Tuesday, Jan. 28, marks the first anniversary of Global Montreal’s Morning News, the first of two local English-language TV morning shows that launched in Montreal in 2013. The second, City Montreal’s Breakfast Television, launched on Aug. 26. And though we could just be happy that there are two morning shows serving this community now instead of zero, it’s hard not to think of a battle between the two, even if they both have a long hill to climb to reach the level of Canada AM.
Comparing Morning News and BT comes with two main caveats: Morning News launched seven months before BT, and benefits from being on an established station in this market, while Breakfast Television has a much larger staff and far more resources. Neither of these factors are beyond the control of those stations’ owners (Shaw Media and Rogers Media), so neither I nor viewers should mitigate our reviews based on those facts, but they should be kept in mind if you’re evaluating anyone’s individual performance.
That said, here’s how the shows stack up on key elements:
There really isn’t much contest here. Breakfast Television enjoys a brand new 2,800-square-foot set with multiple elements including a giant video wall and a couch. Morning News uses the same virtual set as the evening newscast, and the green screen causes all sorts of problems, from restricting the colours of clothing that guests can wear to disrupting the chroma-key effect when anything is too reflective or casts too much of a shadow.
Having a green-screen set has its advantages, but it doesn’t really look like Global is taking advantage of those. Their virtual set doesn’t change, except to follow the movements of the cameras, or if they want to insert a virtual giant screen to show weather graphics. If there’s any upside to the Global method besides cost, it’s not being taken advantage of.
Style isn’t always more important than substance, but BT definitely looks better. And size isn’t everything, but Global’s studio can sometimes feel cramped (particularly during musical performances) while City’s always looks spacious.
If there’s one place where having three times the staff makes a big difference, it’s in production. Morning News has three people in its control room, while BT has seven. Morning News has studio cameras that are robotically controlled, while BT has humans behind them. BT has an audio technician in his own room to monitor audio levels. Morning News doesn’t.
In Global’s defence, the severe technical issues it faced in its first weeks on the air haven’t been nearly as bad since. The show works, and isn’t nearly as cringe-inducing, but BT has those small touches that make the difference between something that looks like a low-budget community TV program and a professional show designed for a mass audience.
I’m not a good judge of talent. Whether one host is more engaging than another, I don’t really know. Only when it gets really awkward do I see a problem. But here are some thoughts on the on-air personalities of these two shows.
Joanne Vrakas is a natural in front of the camera. She’s had enough jobs in TV and radio that live broadcasting doesn’t faze her. She’s quick-witted, warm and personable, and always seems to be in a good mood. She works well as a news anchor or as an Oprah-style interviewer. Her energetic style might not rub everyone the right way (literally, she’s quite touchy-feely), but it works for a morning show.
Alexandre Despatie seemed like an odd choice when I first heard it. Yeah, he’s done some broadcasting, but mostly in ways related to his career as a diver. He doesn’t have the same experience as other broadcasters, and this risked being a major hindrance. Was this just going to be a hobby for him? Something to keep him occupied until he finds bigger things to do? Well, as it turns out, he’s not bad at this. He never seems lost or confused or nervous. He’s not as comfortable in front of the camera as Vrakas, and it feels as though he’s relying on the script a bit often, but he doesn’t seem out of place. He’s definitely exceeded expectations.
Catherine Verdon-Diamond was an administrative assistant at CBC when her boss said she should be in front of the camera. That seems a no-brainer in hindsight. “CVD”, as she’s referred to on-air, is, like Vrakas, very energetic and comfortable in front of the camera, so much so that she’ll occasionally start singing. She never misses a beat in delivering her weather and traffic reports, nor does she ever seem like she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. A solid hire.
Wilder Weir, the “Live Eye” host, is in a position that is designed to put him in adventurous or perhaps embarrassing situations, and he’s clearly game. I don’t know if he’s fully comfortable in the role yet, but and he can be a bit stiff at times during his interviews, but he does the job well and he looks more and more like he’s really having fun. Considering his segments are very brief, about 2 minutes each, you can’t expect him to do much more with them than he does.
