Richard Stursberg, Part 2: Audience

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

Fraser. It's hard to decide how to pick some audience winners. As two current examples, we have Barney's Version and Incendie, that have won every award in sight; they’re wonderful productions, and hardly anyone has seen them.

Stursberg. It's very difficult, but the fact that it's difficult shouldn’t mean that you shy away from it. You should apply yourself to it with better vigour and vision. But when you let people off the hook and say, “No it's not just about audience,” then people slide back into the old English Canadian way of doing things and say, “Well it's an important film, as opposed to one that anyone wants to watch.”

Barney's version is a good example. I think literary works can be great for making films and sometimes they're not great. It all depends on the execution. When we did The Englishman's Boy, that film did pretty good numbers for a period piece.

F. So, the question that policymakers have to wrestle with is, having said that we want a product that will attract numbers, how do we do that?

S. There something that you don't do. For example, when I came to the CBC, I was fascinated by the fact that it had decided it was going to make television shows within genres and conventions that were unfamiliar to English Canadian audiences. So, they would make things that were based on miniseries structures, or that were outside the conventional narrative structures that people were used to. And you would say surely this makes the load doubly heavy to carry. We know the kind of television shows that Canadians like to watch. They like to watch shows that are series-based, that are episodic in structure, where the narrative arc is resolved within each episode (although there can be longer arcs associated with it), and they like certain kinds of procedurals. Sketch comedy is okay, but they prefer situation comedies. We know that, because we know what they're actually watching.

So I would say, first of all, that we should work within the television conventions that Canadians know and like. Then let's make Canadian shows within those conventions. And having said that obviously they have to be beautifully written, acted, and made because, now, the quality of television, certainly the quality of television were getting from the United States over the course of the last 10 years, is probably the most beautiful and clever than it has ever been. So, is it hard? Yeah. It's very hard.

F. What about your successes at the CBC?

S. We tried to work within the conventions that Canadians like, so we junked a lot of stuff that we had been doing and started to work within those conventions. For example, in terms of procedurals, we did The Border, which is a police procedural focused on the tensions at the Canada/US border. We started making situation comedies, the most successful of which was probably Little Mosque on the Prairie, but also Being Erica. We decided that one of the things that CBC had ignored for years was the reality show. Well, why wouldn't you do reality shows? They were invented by the great European public broadcasters as the best way of exploring certain kinds of issues and they're a lot of fun. So we build a whole reality division and out of that came Dragon's Den, Battle of the Blades, Destination, and All In a Weekend.

F. Canadian Idol?

S. No. Canadian Idol belongs to the bad guys; they buy American Idol and then they do Canadian Idol afterwards. It's a good show, though. We had some success with drama, though not as much as I’d have hoped. The Border did okay for a few seasons. Heartland, which was based on a series of Canadian books, has done very well and has hung in over 1 million. Little Mosque on the Prairie, when it opened, was an absolute phenomenon. We've done quite well with Republic of Doyle, which hangs at over 1 million. We also took the opportunity to try and rebuild some of our drama. We took The Nature of Things and tried to modernize it; the numbers went up quite significantly.

But all this was trying to work within traditions and forms that Canadians know and like and to do these things in a way that spoke to who we are: our narrative conventions, our sense of humour, our sense of who we are as ourselves. And the gratifying thing was that, after we started to make these shows, for the first time in Canadian history, we actually started to beat the all-America primetime schedule of Global. And we did that for three years in a row. So, when you do focus on making shows for audiences, you can make Canadian shows.

F. How is all of this affected by technology and the Netflix phenomenon?

S. It puts even greater value on hits. What will get wiped out is the mid-level stuff. People talk about the loss of Long Tail content and obscure Czech filmmakers, but I think that will continue and there’ll be a big long tail for that…. You know... “How to make a pork pie” and all that. But, I think the mid-level stuff will get crushed in the big stuff. Huge hits with powerful brands will survive in any environment. The more choices that audiences have for content, the more important it’ll be to have big hit, heavily-branded shows. And then you must be even more audience focused. There will be no place for any bending on this point. There is no place for making apologies for things that don't actually succeed.