Two weeks after we lost the Olympic bid, the roof fell in on curling.
We owned many of the most important properties, including the Brier and the Scott Tournament of Hearts. Unfortunately, we could not put all the games on the main channel. There were simply too many scheduling conflicts. In a brainwave of negligible proportions, we thought it might be a good idea to put the games that were being played during the week on Country Canada, a small digital specialty channel we owned.
At that time, Country Canada had only about a million subscribers and was located on a part of the cable dial so remote that finding it required a compass and orienteering equipment. Our plan was to use the curling properties to help sell Country Canada. We would start advertising well in advance of the tournament that if viewers wanted to watch the matches, they needed to phone their cable provider and order Country Canada.
The cable companies loved the idea, and we organized a sales and marketing campaign to support it.
We started three months ahead of the tournament. The cable companies promoted it. Their sales representatives in the call centres were briefed. We put bill-stuffers in the mail. We promoted its availability on our sports shows. We advertised in rinks around the country.
Everyone worked hard to make sure that all the curling fans knew that they had to subscribe to Country Canada. After three months, it was clear the campaign was a flop. Not nearly enough people signed up. There was no possibility that the hardcore curling fans would be able to see all the Brier matches.
With some trepidation, in late February 2005 we launched our coverage. No sooner did people discover that the games were inaccessible except on Country Canada than the shouting and moaning began.
Nobody knew where Country Canada was on their dial.
Nobody knew that they had to pay for it.
Nobody even knew what it was.
A torrent of angry letters, emails and phone calls began pouring into the CBC.
The problem was compounded by the fact that the regulations governing Country Canada limited the amount of sports we could broadcast on any particular day. As a result, we sometimes switched away from the game before it was over. Thus, even those who managed to find Country Canada and subscribe to it were badly treated. Nobody could believe that we would leave the match before it ended, but we did.
The papers had a field day with the CBC's bizarre incompetence.
There was much laughing at our expense. Even CBC radio covered the controversy in an aggressive and unpleasant way.
The principal flak-catchers for all the discontent that comes the CBC's way are a group known as Audience Relations. They inhabit a windowless set of offices in one of the more obscure parts of the Toronto Broadcast Centre. The work is unenviable and their lives brutish.
All day, aggrieved viewers and listeners bombard them with complaints. A certain show is too sexy. Peter Mansbridge's tie is hideous. The correspondent in London is a communist. They hate the music on Radio 2.
Whatever. All day long, they sit there being lambasted by tidal waves of grievance and invective.
As the curling controversy mounted, it became clear that the Audience Relations department was imploding. Shell-shocked employees could be seen, trembling and glassy-eyed, stumbling out of their warren. They twitched and spooked like veterans of too many firefights.
Even their leader, normally proud and fearless, seemed tentative and jumpy, uncertain which way to direct his broken troops.
Nancy Lee and I decided to visit the wretches and buck them up with doughnuts and encouragement. They welcomed us with desperate enthusiasm. We listened to their tales. Some were near tears.
The enraged curling fans, it turned out, were the most abusive and unpleasant complainers they had ever had to deal with. One hardened veteran said she could not believe the invective.
"I could tell from her voice that she was old. It croaked and creaked. She called me 'dearie' and then described the CBC as a bunch of 'poisonous toads' and 's**t bags.'
"Another old lady screamed at me for five minutes. She told me to do terrible things to myself with a toilet brush. I have never been so abused by anyone."
They showed me emails that consisted of strings of curses and maledictions, one expletive after another, brutal and angry. The viewers seemed sometimes in such a rage that they fell into utter incoherence.
"You are a pack of s**t-brained idiots. You cut away before the last end! What a collection of ignorant, stupid, ugly, demented, moronic pieces of crap. Death to the CBC. Death!"
The effect was startling. I had no idea that people could be so rude.
"Is this typical?" I asked. "Is this what happens if we have an outage during a hockey game?"
"Oh, no," they said, "the curling fans are the worst. Far and away the worst. Hockey fans are never as bad. And the old ladies are the worst, far and away."
As the firestorm progressed, the advertisers were also getting clobbered by the unhappy fans. Some seemed to feel that Scott paper was responsible -- it was, after all, the Scott Tournament of Hearts.
They threatened not to buy any more Scott paper. For its part, Scott was, not surprisingly, quite upset with the whole sorry business. As the fiasco unfolded, they were being towed under with us.
I called the head of Scott's marketing department to apologize and engage in some mea culpa. Scott was a big and important customer of the CBC. I explained that we were blitzing the country with ads explaining where to find the games, that we would never again leave a game before it is over, that all the really big matches, the finals, would be on the main network, etc., etc., woof, woof.
His response was not warm. He clearly agreed with the curling fans that we were a collection of idiots, although he was too polite to put it that bluntly. Doubtless we would pay for our stupidity in the future.
The Canadian Curling Association, which owns the curling championships, was equally unhappy. They demanded that we turn the property over to TSN. We refused.
They announced that they would unilaterally abrogate our contract with them. We threatened to sue them. They said rude things to us. We turned the whole mess over to the lawyers. Eventually we realized that the relationship was beyond repair and released them.
They signed almost immediately with TSN.
Richard Stursberg was executive vice-president of CBC/RadioCanada from October 2004 to August 2010. This excerpt is from his book The Tower of Babble: Sins, Secrets and Successes Inside the CBC, ©2012. Published in 2012 by Douglas & McIntyre: an imprint of D&M Publishers Inc. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.