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CBC/Radio-Canada longtime host, Guy A. Lepage, right, and Dany Turcotte, on Tout le monde en parle.Courtesy of CBC/Radio-Canada

It was a Sunday night in September and about one million Quebeckers were looking at the Health Minister’s forehead.

Appearing on Tout le monde en parle, the province’s most popular talk show, Christian Dubé looked anxious; Nixonian beads of sweat gathered on his brow.

Rumours were circulating that the government planned to place Montreal and Quebec City in the “red,” the highest level in its colour-coded pandemic alert system and a harbinger of strict restrictions on business and social life.

Still, even the show’s longtime host, Guy A. Lepage, sounded surprised when the minister came out and said it.

“Everyone has seen the explosion of cases," Mr. Dubé said. “We’ve gotten to that point.”

Just like that, Quebec learned its metropolis and its capital would be entering semi-lockdown: amidst the studio lights and red sofas of a Radio-Canada sound stage.

Some journalists criticized the Health Minister for his indiscretion, but no one was surprised at the choice of venue: Since the show launched in 2004, it has made a habit of breaking news and dominating the water-cooler conversation.

Its very name, “Everyone’s talking about it,” tells a story: On Sunday nights in Quebec, as often as not, everyone is talking about Tout le monde en parle. Viewership rarely dips below seven figures, in a province of just over 8 million – an audience share roughly double that of the most popular U.S. TV show, Sunday Night Football. In a global media landscape increasingly fractured by the Internet, that kind of market dominance is almost unheard of.

Mr. Lepage and his program have become even more ubiquitous during the COVID-19 crisis, as Quebeckers seek a common forum for guidance, consolation, and debate in one of the hardest periods in recent provincial history.

The show’s time slot and cultural cachet make it well-suited to the role, argued Jean-Philippe Warren, research chair for the Study of Quebec at Concordia University.

Tout le monde en parle is the Mass of Quebec television,” he said.

The province has never needed its secular communion more.

The show’s almost freakish success begins with Mr. Lepage himself. The veteran comedian with eccentric hair and a glint in his eye was already a star in Quebec showbiz when Radio-Canada asked him to host TLMEP after the broadcaster bought the rights from a French network.

He quickly found himself “in the middle of a television monster." Something about Mr. Lepage and the format seemed to click with Quebeckers, who immediately tuned in by the millions. For more than two hours – a luxuriant stretch of time by TV standards – celebrities, politicians, and intellectuals joined their host around little tables, sipped wine, and chatted. When a guest finished their segment, they remained on set, and sometimes joined in the conversation, like at a dinner party.

The template remains largely unchanged today, providing a rare chance to see Quebec luminaries from disparate fields sitting side-by-side: constitutional lawyer Julius Grey and tennis prodigy Félix Auger-Aliassime, for example, or the singer Coeur de pirate and former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe.

This shaggy structure is held together by long interviews with Mr. Lepage, who has a kind of everyman innocence that allows him to be tough and frank without seeming combative. “Because I wasn’t a journalist I could ask serious questions,” he said, “but in a way that was like, ‘Come now, Mr. Premier.’”

Political guests have provided some of the show’s most memorable moments. The late NDP leader Jack Layton appeared with a cane and a smile in 2011, winning over Quebeckers with a happy warrior attitude (and solid French) that helped propel his party’s “Orange Wave” in that year’s federal election.

Although Mr. Lepage is a committed sovereigntist, he is evidently more committed to creating sparks on set than advancing a political agenda. He says he welcomes the role of “devil’s advocate,” no matter the devil – including former Premier Jean Charest, whom he never liked in office, but got along with on set.

That approach has made the host a kind of universal “uncle” figure in Quebec, said Prof. Warren, someone “who brings people together, who gets us to talk.”

In convening his weekly national conversation, Mr. Lepage benefits from a rare degree of cultural cohesion in the province. Quebec has a star system that resembles nothing else in Canada – a contingent of celebrities who make movies and music mainly for a local audience and have their personal lives chronicled in tabloid-style magazines like Allô Vedettes and La Semaine.

That constellation of famous faces goes hand-in-hand with Quebec’s devotion to homegrown entertainment. In his book Cracking the Quebec Code, pollster Jean-Marc Léger notes that in March, 2016, 28 of the 30 most popular shows in Quebec were made in Quebec. (Only five of English Canada’s top 30 were domestic productions.)

When Quebeckers like a show, meanwhile, they really like it. Most Sunday nights, Tout le monde en parle is soundly beaten in the ratings by the singing competition La Voix, which earned about two million viewers per week before the pandemic – a quarter of the province’s population.

Nowhere else in North America rivals the strength of Quebec’s broadcasting mainstream, especially in an era when social media and services like Netflix have eaten into the traditional general audience, observed Christian Bourque, executive vice-president of the polling and marketing firm Léger.

“It’s as if every Sunday is a Super Bowl in Quebec," he said.

This powerful provincial zeitgeist is partly a result of the language barrier, of course, but Mr. Bourque said he believes centuries-old traditions of community living are also at play, with popular culture replacing religion as an adhesive force. “TV became the church steps,” he said. “It’s where everybody sort of met.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has done nothing to abate Quebec’s need for common gathering places. On certain days in April, when the crisis was at its worst, Premier François Legault’s press conferences drew nearly three million viewers eager for news and reassurance.

Tout le monde en parle has adapted to the intensity of the moment by regularly filming live for the first time in its 17-year history. “The news was moving so fast that it didn’t make sense to film on a Thursday,” said Dany Meloul, general manager of television at Radio-Canada.

The studio audience is gone, but guests still appear in-person, and Mr. Lepage believes that new intimacy leads some to confide in him more freely; his puckish sidekick, Dany Turcotte, observed that it was like doing radio with excessive lighting. In any case, audiences have rewarded the crew with higher ratings. This spring, the show raked in an average of 1,262,000 viewers per episode.

Those numbers bring influence to steer the public discourse, and even government policy. This fall, Mr. Lepage held a bracing interview with a COVID-19 survivor named Francis Bizard, who was in a coma for 12 days after becoming infected, and received a tracheotomy that requires him to push a button around his Adam’s apple in order to speak.

In the heat of the first wave, the show hosted former Doctors Without Borders president Joanne Liu, who argued that the province should allow people to don protective equipment and visit loved ones in long-term care. The provincial government changed course and allowed the practice within days. (Another, less notable guest that evening: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.)

For all his comedian’s insouciance, Mr. Lepage knows it’s a serious business to serve as the communal fireside for a society in crisis. Recent episodes touching on systemic racism, freedom of speech, and COVID-19 have contained fewer laughs than usual.

At times it has felt as though the empty studio was filled with the anxiously held breath of a million Quebeckers. But the host whose breezy charm has made him the king of Sunday night in Quebec seems to relish the new challenge.

“It’s a big responsibility,” he said. “We have the shoulders for it.”

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