Derome Returns as Radio-Canada Anchor

HE RETURNED with the smile that was his trademark for decades - polite, but distant, a professional's smile. "First, let me tell you it is a pleasure to be back with you," Bernard Derome, 60, said at the top of last Monday night's Radio-Canada television newscast.

Derome Returns as Radio-Canada Anchor

HE RETURNED with the smile that was his trademark for decades - polite, but distant, a professional's smile. "First, let me tell you it is a pleasure to be back with you," Bernard Derome, 60, said at the top of last Monday night's Radio-Canada television newscast. And with that, six chaotic years of messing around with the news were over. In a panic over falling ratings, the public broadcaster had returned to a sure value. It is hard to overstate the fuss this is causing in Quebec.

English-Canadian viewers might try to imagine what it would have been like if the CBC had begged Knowlton Nash back to the anchor desk six years after he retired in 1988. But Nash had been The National's anchorman for only 10 years. Derome was the pillar of Le Téléjournal, The National's French-language equivalent, for 28 years - the entire viewing lifetime of most viewers in Quebec and in francophone households across Canada. He started reading the news at Le Téléjournal in 1970, when he was 26. He covered 21 federal and provincial elections. Three referendums - the big ones in 1980 and 1995, plus the Charlottetown skirmish of 1992.

His unflappable calm seemed indispensable. In millions of households, the highlight of any election night was the moment when Derome would project the winner using an otherwise unremarkable catch-phrase he first employed in 1973: "Si la tendance se maintient ..." ("if the trend holds...").

Then the trend stopped holding. Radio-Canada brass, obsessed with novelty, replaced him with a much younger anchor in 1998. "A first-class burial," Odile Tremblay called it in Le Devoir. Derome insists he needed a good, long break. "I had to go away after 28 years," he says. "It was time. You get tired, physically, mentally."

The young guy, Stéphan Bureau, had his admirers, but he wasn't interested in spending the rest of his life as an anchorman. Last summer it was his turn to walk away from the anchor job. All along, the ratings were doing what ratings usually do when a network fiddles endlessly with its formula: they were slipping steadily against the bland, unspectacular but relentlessly populist newscast offered by the private TVA network.

Rad-Can responded to Bureau's early departure by launching a half-baked, ill-advised overhaul to its entire slate of news and current affairs. The bizarre watchword was "conviviality" - the idea that news should be warm and comfy, like an old shoe. At Le Téléjournal, that meant giving the anchor desk to Gilles Gougeon, a white-haired grandfatherly type who never got used to reading a teleprompter and who seemed to be talking down to his viewers, as if to children.

The ratings promptly stopped drifting downward and began to plummet. Robert Rabinovitch, the president of CBC/Radio-Canada, actually wrote an open letter to Quebec's main French-language newspapers admitting the whole "conviviality" thing had been a mistake. That was in October. Still Gougeon hung on as anchor, attracting no blame and fewer viewers, staring into the camera, looking vaguely haunted.

Derome's return constitutes a return to solid news values, a repudiation of a half-decade's failed innovations - and, some critics suggest, an indictment of a network that hasn't managed to groom a new generation of news talent. Some wonder what place there is at Radio-Canada for women. The network seemed to acknowledge the point when Céline Galipeau, the veteran foreign correspondent and part-time anchor, sat next to Derome at the news conference announcing his return. She wore a long face and, when he said he'd like to stick around for maybe five years, exclaimed: "Not too long, I hope!"

Meanwhile, Derome - who did various tasks for Radio-Canada during his absence - is back in the saddle. "It's all brand new," he says. "I've been away six years. Now off we go." He professes little interest in ratings. "The stories we cover - do people end up knowing a bit more about them? Does it help them understand a bit more? That's the only thing. All the rest - formulas are shit, and you can't reinvent the wheel."

Maclean's March 29, 2004