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25th Anniversary of RDI (#133)

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Today is not only New Year’s Day, but it’s also the 25th anniversary of RDI (le Réseau de l’information), North America’s first French-language 24-hour television news station, owned and operated by the public broadcaster Radio-Canada, based in Montréal.     It’s a CRTC designated “Category A” station, which means everyone in Canada receives it as part of their basic television bundle.

The official name is ICI RDI.

The 1990s were a period in which most regions and jurisdictions across the world were creating their own local 24-hour news channels, a trend which continues today.    Countries as diverse as Albania, Turkey, Argentina, Kazakhstan, the US, India, and China (to list just a few in a very long list) all have their own 24-hour news television stations.  It allows them to stay on top of local issues, in their local languages – and they play a vital role in keeping issues in the forefront.

Here at home, our 24-hour TV news stations definitely focus on local issues, and competition can be quite fierce.   We now have a wide-range of such stations across the country:  RDI (French), Newsworld (English), LCN (French) and CTV News Channel (English).  We also have other minor, specialty, headline or opinion 24-news channels in both English and French.

RDI’s main competition is the French-language 24-hour news station LCI which attracts greater viewership numbers.

My own thoughts regarding RDI

I’m a News Junky (for those of you learning French, there actually is no direct translation in French for the slang expression “News Junky”.  The closest phrase would probably be “un accro des nouvelles” or “un adepte des actualités”).

In a nutshell, I think RDI plays a valuable role, and I have a great deal of positive things to say about the station, its program line-up, its on-air personalities, and their overall product.   It’s a channel I regularly watch as I’m doing things around the house (I wouldn’t have the channel on if I didn’t believe it’s worth watching).  But I also have criticisms and a number beefs about the direction RDI has taken.

As a Radio-Canada channel, RDI has a few hundred journalists at its disposition, a network of a few-dozen overseas and pan-Canadian news bureaus (which all belong to CBC and Radio-Canada), it’s part of a billion dollar television corporation and thus can do things many smaller stations never could.  Along with this comes all the power that stems from the notoriety of being one of Canada’s main news networks (if RDI asks a major politician, business person, or other news-maker a question during a news conference, they’re going to get an answer).

Because of this, RDI keeps politicians on their toes, it has the power and ability to investigate economic, societal or political issues which may otherwise go unnoticed, and it can shape public opinion (which has both pro’s and con’s).

As someone who goes back-and-forth between our nation’s two languages, cultures, and even physically between Québec and the rest of Canada (I’ve lived all over Canada, including Québec, and I have business in Québec through my own business ventures), I pay attention to how equitable RDI’s reporting is in a national sense.  Over the past few years, I’ve noticed that their news headlines seem to cover more and more pan-Canadian news.  In the early years, this didn’t seem to be the case (or at least it didn’t feel like it was the case).   I can recall living in provinces other than Québec, turning on RDI, and hoping to hear news which affected us in the provinces where I was living.  Yet, most times I was greatly disappointed (almost as if RDI was ignoring news stories elsewhere in Canada).   That has now changed somewhat.    A perfect example:  I am right now visiting Alberta for a couple weeks, I turned on RDI this morning, and the hours’ top news story (broadcast from Montréal) was about a crime that occurred in Calgary, and the second story was about another crime that occurred in Edmonton (both cities are here in Alberta).     In this sense, I commend RDI for having made improvements in the way they balance out their pan-Canadian reporting.

If you were to watch Radio-Canada’s main competitor, LCN (owned by Québecor and Pierre Karl Péladeau), you would generally not see coverage of pan-Canadian issues (LCN is a private network, and Péladeau’s interest is to probably not have LCN to focus on pan-Canadian issues).

With that being said, if I were to rank a station on a scale of 1 to 10 (with “1” signifying its reporting as being completely  geographically equitable regarding issues across Canada, and “10” being completely Québec-Centric, with no coverage of anything outside Québec), I would nonetheless rank RDI as a 7.5, and its competitor LCN as 9.8.   Neither of these are good scores.   This is a the beef I have with RDI.

