Seventy for 70. That’s the ratio of white TV presenters and actors among nominees for this year’s Artis Awards, a fixture on Quebec network TVA for the past 33 years.
Inclusion has not been a conspicuous feature of recent editions of the widely-seen francophone award show. The past four galas narrowly avoided an all-white field, with one or two nominees of colour each year. Last year’s la Soirée Artis was the first in 16 years to have a female co-host.
The Artis Awards are a people’s-choice affair. The Léger polling firm asks a sample group of 4,000 viewers who their favourite personality or performer is in the 14 categories, which include news and variety shows, dramatic series, and children’s programs. Léger then asks another group of 4,000 people to name their favourite among the top five in each category, as determined by the choices of the first group.
The weakness is not so much in the method of selection, or even the possible bias of some viewers towards white francophone performers. The main problem is that Quebec television hasn’t made much commitment to diversity – or to put it another way, to showing francophone Quebec a televised reflection of an increasingly diverse population. The pool of possible non-white nominees is small.
“Bigger roles must be offered to people of diverse backgrounds if we want to see them among the nominees,” Union des Artistes president Sophie Prégent told La Presse.
La Soirée Artis is an occasion for annual chest-thumping by TVA, and not just because the Québecor broadcaster can count on a good viewer turnout for red-carpet interviews and the gala itself. TVA personalities regularly take home the lion’s share of awards. Ten of 16 winners last year were from TVA shows, one down from the previous year.
Some have questioned this dominance, given that TVA holds only one-quarter of its target audience. How is it that the Léger polling always returns results that are so TVA-positive?, they ask.
The more pressing question is whether these awards in this format are doing Quebec TV as a whole any favours. The Artis Awards are conservative by nature; the same people routinely win in the same categories, because their faces have been on screens for years. As in municipal elections, Artis voters tend to put a premium on familiarity.
TVA could consider dividing the awards, between people’s choice and jury-selected prizes. That would likely bring more new faces to the nominations, and make the gala less predictable. The only problem might be a perceived overlap with the Prix Gémeaux, an industry-juried TV awards gala in September.
At a more fundamental level, of course, Prégent’s diagnosis is exactly on point. If diversity is scarce on Quebec screens, it will also be rare among Artis nominees. The networks need to stir themselves out of their timidity, or obliviousness to social and demographic change in Quebec and beyond.
It’s not as though Quebeckers are loath to celebrate artists of diverse backgrounds. Novelists Kim Thuy and Dany Laferrière, comedian Sugar Sammy (an Artis nominee in 2015 and 2016) and filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin, among others, are stars in Quebec.
Whoever wins the awards on May 12, the losers can be identified in advance. They are all those of diverse background and talents who could bring something new to Quebec screens; all those who will watch the show and see nothing reflective of their own diverse communities; and Quebec television as a whole, which has a tremendous platform upon which to display the breadth and vibrancy of Quebec society today. It just needs to start using it to that end.