When musician Pierre Lapointe appeared on Radio-Canada talk show Tout le monde en parle on Sunday, complaining that Quebec television is too timid and is focused on seeing the same faces over and over again, most Quebecers didn’t see it, ironically because they were busy watching the Gala Artis on TVA, the popularity-contest award show in which the same A-list faces as last year got rewarded for still being popular.
After a clip of Lapointe’s montée-de-lait was posted to YouTube and everyone rewatched the interview online or on their PVRs, the inevitable analyses started appearing. Le Soleil’s Richard Therrien dug around and found out that despite Lapointe’s complaints that his music talk-show series Stereo Pop was badly managed by Radio-Canada, it was actually Lapointe himself that was poorly managing the situation and acting like a diva.
Meanwhile, Radio-Canada VP Louis Lalande responded to Lapointe’s complaints that the public broadcaster is asleep at the wheel when it comes to broadcasting culture.
The issue has gotten so much attention that even my newspaper has a column on it.
I never watched Lapointe’s show, and I’ll leave it to others to debate what happened to it. And there are plenty of reasons to suggest Lapointe might be a hypocrite (he was a judge on La Voix, after all) or to defend or complain about Radio-Canada.
But Lapointe hinted at an issue that goes far beyond the public broadcaster: Quebec television is obsessed with celebrity.
The double-edged sword of Quebec’s star system
On one hand, this is great news. Quebec has its own star system, where home-grown talent — actors, musicians, interviewers, game-show hosts, radio personalities — are discovered, developed and showcased. It’s a system that English Canada would love to replicate, so they could rely less on the United States. Bell Media’s former boss mused openly about doing this in English Canada, but it’s not easy, especially when much of English Canadian television, particularly in prime time, is imported.
But as great as it is for showcasing stars, I think we need to ask ourselves if it’s going too far. Turn on Quebec TV and you’ll find shows in which the “artiste invitée de la semaine” cooks or eats or drinks or plays games or dances or tests something or interviews other people or just sits around and has things told to them or songs sung to them.
It’s become télé-vedette in Quebec. (Though “become” might not be right. This issue was satirized four years ago.)
To give you an idea of how bad it is, I compiled a list of Quebec non-fiction TV series broadcast in 2015 or 2016 in which having a different celebrity guest every week was part of the concept. Going by the TV broadcasters’ websites, I came up with more than 40 shows that meet this criteria, of which about a third are broadcast on Radio-Canada. I broke them up below by what the celebrity guest’s function is.
Game shows in which celebrities are contestants
Game shows in which celebrities are teamed with non-celebrity contestants
Talk shows involving an invited celebrity who acts as guest co-interviewer rather than interviewee
Talk shows or documentary series whose subjects are exclusively or almost exclusively celebrities
- Accès illimité (TVA)
- Dis-moi (MOI&cie)
- En mode Salvail (V)
- Les grandes entrevues (ARTV)
- Virages (TVA)
Shows in which celebrity guests are the subject and have to act or pretend in some way, but not seriously
- Ti-Mé Show (RC)
- Les Gars des vues (TQ)
- Piégé avec Vincent C (V)
- Testé sur des humains (TVA)
- Une histoire vraie (TQ)
- Les 400 coups (TVA)
Shows in which celebrities have things done to them or experience something relatively passively
- En direct de l’univers (RC)
- Les enfants de la télé (RC)
- La petite séduction (RC)
- Prière de ne pas envoyer de fleurs (RC)
- Qui êtes-vous? (RC)
Shows in which celebrities participate in an activity and/or are interviewed about something irrelevant to their profession
- Coups de food (Évasion)
- Curieux Bégin (TQ)
- Les dieux de la danse (RC)
- Les 12 travaux d’Anaïs (Canal Vie)
- Guide restos Voir (Évasion)
- Lip sync battle: Face à face (V)
- Lire (ARTV)
- Ma liste à moi (TVA)
- Partir autrement en famille (TV5)
- Les Recettes pompettes (V)
- Signé M (TVA)
- Sur invitation seulement (TVA)
- Ce soir tout est permis (V)
- Viens-tu faire un tour? (RC)
- Vlog (TVA)
This isn’t an exhaustive list, and I may be missing some series. Feel free to suggest others or argue miscategorization in the comments below.
I also didn’t include many series that have celebrity guests, such as:
- Scripted drama and comedy series that have well-known actors in guest roles
- Talk shows that regularly feature celebrity interviewees, such as Tout le monde en parle and Deux hommes en or
- Shows in which artists are invited to talk about their work, such as Esprit critique or Dans ma tête
- Shows in which comedians act as panelists and tell jokes, like Piment fort and Atomes crochus
- Sketch comedy shows with guest actors in which they’re not the focus, like Les Appendices
- “Spéciale artistes” episodes of game shows that don’t normally feature celebrities
So why is celebrity such a focus of Quebec TV these days? And why the desperate need to get only the A-listers? Because it’s how you get people to watch. You’ll be more likely to watch a show you watch only occasionally if a star you like is going to be on it. Or maybe you follow a star and will tune in to a show you’ve never seen before because they’re the guest that week. Or maybe you just like celebrities more than you like regular people.
Plus, shows with lazy concepts have a higher chance of success then the people invited on them have experience being on TV and being entertaining.
It’s gotten to the point that some people are more famous for being on these types of shows regularly than whatever else it is they do in their lives that was supposed to have made them popular in the first place.
Is it a problem?
These aren’t the only types of non-fiction shows on Quebec TV these days. There are dozens more than don’t have celebrity guests, either because they invite non-celebrity participants or because they do enough of a job entertaining or informing without having people jump through their proverbial hoops every week.
But I think the sheer size of this is causing problems. Lapointe’s criticisms of Stereo Pop may just be the tip of the iceberg. Focusing on showcasing known stars, rather than new and upcoming talent, suppresses diversity. It makes it harder for young talent to thrive. It overexposes actors and comedians rather than other artists whose lives might be far more interesting to hear about.
I like Quebec’s star system, and I don’t mind Quebec celebrities being interviewed on Quebec television, or seeing stars be put in unusual situations and playing games. I’m certainly not calling for the elimination of this concept.
But 40 shows having celebrity guests each week is a bit much. Even more so when you think of what the demand for celebrity guests does to the supply.
Maybe it’s time we design non-fiction TV series that are entertaining enough that they don’t need a revolving door of celebrity guest appearances to prop them up.
UPDATE (April 30): La Presse speaks to people in the industry, from the researchers who book celebrity guests to the producers who demand them, to get some inside perspective on the issue.