Speaking notes from Michel Bissonnette at The Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal

March 14, 2018, Montreal

Informing, enlightening and entertaining in the digital age: what is Radio-Canada's role in today's society?



Thank you, Michel, for that nice introduction. Before I begin, I’d like to acknowledge the guests at the head table. I’d also like to thank everyone for coming today. It’s been just over a year since I made the move from the private sector to the public sector to work for Radio-Canada. Every day, I meet people who ask me how I’m finding it. I tell them Radio-Canada is exactly like working in the private sector but – it’s a little more complicated!

We receive government funding to fulfill our mandate, but we also have to generate advertising revenue – it’s a little complicated! On the same channel, we broadcast Cheval-Serpent, a series that takes place in a male strip club, and we also have a show called . . . Le jour du Seigneur. Complicated! When we produce signature events, we’re criticized for being too commercial. When we focus more on culture, we’re criticized for being too elitist. Complicated, I’m telling you!

People also ask me: “Is it helpful to have a Quebecer as Minister of Canadian Heritage?” The answer is definitely yes. But when you have content like Infoman, Marc Labrèche and Bye Bye, that’s when it can get complicated.

On a more serious note, I’m really very happy to be part of the country’s largest cultural institution. Every day, I work with passionate people who strongly believe that a public broadcaster is relevant in 2018. And I thank them for giving me such a warm welcome.

I’d like to talk to you today about issues relating to culture and francophone identity, which are concerns for me. I’d also like to speak to you about the role of a public broadcaster in 2018 and the importance of greater collaboration within the media industry.

Let’s start with culture.

Until very recently, we were living in a protected environment. Through its regulations, the CRTC was responsible for deciding which television channels were given access to the Canadian market. It was also the CRTC that made sure there was original Canadian content on the air. Whether we’re at TVA, Télé-Québec, Canal Vie or Radio-Canada, we all have Cancon quotas to meet. Same thing on radio. CKOI, Énergie, Rouge and Rythme FM, just like ICI MUSIQUE, are all required to maintain minimum levels for Canadian and French-language music.

Those quotas have made it possible for an entire star system to develop. Above all, they have given several generations of Quebecers the opportunity to see themselves reflected in our productions and hear their stories. It’s also a combination of regulations and public funding that helped create a thriving independent production industry, whose expertise reaches across the country and around the world.

Unfortunately, that era is now long gone.

The two main barriers that protected us up to now have collapsed. Digital delivery has eliminated the physical barrier by allowing content to circulate without regard for borders. The other barrier, namely language, seems to be disappearing as well, especially among the younger generations.

I like numbers. Here are a few that I’m concerned about and that we should all be concerned about.

Today, more than half of English-speaking Canadians subscribe to Netflix. That’s a big number. Among francophones, we could take comfort in the fact that with its 31% subscription rate,1. our Asterix-inspired Gallic village is still resisting the invader. But when you look at the 18 to 34 age group, that rate jumps to 55%! It’s a good example of how language and content origin are becoming less and less important for young people.

Of course, Netflix isn’t the only giant coming to compete against us. Amazon arrived here last year with Prime Video. CBS recently launched its own service in the U.S. and announced that it will be available here in Canada next June. And finally, Disney said that it’s also developing its own video streaming service to compete with Netflix head on. They’re arriving with budgets that we couldn’t even dream of here. Apple’s annual budget: $1 billion. Amazon: $4 billion. Netflix: $8 billion.

All this is happening right when we’re starting to really experience changes in viewing habits among francophones. Last fall, for the first time, we saw a major decline in our market’s television audience – I’m talking about a 15% drop among the 25–54 age group.2.

These changes have an impact on our revenues and, by extension, our ability as an industry to finance original French-language content. Original content, as you know, is the name of the game.

We have good reasons to be concerned about the future of our identity and our culture. Our only weapon to defend ourselves is our creativity.

Our music, artists, authors and stories are already connecting with audiences all over the world. There’s no reason to think we can’t continue to create original, compelling and relevant content that can interest French-speaking audiences anywhere on the planet. But defending and promoting our culture can no longer be solely the government’s responsibility. It has to be a responsibility for all of us.

What is Radio-Canada doing under these conditions? On ICI RADIO-CANADA TÉLÉ alone, more than $500 million in Canadian content was generated last year, including our spending on regional television and news and current affairs.

We’re both a cultural and economic force.

