Richard Stursberg, Part 1: Policy and Production

Interviewed by Fil Fraser at Banff World Media Festival on June, 2011

I'm Richard Stursberg and I'm not doing very much right now, just working on a couple projects.

Fraser.  You have a long history in this business. I first met you as an ADM in what was then the Department of Communication under Marcel Mas. You have been part of the formation, in one way or another, of Canadian broadcasting and film policy in the modern era.

Stursberg.  I'm not quite that old!  Yes, I was Assistant Deputy Minister in the Department of Communication in the 1980s. In the late 80s, I left and went into private business. From about 1995 to about 2000, I was head of the Canadian Cable Television Association, where you and I had many “happy” experiences together. Then, after that, I ran a satellite television company, which is now known as Shaw direct; it’s the direct-to-home satellite company owned by the Shaws.  I was the head of the Canadian Television Fund, now the Canadian Media Fund. Then, I was for three years head of Telefilm and you were on the Board at that time, as I recall. I had to phone you up and beg you to come on the Board.

F.  It was an easy sell.

S. It’s a funny story; I tell it often about phoning you, after all those cable days. And, for the last six years, I have been Head of CBC English Services.

F.  Talk about the relationship between government policy and the evolution of the Canadian production industry?

S.  In terms of the Canadian production industry itself, this actually started in 1983 with the creation of the first financing tranche for equity financing for television. It was managed by Telefilm. This was the first time, if I'm not mistaken, that the government created a fund like that and the purpose of the fund was precisely to create an independent production industry. It was also meant to be a backdoor way to give money to the CBC; but the deal for the CBC was that they could only take the money if they worked through the independent producers.

So, over the course of the last 30 years, the government has been preoccupied with creating an independent production industry that will survive, whether it's through the Canadian Television Fund, now the Canadian Media Fund, or a tax credit structure. My own feeling is that there's a great tension that runs through all this that has never been adequately resolved: how do we measure success?

F.  What you're describing is a fundamental change in attitude of government towards industry. They saw the fund as a pump-primer. I remember Judy Lamarche saying that they would give $10 million and that the industry would then be on its own.

S.  We all understand the cost structures. Right now, to make a beautiful English language program in Canada would cost about $1.5 million/ hour for a drama show, of which the broadcasters are typically putting up about $400,000 in license fees and maybe making $200,000 in revenue. And that's all to compete against American shows that are made for $4-$5 million/ hour. Clearly something has to make up the gap, if it's ever going to happen at all. The government finally understood that the only way the gap would be made up would be through a form of permanent financing through the media fund and through tax credits.

F.  So, you think these programs would attract big audiences.

S. I think people have been unclear about what the criteria for success was. If you go back to the CRTC quotas, they were based on how many hours of television were produced. In the early days of the television fund, they would brag about how many hours of television they financed. It was a bit like a Soviet-style shoe factory. “Comrades! We have made 20,000 pairs of shoes! We have met our quota!” Whether the shoes rotted in the rain or were all for left feet didn't seem to matter to anybody.

Recently, there's been a reluctant desire to move to a tougher and more sensible measure of success than just total hours of output. And the measure of success in my personal view has always been whether anyone watches this stuff. If they don't watch it, whether it's feature film or television, then you failed. This is regarded as rather a controversial view: that you would measure success by whether or not Canadians liked what they were being offered. It's regarded as radical, dangerous!

F.  How do you measure the success of our policies?

S. They’re difficult policies. They tend to be unpopular because they hold everybody to a tough standard. You can't console yourself with the thought that nobody watched it, but that it was cutting edge, arty, or sophisticated, something other than interesting or compelling for audiences. The audience actually offers the toughest standard, because you know exactly where you are. They watched the show, or they bought the tickets at the box office; and we can measure that. It's striking to me that there's any debate about this at all, because English Canada, not French Canada, is the only country in the industrialized world where people prefer other people's television shows to their own.  The only one!  We like our own music, our own books, newspapers, and magazines; but we don't like our own television shows, or movies. And you would think that people would say for the biggest and most popular medium in the world, what standard could there be except that we make Canadian shows, with Canadian themes, with the Canadian sense of humour, for a Canadian audience and we measure our success by whether or not people are watching. But it remains an intensely controversial view.