THE TOWER OF BABBLE Sins, Secrets and Successes Inside the CBC By, Richard Stursberg – Book Review

Ever wanted to know the dark secrets of the CBC? The Tower of Babble: Sins, Secrets and Successes Inside the CBC, written by Richard Stursberg, takes readers inside and reveals the deep contradictions that make up the corporation. Far from being a dry account of day-to-day business, this book provides an informative, and rarely flattering perspective of the confused inner workings of Canada’s public broadcaster.

Stursberg was hired as the CBC head of English Services in 2004, and was responsible for profound shifts in the broadcasters programming before he was unceremoniously dismissed in 2010. He overhauled the television offerings, bringing in shows such as Battle of the Blades, Little Mosque on the Prairie, Heartland, Dragon’s Den and Being Erica, and in doing so increased the CBC’s audience shares by nearly 50%. He also envisioned cohesive programming for radio, was the champion of local news, and shaped up the programming to compete with the more audience friendly offerings of CTV and Global. Sadly, his reign also saw the near destruction of CBC sports. They were outbid for coverage of the Vancouver Olympics, made a spectacular mess of their curling contracts, thus losing them to TSN, to whom they also eventually lost the broadcasting rights to the CFL. Despite these set backs, he draws focus to his victories. A stubborn and argumentative figure by his own admission, Stursberg shows readers what he was able to accomplish by his refusal to back down.

I highly recommend this book, which was both fun and easy to read, not always a simple feat when presenting the data of a media corporation. Stursberg, despite being a first time writer, has a knack for story telling, and is able to effectively translate his experiences into a gripping and entertaining narrative. Far from being a happy place, Stursberg portrays the CBC upon his arrival as a den of backstabbing employees, all looking out for their own departments, and completely opposed to change, even to save their own skin. Stursberg’s analysis of the various troubles of the CBC is eye opening. One of the most fascinating things he points out, is the CBC’s deep ingrained belief that something that is ‘good’ or ‘culturally valuable’, could not also be popular. He notes the corporation equated popularity with all that is vulgar and stupid, and was horrified when he chopped fine arts programming, which pulled almost no audience. These similar sentiments rear their heads continually, particularly in one interesting passage, where Stursberg explains the strange hybridity of the CBC business model, which ultimately contributes to its monetary woes. While it relies partly on government money, the CBC’s television productions survive by gaining much of their income from ad revenue, which puts them in competition with the private networks. In order to get ad revenue, one needs an audience, and in order to get an audience one needs to compete for top talent, and programming that people are willing to watch. Sadly, since the top CBC executives view pandering to audiences as an abandonment of  ‘quality’, it is a rather halfhearted competitor.

From Stursberg’s account of his years at the CBC I can’t help but imagine him as the cursed King Sisyphus of Greek legend. Sisyphus was doomed to spend his time in the underworld, forever pushing a boulder uphill, yet every time he neared the top, he would loose his grip and the boulder would roll all the way back. Like Sisyphus, it seems any time Stursberg made any gains that actually positively affected the CBC in the eyes of Canadians; the board of directors would drag him and his accomplishments down. Despite the fact that Stursberg’s changes had reversed 30 years of steady audience decline, he was often assaulted over his removal of ‘mandate’ programming by a board who refused to see the merit in Canadian programs that Canadian’s actually cared to watch. Despite the at times disheartening tone, The Tower of Babble was a great pleasure to read and an excellent resource for anyone looking for further insight into the CBC.