I also want to highlight the exceptional contributions by TVA as well as V, Bell and Télé-Québec. Like Radio-Canada, they all invest in original content and independent productions. Each of them does a remarkable job contributing to our industry’s vitality and, most importantly, our culture.

As you can see, we are already doing a lot to provide francophones with quality content; but I think we can do even more. We need to develop new reflexes in our industry. More and more, we need to ask how we can work together to compete more effectively against the Googles, Netflixes and Facebooks of this world.

In December, we announced what we intend to do at Radio-Canada to help increase the worldwide reach of made-in-Canada content in French. In fact, we put forward three measures to help independent producers make a name for themselves in the global marketplace.

First, our distribution team has negotiated strategic alliances with four Canadian and international distributors. Second, we announced a $2.5 million investment to support project development for the international market. Third, we’re soon going to launch Panora.tv, an online platform to help export documentary content to emerging markets and digital services.

Those are very concrete examples of how our public broadcaster can have an impact in the industry.

Along those same lines, we’re also working on a new vision for ICI TOU.TV, our digital streaming platform. We want to open up the platform to other broadcasters, producers and creators, to implement an unparalleled offering of French-language video content.

Since I first started in this position, I’ve often said that our public broadcaster doesn’t necessarily have to do something else, but it has to do what it does differently. You’ve just seen what that can look like for us, in our way of working with the industry.

From the Canadian public’s point of view, doing things differently means imagining the added value we can bring to them. What will they get from us that they can’t get elsewhere?

A public broadcaster that does things differently gives you ICI PREMIÈRE, commercial-free talk radio covering the entire country. The radio lineup we offer is definitely distinctive. And that doesn’t prevent ICI PREMIÈRE from beating audience records. In Greater Montreal, our radio programming has had its best-ever results this year.

You’ve probably heard of our morning show Gravel le matin here in Montreal; but there are 19 other morning shows in as many regions of the country. At the regional level, Radio-Canada therefore has:

  • 20 radio morning shows
  • 17 drive-home shows
  • 13 editions of the supper-hour Téléjournal TV newscast
  • 21 regional websites

For us, French-speaking Canadians are just as important whether they’re in Saskatoon, Sherbrooke or Montreal.

Doing things differently, in our case, is also a new way of looking at our offering in the digital sphere. Until very recently, if you lived in Winnipeg, Rimouski or even Quebec City, regional news often ended on Friday evening after the 6 p.m. newscast. If something important happened over the weekend, you had to wait until Monday for regional coverage.

We opted for a digital-first strategy, and the federal government’s reinvestment has enabled us to go even further. We adapted to what Canadians expect of us and they want information in real time. Regional audiences can now count on coverage seven days a week. Our websites and social media are being updated continuously as news happens. Radio newscasts during the day are produced locally and there are regional editions of the Téléjournal every day of the week. That’s another way to do things differently.

There was a time when you were considered to have made it a journalist if your item ran on the late-night newscast. If your item ran on the supper-hour newscast, you were considered to be an up-and-comer. And if your story ran on a digital platform, you were definitely the newsroom newbie.

Today, our internal culture is undergoing a profound transformation, but we’re not abandoning our principles. On the web and social media, we’re making sure Radio-Canada is an oasis of credibility. Our journalistic standards and practices are held up as an industry model. In the era of fake news, that’s our best guarantee of credibility. It’s certainly one of the reasons why Radio-Canada.ca is the most popular news site among francophones.3.

Doing things differently when it comes to news also means having one of the largest teams of journalists in the country, together with an outstanding network of foreign correspondents. Seasoned journalists who provide a Canadian perspective on what’s happening in the world.

Doing things differently also means news and current affairs programs that account for 43% of the ICI TÉLÉ schedule between 6 and 11 p.m. With a 23% prime-time share this past fall, which was our best performance in 14 years, ICI RADIO-CANADA TÉLÉ remains one of the favourite television networks among French-speaking Canadians.

I’m proud to say that last fall, we were #1 in four of the six regional markets during prime time.4. Out of the 50 programs most watched by francophones from September to December, half were from Radio-Canada. That’s nothing to sneeze at!

First launched in 2010, ICI TOU.TV continues to make inroads as a leading source of digital French-language content in Canada. Original productions are fundamental to our platform’s success. With offerings such as Série noire, Cheval-Serpent, Trop and Véro.tv, to name just a few, we’ve been able to generate an average of over 5 million monthly views. In January, our traffic even beat a record with more than 7 million views.