Elias Makos has experience explaining things on television, so his new role doesn’t put him in a new position. And he’s familiar with technology enough that he can talk about Microsoft, Facebook, Reddit or iPhones until his lips turn blue. He seems to be one of the few people in television who can work those giant touch screens without making it seem awkward. His other job, commenting sports with Despatie, doesn’t seem nearly as informative, but more on that below.
Laura Casella is a news reporter, having earned her chops at CJAD. And other than trying too hard to look the part (trenchcoat and all), her job hasn’t really changed here. Her reports are professional and informative (as informative as a story can be when you’re putting it together before sunrise), and she’s prepared to stand outside in all sorts of horrible weather conditions as necessary.
Camille Ross is warm, inviting and eager to please. Her experience is as a TV reporter, and it shows. She’s in her element conducting interviews, and knows her stuff.
Richard Dagenais is someone I have a hard time trying to figure out. One broadcaster described him as someone who turns on like a light switch or a juke box. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. He seems very excited, especially for a guy his age, and he too often relies on crutches, like giving us the time (which is already on screen).
Jessica Laventure is, with due respect to her colleagues, the one who steals the spotlight on this show. She clearly loves what she does and her happiness never seems at all faked. Her experience working at MétéoMédia means she knows her way around a weather map, and her charisma in front of the camera means they can send her anywhere and she can make it entertaining.
If there’s one place where Global can count on an advantage, it’s news. City Montreal doesn’t really have a news department. It doesn’t have an evening or late-night newscast. All its news is contained in the morning show. On top of that, Global has a national network of newsrooms and a national newscast. City’s only real news resources are in Toronto.
Global’s Morning News has the benefit of being able to run packages from the previous day’s newscast, and it will run one or two, along with some briefs announced by Ross. The only big downside is that there’s no one chasing breaking news. There’s no roving reporter who can report live from the scene of an event that happened overnight.
Breakfast Television has one of those roving reporters with Casella. But her usefulness is limited to that one story. She has to find a remote location to report from, whether or not there’s a breaking news story there. And when you’re reporting at 6am, it’s kind of hit-and-miss whether there’s anything interesting enough to even warrant going out there. Casella’s work is combined with Levon Sevunts, who handles news behind the scenes. They can create an acceptable, if brief, newscast, but it seems incomplete. Local stories are either insufficiently covered or missing entirely. National stories often aren’t covered unless they have something they can use from City Toronto. And while they have some international stories at their disposal, they seem to take too much space when there’s so little local news being covered by comparison.
BT tries to make up for this a bit by following its newscast with Vrakas showing a couple of stories from local papers’ websites. (It’s always the francophone media, strangely, never The Gazette, CBC or CJAD.)
Global gets the edge here for actually presenting more local news to the viewer, but that’s mitigated by City’s advantage in being able to better cover breaking news.
No complaints here. Verdon-Diamond and Laventure are both very charismatic and know what they’re doing. Weather forecasts don’t really vary enough to be able to draw significant differences between the two. Laventure’s experience with MétéoMédia might give her a slight edge on the information front, but both will give you the basics fine.
Global and City do take different approaches to traffic reports. At BT, traffic reporting duties fall to Verdon-Diamond, who combines them with her weather reports. And she does a fine job of getting the basic traffic info out there. The “estimated drive time” charts, as seen above, are also worthy of note for providing useful information to drivers.
At Global, traffic is kind of outsourced to a radio traffic reporter. At first, it was The Beat’s morning traffic reporter Natasha Hall who would provide the updates. Eventually it went to Debbi Marsellos, who also contributes to The Beat. In any case, the report is delivered over the phone (we never actually see Marsellos) to some automated maps of traffic movement. The result is a report that probably has more information (radio traffic reporters have made a science of cramming as much detail into their precious seconds as possible), but doesn’t quite look as nice.
