CANADIAN PROGRAMMING IN FRENCH

Television was embraced by French-language viewers more quickly than any other group in Canada. They bought TV sets more rapidly and watched more television than did their English-speaking counterparts. A majority of television households were concentrated among the working class families of Montreal and from the beginning, La Societé Radio-Canada, Canada's public francophone broadcaster, was the center of French programming in Canada and the company strategy was to attempt to be all things to all people.

As the only francophone television broadcaster it enjoyed a monopoly position. Because it faced no competition either inside or outside Canada, and because it had to produce over 75% of its own programming, Radio-Canada was able to craft programs intended to enlighten and educate as well as entertain its captive audience. The power of television was very quickly understood by Quebec's creative community and unlike comparable groups in anglophone Canada, television production in Quebec drew upon some of the most creative and inventive minds in French Canadian society. Historians and commentators generally describe francophone television's early years from 1952 to 1960 as a "golden age". Leading academics, artists, intellectuals and cultural heroes were quick to embrace this new medium, making television a powerful force in Quebec's Quiet Revolution.

In the realm of News and Information, Radio-Canada was determined to keep its public well-informed--not only about the country but about the entire world. Journalists such as Gerard Pelletier and André Laurendeau argued that television could be an instrument of modernity which would not only introduce the rest of the world to Quebec but which would serve to improve knowledge and raise the sense of national pride. Pelletier hosted Les idées en marche (1955-61), a public affairs show which featured debates and interviews with prominent intellectuals on domestic and international issues. Laurendeau presided over Pays et merveilles (1953-61), a world-travel series which featured film footage and guests who would discuss such issues as the Middle East. Other popular news information shows included Carrefour (1958-59) and Premier Plan (1959-60) which were interview shows. But the most critically-acclaimed news and information program was Point de Mire (1957-59), hosted by René Lévesque, the future premier of Quebec. This show attempted to popularize international issues such as the Algerian crisis and used maps, charts, film footage, even a blackboard to educate and inform viewers. Only occasionally did the show address Quebecois or Canadian themes.

Other shows like Panoramique, (1958-59) a series of historical documentaries from the French division of the National Film Board of Canada, drew viewers attention to Canadian and Quebec historical issues. Le roman de la science was a docudrama about major scientific discoveries throughout history. Je me souviens/Dateline was a bilingual informational program on Quebec and Canadian history. Explorations (1956-61) was another history series which tried to bridge the Canadian cultural and linguistic divide. One segment from the series, "Two Studies of French Canada," was run on the English-language CBC. Hosted by Lévesque this program tried to explain to anglophone Canadian the recent history and aspirations of French Canadians.

Variety and musical programs also carried an international flavour. Music Hall(1955-65), Quebec's alternative to The Ed Sullivan Show, hosted a line-up of international francophone stars which included Maurice Chevalier, Edith Piaf, and Charles Aznavour as well as well-known Canadian singers such as Monique Leyrac and Denise Filiatrault.

Radio-Canada provided a broad range of variety programs to suit all tastes. Feu de joie featured jazz, Dans touls les cantons traditional French-Canadian folk music, Chansons vedettes and Chansons canadiennes showcased contemporary popular artists. Despite this impressive line-up, however, with extravagant costumes and lavishly produced numbers, the shows did not attract viewers. Variety programming was the least popular of all the types of television produced by Radio-Canada in the 1960s and unlike the CBC, the system never had a truly popular program such as those hosted on the CBC by Don Messer or Tommy Hunter. The only light entertainment show which developed any following was the comedy-sketch series Quelles nouvelles which had been a popular radio series and starred Jean Duceppe and Marjolaine Hébert.

Comedy was, however, a central feature of game shows. Cheap and easy to design and produce--particularly since they involved little prize money--quiz shows like Le nez de Cléopâtre (1953-57) and Point d'interrogation (1956-62) featured panels of well-known personalities given a limit of twenty questions in which to identify a person or object. Other shows like Chacun son métier (1954-59) was a French version of the popular American program What's My Line.

Radio-Canada's real strength was the novelty or fun show. Shows such as La clef des champs (1955-59) and Le club des autographs (1957-62) were popular with audiences as much for their comedy as for their contests. Both were based on simple premises; La clef des champs was a charades game but the actor and comedians competed more for laughs than for prizes, while Le club des autographs invited celebrities to twist and shake in a comical dance contest. The audience's favorite and the most extreme example of this kind of programming was La rigolade (1955-58). Referring to itself as the "least serious broadcast on the air," it invited ordinary people to test their skills at the silliest contests the producers could invent. As the contests became zanier, critics decried it as a scandalous spectacle and it was pulled off the air after only three seasons despite being among the top-ranked shows on Radio-Canada.

