberg even. I can spell.

Colin said...

It is not a matter of like or dislike for either show.

Mr. Stursberg, the producers of the programmes and you are the ones that cares about the estimates of how many people watched these shows.

I do not commision, produce or write about TV programmes. I just watch them.

It is not a matter of whether I liked October 1970 or not. I would have been more than happy to watch an interesting, well paced, well written drama about the October Crisis. But spin it whichever way you like, October 1970 did not fit the bill.

OK, if it had been promoted better maybe a million viewers would have watched it. It would still be mediocre TV.

Again, I do not care how many people watch Corner Gas, in my house I am the audience. Corner Gas has ane engaging cast and a interesting premis but in the end it is at best mildly funny. Maybe I need to move to the praries to appreciate it, but Eastern Ontario is plenty cold enough for me.

Rob Swizzle said...

This "one million viewers" obsession is mad.

Imagine a Canadian movie attracting 400,000, even 200,000 viewers. There would be a parade down Yonge Street and the cover of Time (Canada).

If 200,000 people can be called a "city" in Canada, certainly that number can be called a successful tv series.