Logically, you would think sports highlights would be an important part of a morning show. After all, if you’re up at 6am, chances are you didn’t stay up to watch the previous night’s action and want to get a good idea of what happened.
Unfortunately I find neither show does a really good job at their sports segments. Morning News doesn’t really have a dedicated sports segment. If the Canadiens, Alouettes or Impact played the night before, there will be a brief recounting of highlights, but that’s it.
For BT, the sports segment either features Despatie and Makos on the couch talking a bit about sports, or near the end of the show has a national Sportsnet package that has little local flavour. The Despatie/Makos chats aren’t so much giving news about sports as they are water-cooler-style chats about sports. I’m not crazy about that format. I don’t really care what Despatie or Makos thinks of the Canadiens game. I want to know what happened. A more formal highlights package would, I think, work a lot better here. If you’re going to talk about the game instead of saying what happened in it, give me some thoughtful analysis or opinions from an expert.
On Morning News, entertainment news is presented almost as filler at times when they don’t have anything else to talk about. Which is fine by me.
Breakfast Television has segments devoted to entertainment once an hour after the newscast. Early in the show it’s delivered by Despatie, who basically just reads off a script. Later, it’s a package put together by Toronto. Both lack local flavour, particularly since Quebec’s entertainment scene is so different from the rest of Canada.
Another disappointment on both sides here.
Both shows provide a range of interviews on a variety of subjects, and have competent interviewers. Where the shows differ is on more of a technical level than anything else. BT’s larger set means it can have exercise segments, or cooking segments, or fashion segments, making use of the studio space. Global can do these things, but space and technical issues limit their usefulness.
A year after launching, Global is still trying to find ways of getting Jessica Laventure out of the studio. A West Island “satellite” is still being worked on, a way to keep Laventure closer to where much of the audience lives. When she is out on location, though, Laventure has some really good segments. And the playfulness of cameraman Yannick Gadbois adds to the fun.
At BT, because the roles of remote host and weather presenter are separated, Wilder Weir can focus more on setting up good segments. He’s out doing something every day, and it’s almost always interesting.
The latest ratings report shows both shows have about the same audience. There’s some interpretation that goes into that, and we’ll see in May if BT’s numbers are really on as much of a rise as its staff thinks they are. Whether they’ll be able to put a dent in Canada AM’s audience will depend a bit on marketing (which both stations could do much better) and a bit on whether Montreal anglophone audiences really want a local voice in the morning.
As I note in the introduction, Global’s Morning News had the head start, but City’s Breakfast Television has far more resources. The latter is more than likely going to win this battle over time.
It doesn’t matter too much in the end, though, as far as the shows’ survival is concerned. Both of these shows are on the air to satisfy obligations to the CRTC. Morning News is funded for five years, after which it will probably eventually disappear again unless something radical happens (though five years is a long time in broadcasting). Breakfast Television will remain on the air so long as City wants to keep operating a station in Montreal. Though whether its staffing level will remain the same over time is hard to predict.
For the record, the first few minutes of Global Montreal’s Morning News, a year ago, and of Breakfast Television on Aug. 26:
The Montreal Morning Show Drinking Game
(I am not responsible for the consequences of overdrinking by playing this game.)
When watching Global’s Morning News, drink whenever:
- There’s an awkward silence during a handoff
- Richard Dagenais gives the time
- Global cameraman Yannick Gadbois appears on camera
- Camille Ross mentions what day of the week it is
- Richard Dagenais reminds us or is reminded that he’s a Senators fan
- A reflection or shadow results in shimmering of the chroma key
When watching City’s Breakfast Television, drink whenever:
- Someone says “You’re watching Breakfast Television only on City”
- Someone says “standing by”
- Catherine Verdon-Diamond sings
- Joanne Vrakas touches someone on the arm
- Someone gives an exaggerated compliment to a co-host
- The show goes to commercial with a camera pointed toward a breakfast food sponsor
Breakfast Television was written up in Broadcaster magazine, which provides some details on it from a technical perspective.