Francophone programmers were continually faced with trying to balance such popular programs with its cultural and educational mandate. Any kind of spectacle seem to have a large audience. La Lutte (1952-59) and La Boxe (1952-55) broadcast weekly prize fights which attracted a large following (even among women). Sports were consistently in demand, especially La soirée du hockey, the most popular program on television. Though hockey had always been popular in Quebec, television made players like Rocket Richard, the star of the Montreal Canadiens, into national heroes. As many as two million fans watched each Canadiens' game. Richard had become such a cultural icon that when he was suspended from the playoffs in the spring of 1995, the city exploded into rioting. It was no accident that Richard made public television appeals to induce the crowds to end the violence.

This incident only added to the dilemma facing programmers as more and more viewers demanded more sports while the elites and the clergy condemned television for inciting and promoting violence. Television programmers tried to counteract these charges in the 1950s by scheduling most of its sportscasts on the weekends and by increasing its broadcast of the performing arts.

Radio-Canada had always believed that television could stimulate and educate the viewer. Music, ballet, opera and drama were presented several times a week in various anthologies. L'heure du concert (1954-66) was devoted to concerts, opera and ballet. Initially, it offered a series of excerpts from various productions and provided brief lectures on various art forms. Theatre also occupied the most prominent place in Radio-Canada's early programming, and despite the challenges and difficulties and production costs involved with live television drama, CBFT produced as much as two dramas a week throughout the 1950s. A demand for local productions fuelled an enormous expansion in the development of Quebecois literature. Initially, great classical works such as Cocteau's Oedipe-Roi had been presented, but these were quickly replaced with local works. Soon short stories and even novels had to be adapted for television as more traditional works were soon exhausted. Eventually, Quebecois authors were commissioned to write specifically for television.

Between 1952 and 1960, Radio-Canada aired 435 plays, 80% of which were originally written or adapted by popular Quebecois writers such as Marcel Dubé, Hubert Aquin, Françoise Loranger and Felix Leclerc. The majority of teleplays were showcased in Le Telethéâtre de Radio-Canada (1953-66) which presented more than 160 works and Théâtre populaire (1956-58) which presented more than 100 plays. Other series included Théâtre d'été (1954-61) and En première (1958-60), Théâtre du dimanche (1960-61), Jeudi Théâtre (1961-62), and Théâtre d'une heure (1963-1966).

While the teleplays received great critical acclaim they were far less popular than the téléromans, televised serials adapted from popular selling novels. Since the debut of Roger Lemelin's La Famille Plouffe (1953-59), this television genre has been a mainstay of francophone programming. Usually broadcast in half-hour episodes in peak hours over the fall/winter schedule, the stories would generally be completed in two or three seasons, but two series lasted much longer than the norm. Les Belles Histoires des pays d'en haut went on for 14 years while Rue des Pignons continued for 11 years. Other popular téléromans included: Quartorze, rue de Galais (1954-57), Le Survenant (1954-57, 59-60), Cap-aux-sorciers (1955-58), La Pension Velder (1957-61), La Côte de sable (1960-62), De 9 à 5 (1963-66), and Septième nord (1963-67).

 

A producer's strike at CBFT in Montreal from December 1958 to March 1959 brought serious disruption to francophone programming and an end to the "golden age" of French-Canadian broadcasting. Not only did popular shows like Point de Mire and La famille Plouffe end their run, many critically-acclaimed programs were never to return to the airwaves. The strike has become part of the annals of Quebec's Quiet Revolution. Some of the province's most popular television personalities like René Lévesque abandoned careers in broadcasting, in Levesque's case to launch himself into politics.

The strike and its aftermath reflected the changing realities that television faced. In 1960, Radio-Canada faced competition from a private broadcaster. Télé-Métropole, "le 10" promoted itself as the station for ordinary people. In 1971 it became part of the Télé-Diffuseurs Associés (TVA) network. Its programming relied heavily on foreign movies and dubbed American drama series. Quiz shows like Quiz-O and Télé-poker became mainstays on the schedule, along with hockey broadcasts and variety programs which showcased Quebec's popular comedians and singers such as Robert Charlebois and Yvon Deschamps.

"Le 10" did produce a daily serial, Ma femme et moi, which ran in 1961 but it was only with Cré Basile (1965-68) that Télé-Métropole and the TVA network found critical acclaim for its television dramas. Cré Basile was Quebec's first sitcom and for the first time comedy was to become an integral part of francophone television drama. Télé-Métropole went on to develop other popular burlesque comedies Lecoq et fils (1967-68), Symphorien (1974-78), Les Brillant (1979-80), and situation comedies Dominique (1977-80) and Peau de banane (1982-87). Télé-Métropole's programming was immediately popular. By 1966 it had 23 out of the top 25 shows and in turn, spurred Radio-Canada to change many of its programs.