RDI is supposed to be Canada’s French-language 24-hour public news broadcaster (funded by my and all of my compatriots tax dollars, regardless where they live in Canada), yet I’d only give them a 7.5 for being geographically equitable in their news reporting.    That’s actually quite sad, considering they have access to reporters, hundreds of millions of dollars in resources, and 30 news bureaus all across Canada.  If you live outside Québec, it kind of makes you say to yourself “So much for my tax dollars serving me”.

The 7.5 score I give it for geographic equity becomes even worse if you factor out top-of-the-hour news reports.  Once you look at the programming in remaining 45 minutes between the news headlines,  my 7.5 score quickly becomes a 9.5 or worse (just like LCN). 

My thoughts on four of RDI’s main anchor-programs

RDI has 17 programs and information segments, all of which can be viewed on their main website.  Of these, four stand out as being very Québec-centric (with the others kind of being everywhere on the Québec-centric scale, depending on the topics being discussed).    Below are my thoughts on the four most Québec-centric programs on RDI (which, happen to also be some of RDI’s highest rated programs).

One of RDI’s anchor-programs is Le club des ex, which is a political commentary program – but focused almost 100% on Québec related politics.   If all they talk about is Québec provincial politics, or how Federal government decisions affect Québec, what good is such programming to anyone in Ontario, the Atlantic provinces or the Western provinces and territories?   I have a strong suspicion that the three main commentators would not even be able to name opposition leaders in any other province, let alone reflect many of the political issues important to Canadians outside Québec.  This isn’t a cultural problem or cultural difference… rather it’s 100% a management decision problem.    However, the host of the program, Simon Durivage, I think is one of the best reporters, anchors, and most well-informed, dedicated journalists in all of Canada.   I think it’s completely unfortunate that he’s not playing a much wider journalistic role in RDI.  It’s obvious he knows the issues across Canada, and I think Le Club des ex is actually too narrow of a role for him and could be considered beneath him (this is actually a huge compliment to Durivage).  But, aside from the Québec-centric nature of Le Club des ex, it is a very good program, it’s host does a tremendous job, and the format is quite unique.

Another anchor-program with similar problems is 24/60, hosted by Anne Marie Dusseault.  It’s an opinion-maker program (which I often feel has a slanted political agenda – but I can live with it because it’s important to have exposure to multiple political and social views).  But again, you can’t help but feel it ignores anything occurring elsewhere in Canada if the issues cannot be related back to Québec.  A prime example: Dusseault recently took her show to Vancouver for one episode to interview Robert Latimer (the Saskatchewan farmer who euthanized his mentally handicapped daughter because she was suffering terribly from a debilitating disease).   During the interview, Dusseault constantly steered the issue back to Québec; what Québec should do, how Québec should react, how aspects of Canada’s overall politics may be at odds with some people in Québec, etc etc.   Here she was, reporting on something very important to all of us in Canada, even travelling all the way to Vancouver to interview Latimer (who has likely never even been to Québec himself), but yet her focus was Québec, Québec, Québec.  Latimer simply couldn’t address her questions properly because she kept venturing into unknown territory for him.  It just wasn’t fair for him, and I believe it was really poor reporting in that sense.

RDI Économie is another anchor-program which is quite Québec-centric.  However, this one is different from the above two.  Like Durivage, the host of RDI Économie, Gérald Fillion, is someone who I hold in high esteem.  I believe he’s one of Canada’s best economic television journalists.   He knows his stuff, and he knows the issues across Canada.   Yet, I get the impression he’s boxed into a corner because his program has to generate Québec-based ratings.  Thus, the programs remains heavily Québec-centric.

