|Stewart’s curse was that she looked like she could headline a CBC drama
Being the top programming executive of the CBC is a little like being captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs. You spend most of your time defending, get jeered even when you score and are a target every time you take to the ice. When you win, you are expected to be humble and when you lose, it is all your fault.
The announcement Monday that Kirstine Stewart was resigning immediately to take a top job with Twitter Inc., therefore, should not have been such a big surprise. The public network post is a tough, grinding job. Seven years at CBC’s corner programming office is a killer. Stewart’s predecessor, Slawko Klymkiw, somehow lasted a decade.
Monday’s announcement by CBC president Hubert Lacroix paid tribute to her talent and her fortitude:
Kirstine really understands the role of the public broadcaster and has been a fierce proponent of its distinctive place. She has been instrumental in establishing CBC as a modern public broadcaster and I want to thank her for all she has done to put us in a place of strength from which to renew ourselves. For me, the achievement that stands-out most in her seven years with CBC/Radio-Canada, is the programming team we now have in place at CBC Television and the schedule they have managed to put on air, despite some tough financial times.
TV’s not an exact science and, like every programmer, Stewart made mistakes. She stuck way too long with favourite children such as Being Erica
and Little Mosque
. Some initiatives, such as a campaign to get Canadians to eat right, seemed like elitist distractions. Dragon’s Den
grew to be an enormous hit–and Stewart was in on acquiring that format–but that other big reality show franchise eluded her. Efforts such as Cover Me Canada
, Over the Rainbow
and the show where Debbie Travis yelled at kids all seemed four years too late.
Hits and misses are the legacy of every network programmer and Stewart had her wins. The most savvy move may well be picking City’s pocket on Murdoch Mysteries, a six-year-old series which has doubled and tripled its audience on CBC. Stewart has also won respect in the production community for honoring promises in tough times, re-ordering shows such as Steven & Chris and Battle of the Blades after resting both for the one season she said she would.
During her tenure, some of CBC’s oldest offerings, including Marketplace and The Nature of Things, have grown their audiences on tough nights and against stiff competition.
There was plenty of grumbling about how the News division had been tarted up and lost its gravitas under Stewart’s stewardship but, really, look around the dial and show me where Walter Cronkite still lives.
More damaging will be loses on the sports side, despite CBC’s upcoming slate of big events such as the next Olympic Games and the Pan Am coverage. CBC seemed helpless while CTV and Rogers picked CBC’s sports pockets, poaching talent before and behind the cameras and locking up Grey Cups and international coverage. With TV Anytime and on-demand largely driven by live sports and big reality show operas, falling behind on those fronts will be a big challenge for Stewart’s successor. That person will have the Herculean task of somehow holding onto Hockey Night in Canada.
For now, that appears to be Neil McEneaney, a Brit brought into the CBC exec mix two years ago. For those who see a return to the same Old Boys club, Stewart also surrounded herself with several top female programming execs, including Julie Bristow, Grazyna Krupa, Jennifer Dettman, Christine Wilson and others. Lacroix’s note suggests a recruitment process is on-going.
Gender always seemed more of an issue than it should be under Stewart’s watch. In an era when top female programming executives dominated south of the border and are players in Canada, there are still “Blondie goes digital” comments over Stewart’s move today. Perhaps some of this is lingering resentment over the tilt towards so-called “women’s programming” at CBC, where lifestyles programming such as Best Recipies Ever seem to betray Stewart’s specialty roots.
Then again, people used to complain that Stephen “knock this battery off my shoulder” MacPherson was turning ABC into a chick network. CBC’s schedule today does not look any girly-er than Global’s or CTV’s.
I always admired how Stewart stood her ground at events such as last summer’s TVB TV Day gathering. The lone woman among the men at that TV heads panel, she also seemed the only voice speaking out for Canadian content. She was just as happy to point to Bomb Girls or Saving Hope as examples that Canadians watch Canadian shows as her own network offerings.
She stood her ground on a day when Ottawa whacked hundreds of millions from CBC’s annual appropriation. I can’t even pretend to comprehend the pressures on the political side of Stewart’s job.
From a press point of view, Stewart was one of Canada’s most accessible TV programmers, always reachable via email or, yes, twitter. She was very proactive and responsive on social media, ahead of the curve. While following her on Twitter will be a tweet, the annual CBC upfronts will seem a little less electric and glamorous without her.
NOTE: This story has been corrected to reflect that Stewart was very much involved in bringing Dragon’s Den to CBC.