With competition, advertising revenues and sponsorships began to play a larger role in determining the television schedule. Radio-Canada's own internal surveys taken in 1960 had shown that viewers were little affected by the interruption in programming save for the loss of the téléromans. Feature films which had occupied much of the 1959-60 schedule had drawn as large an audience as its regular line-up. American imports were now available on film and could be easily translated and dubbed for a francophone audience. Not only were they cheaper than locally made productions, they were watched by more people and generated more revenue for their broadcasters. By the mid-1960s, Radio-Canada had virtually abandoned its notion of public service in favour of a more stream-lined and entertaining schedule.

Performing arts broadcasts were the first victims of this change. L'heure du concert was cut back to bi-monthly broadcasts and presented only one performance per episode as it dropped all pretensions of educating the public. Teleplays were confined to 90 minutes per week or appeared only in summer anthologies. From a high of almost 100 broadcast hours per year, theatre drama had dropped to 20 hours per year in the mid-1960s. By 1966, all music, opera, ballet and theatrical programs were combined in the two-hour anthology Les beaux dimanches which has remained as part of the Sunday line-up.

A shift to lighter programming affected all genres. Public affairs programming reflected this change with the introduction of Appelle-moi Lise, a late-night talk show with host Lise Payette which became the new model for the interview format. Sports gained more prominence and give-away shows such as La poule aux oeufs d'or (1958-65) which had replaced La rigolade were modelled on American quiz shows such as The $64,000 Question. It was later joined by Tous pour un (1963-64) which became the most watched program on Tuesday nights.

Téléromans which had always been successes remained as the backbone of Radio-Canada's production. They were joined by locally-made comedies and sitcoms as the public broadcaster sought to win back viewers. Moi et l'autre (1966-71), La p'tite semaine (1972-76), Du tac à tac (1977-81), and Poivre et sel (83-87) were just some of the lighter television series which competed with the private network.

When TVA launched its celebrated Les Berger (1970-78) series, francophone television added the new family saga genre to its drama repertoire. Rue des Pignons (1970-77), Grand-Papa (1976-85), Terre humaine (1978-84) were part of the regular of Radio-Canada which competed with TVA's Le Clan Beaulieu (1978-82), Marisol (1980-83), and Les Moineau et le Pinsons (1982-85).

A growing concern over the sharp decline educational and cultural programming as well as a sharp increase in dubbed American imports, prompted the Quebec provincial government to launch its own public broadcaster, Radio-Québec in 1968. Its programming was, and still is, devoted to providing educational and cultural programs which reflect Quebecois society. Largely a community-based system, it did not begin to broadcast in the evening until the 1972-73 season. Its programming featured many documentaries, nature and science shows as well as broadcasts of the proceedings of the legislative assembly. In recent years, it too has developed its own series such as Avec un grand A (1985-1992). It has also showcased some English-made series such as Degrassi but has remained committed to its educational mandate. Over half of its programming is educational and very few of its programs are American imports.

With the development of cable systems and more private stations, fears that the airwaves would be overrun with American programming once again became an issue. Although studies had shown that only about 20% of all programming was foreign imports, they also showed that local productions were dominant only in the informational, sports and educational genres. More alarming was the fact that over 80% of all drama and comedies were American-made imports.

This has led to a call for a stronger commitment on the part of the province's two public broadcasters to strengthen their commitment to producing more local dramas since the studies also indicated that when given a clear choice between imports and local shows, Quebecois viewers prefer to see their own artists and programs. Many Quebecois programs rank consistently in the top ten lists. The recent success of the drama series like Lance et compte, Les Filles du Caleb and the comedy hit La Petite vie, which have had huge followings both domestically and internationally, attest to Quebecois television's vitality and creativity.

Francophone television has always offered the Québecois a vivid expression of their own unique history and places. Its public affairs, sports, and popular drama have not only mirrored society's growth, they have mirrored the development of television itself. Despite a variety of changes and the proliferation of choices available to the average viewer, the Quebecois remain avid television fans. They spend more time watching television than in any other activity other than sleeping and working. Though no longer a "captive audience", they remain enthusiastic about their own brand of programming. Television still remains an integral part of Quebecois cultural life as it still strives to be all things to all people.

-Manon Lamontagne

FURTHER READING

Collins, Richard. Television and Culture. London: Unwin Hyman, 1990.

Raboy, Marc. Missed Opportunities: The Story of Canada's Broadcasting Policy. Montreal, Canada: McGill Queen's University Press, 1990.

Rutherford, Paul. When Television Was Young: Primetime Canada 1951-1967. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1990.

Trofimenkoff, Susan. The Dream of Nation. Toronto, Canada: Gage, 1983.

 

See also Canadian Programming in English; Family Plouffe; Teleroman