RDI Matin is the morning news and variety-information program.   Yet, as you’re preparing to leave your house for your commute to work in Winnipeg, Victoria, or Halifax, they’ll warn you about traffic congestion going into downtown Montréal, or over the Champlain Bridge in Montréal, or an accident in Laval just outside Montréal.   The weather report might give updated temperatures in Québec City or Ottawa, but then they may simply say “it will be an OK day in Saskatchewan” (does that mean cold? Or hot? And will it be the same weather in Saskatoon as Regina?).   It’s kind of insulting if you think about it.   Combined with Montréal-centric news and events, you sometimes get the feel you might as well turn the TV off if you’re living somewhere other than Montréal.

In the end, you’re left with the impression you’re watching RDI-“Québec”, despite the fact that RDI’s mandate and tax dollars are supposed to provide people across Canada with access to their news in French.

Why might there be this disconnect?

I’ll be the very first person to say that Anglophone media does just as poor a job reporting on issues in Francophone parts of the country.  Québec garners lower national coverage, than say Ontario.  Acadia does too, as well as Francophone Ontario (which is pretty much all of North East Ontario and an important chunk of Eastern Ontario).  In Canada’s Toronto-centric Anglophone media, these places might as well not even exist, and other aspects of Francophone Canada are ignored out of existence (I also feel that Anglophone Atlantic Canada more than often also gets the short-end of the stick from Toronto-centric Anglophone media, so it’s not just Francophone Canada which gets short-changed).

Remember, the word “Two” exists in the expression “The Two Solitudes”… it takes two to tango (the reason I say Anglophone media can be just as guilty as Francophone media in not covering events across the language divide).

Now that I’ve layed out my beefs, at the end of the day I’m a realist and I get why this situation exists.   And in the end, my overall views about RDI are not as harsh as they may appear from my above comments.

When you’re a media company, it means that you rely on ratings for survival — period!.  No ratings = no $$ = no existence.

The majority of RDI’s viewership is derived from Québec.  So you have you ask yourself if you can swallow the Québec-centric nature RDI’s programming in exchange for justifying its existence.  (Despite the fact that RDI is a public corporation, it is still heavily dependent on advertising dollars, which are dictated by ratings).

Another reason for this disconnect is because of the competition RDI faces from online and social media news.  The age of instantly-available news makes it so that television news has to focus more and more on

  1. analysis programming, and
  2. commentary programming

(both of which are types of programming online and social-media news have more difficulty competing against).

Commentary programming often focuses on politics (the easiest things to comment on), and the general public tends to bend their ear towards, and be better-informed about local politics than the politics of other jurisdictions.   Because RDI is leaning quite heavily on political commentary programming to garner ratings (much more than many of Canada’s other news networks), they have to keep the topics local to maintain viewer numbers.

The general public in Québec wouldn’t have a clue what’s being talked about if commentary programs discuss politics in British Columbia (BC) or Prince Edward Island (PEI) for example.  However, there is room for “analysis programming” to pick up the slack and narrow the gap in this realm.   The general Québec viewer perhaps wouldn’t understand commentaries on BC or PEI politics, but if the issues were explained to them through an analysis program, they then may take an interest (analysis programs are shows which explain the issues, versus commentary programming which simply comments on the issues and presents opinions).

I’m one who will accept RDI’s Québec-centric nature if it means that it remains on air.  RDI does still report on issues across Canada, and that’s important to me and many others.   I wouldn’t want it to become any more Québec-centric — but I have a hunch it will continue to move in the direction of more geographically-equitable reporting with time.  I say this because I see excellent journalists like Fillion, Durivage and many others who have the knowledge and capacity to deliver analysis-based programming rather than commentary-style programming.

It might take a while to get there, but with added pressure to compete against internet and social-media news sources, RDI will have to shift to more analysis programming rather than relying simply on commentaries to compete (to put all your eggs in one basket, ie: too heavily commentary-based, is just bad business basics and practices).  I’m optimistic they will continue to diversify into the realm of analysis programming, which holds more promise for pan-Canadian reporting of issues.

In the end, the news junky in me is just happy that RDI exists (glass half-full…)  🙂

RDI’s official website is http://ici.radio-canada.ca/rdi/. 

Their website has streaming video, news, program info, etc.  Check it out.

Happy 25th RDI !

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