In a nutshell, doing things differently at Radio-Canada means:

  • Having the largest news team in the country, together with a unique network of foreign correspondents
  • Offering commercial-free talk radio in every region across Canada
  • Operating 20 regional stations, including 12 in French-language minority communities
  • Being the only French-language mainstream TV network with seven current affairs shows in our schedule, including four in prime time
  • Making a stronger commitment than ever towards French-language culture and original homegrown content

Our challenge in 2018 is not only to continue doing things differently. It’s also to stay relevant in the coming years. We have to keep in mind that we’re working first and foremost for Canadians. If they don’t find us relevant and if they don’t feel they’d be losing something essential if Radio-Canada were no longer around, our public broadcaster could lose its legitimacy within a few years.

All French-speaking Canadians, regardless of their generation, origin or region, must be able to feel engaged and identify with our content.

Radio-Canada must continue to innovate and renew itself. In the months ahead, we’ll keep on improving and enriching the ICI TOU.TV offering to make it the country’s go-to platform for French-language content.

We’re also going to make our mark in the digital space with credible news content that’s richer than ever. All our platforms will feature even more original content designed to be compelling, relevant and inclusive. On radio, we’ll enhance our original digital offering to continue setting the standard for French-language audio content.

We want Radio-Canada to be more digital, more innovative, more diverse and more connected to Canadians. That’s our plan for the years to come.

This is a major shift that will be reflected in all our actions, including our new Maison de Radio-Canada in Montreal, set to be inaugurated in 2020. Open, modern and welcoming, the new broadcast centre will of course be technologically advanced. Plus, it will be a key economic engine for Montreal, a city known for its creativity and innovation.

With its immense atrium and Place Radio-Canada, located at the corner of René-Lévesque and Alexandre-de-Sève, the new MRC will be an extraordinary space bringing together the public, the creative community and the public broadcaster’s programming teams.

To tell you the truth, I really look forward to welcoming you to your new home in 2020. You’ll see how we’ve succeeded in transforming ourselves to remain relevant and productive.

Our relevance as a public broadcaster also depends on how we contribute to our industry and society. The coming weeks and months will be rich in opportunities to continue the conversation about Radio-Canada’s mandate and obligations.

The federal government announced its vision for culture and Canadian content last fall and said that the Broadcasting Act, which includes Radio-Canada’s mandate, would be updated. The government also asked the CRTC to conduct a study of business models in our industry. And next year, Radio-Canada will go before the CRTC to renew its licences.

As a society, we have to consider whether we want a U.S.-style public broadcasting model, occupying a niche with funding from donations, or whether we prefer a model that looks more like the BBC, which is at the heart of British life and showcases British creativity all over the world.

To any francophone, the answer is obvious. The cradle of French-speaking North America needs a strong public broadcaster. To stay strong, Radio-Canada must continue to carry out its mandate of informing, enlightening and entertaining Canadians, but in the digital age. Our strength lies in balancing those three pillars.

To continue fulfilling our role, we need to make an impact. We have to be a relevant, effective public broadcaster.

While the Facebooks of this world use their algorithms to show you what you like, at Radio-Canada we’re going to offer you a range of viewpoints. You watched a documentary on climate change? We’ll suggest content with differing perspectives. That’s our role as a public broadcaster.

A little over a year ago, I arrived at Radio-Canada with the firm belief that our public broadcaster was more relevant than ever in our society. Fifteen months later, as you can see, my convictions haven’t changed – quite the opposite in fact.

I’ll show my conviction as I work to make sure Canadians identify with and see themselves reflected in their public broadcaster – so much so that they won’t be able to live without it. I’ll also show that conviction as I work actively with industry colleagues, including Bell, Quebecor, Groupe V Média, Télé-Québec and the others.

We have to stand strong, together, against the major international players so that French-speaking Canadians can continue to hear their voices and their stories, conveying values and perspectives that resonate with them. That’s the commitment I made when I came to Radio-Canada and I’m renewing that commitment here with you today.

In closing, I’d like to give you an advance preview of the first instalment in a promo campaign we’ll be rolling out at the end of the month. I’m extremely proud of this campaign whose goal to show how our public broadcaster can bring people together in different ways. In this first promo, we talk about living together. You’ll see that Entre nous, c’est Radio-Canada.

Thank you.

1. Media Technology Monitor (MTM), fall 2017

2 Numeris, PPM, fall 2017 – Radio-Canada Research

3. comScore, December 2017

4. Numeris, TV diaries, fall 2017 – Radio-Canada Research

Search highlight tool