Soon to take his leave from Radio-Canada where he served as the topper of children’s programs, Michel Lavoie has been called many things: inspired, highly critical, caring, naive and a great defender of children and their interests.
Playback spoke to several industry professionals as well as friends old and new, and asked them to comment on Lavoie’s 25 years with R.-C. and CBC. Here’s what they had to say.
Championing Canadian Culture
Allan Mirabelli, chairman of the Alliance for Children and Television, was Lavoie’s communications teacher at Loyola College 25 years ago.
“Whatever Michel touches, be it scrips, proposals or whatever, it’s congruent with his views of children’s needs…what their educational needs are, their entertainment needs, what our culture should offer them. It’s always consistent. He wants Canadian children to see themselves on Canadian screens such that they will be inspired. And Michel has delivered on that.”
Mirabelli says lavoie has earned the loyalty and respect of many colleagues over the years.
“Michel’s a very modest guy. During our last awards ceremony, I said a few words abour his retirement. Michel wasn’t expecting it. Well, he fell apart, crying and everything. You see, it’s the children and the products that he produces that count to him, not Michel Lavoie.”
Lavoie’s first commissioned production as a newly named head of youth programming at R.-C. in 1990 was the hugely successful Productions SDA series Les Débrouillards. The show ran over five full seasons featuring Marie-Soleil Tougas and Gregory Charles.
Débrouillards was producer Diane England’s first show for SA, and as such, she says the multiple Prix Gémeaux-winning program was a “beau bébé” for both her and Lavoie. Sur la Piste, now in its third year is another show developed by England and licensed by Lavoie.
“They were happy years,” recalls England. “In the youth section, people weren’t seeking to become stars.
What’s special about Lavoie, she says, was his willingness to program for children, and not only in terms of the broadcaster’s or adults’ interests.
“Michel’s understanding of kids is phenomenal. He can be very critical. We weren’t always on the same wavelength. He could just up and say things like: ‘Hi, you know, I don’t really like your new project.’ He’s open that way, but it’s always from the point of view and he interest of the children. To my mind that’s probably his best quality. If there is a certain type of programming which has helped put Radio-Canada on the map it has been their youth programs which have been praised around the world.”
Vision and Guts
Robert Roy, chairman of the Quebec branch of the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television and an ACT director in the 1980s, says “In difficult times, when ratings and revenues are always stressed, it takes vision and guts to defend a sector like children’s programming. And Michel has those guts. The proof is in his work.”
Roy, who headed up children’s television some 20 years ago says there’s always been a special place for children at the public network. So, when appointing someone to head up the children’s section, we’ve always needed someone who would defend that special concern. We need a visionary, and Michel has defended that vision well.”
Sense of Wonderment
Prisma producer Laurent Bourdon says Lavoie has a special interest in international children’s issues, always making sure he was up to date on the latest trends even when he wasn’t personally present at the big program markets. “He was never chauvinistic, he was always open,” says Bourdon.
Lavoie’s vision–not to mention his initial license, helped make Kitty Cats a widely traveled and delightful puppet show on the local level and internationally.
And because Lavoie was a director for many years, Bourdon says he has sharp creative and production skills.
Bourdon says people with weighty responsibilities in broadcasting often become disillusioned, but not Lavoie.
“He is very close to children. He seems to have an intuition of what kids like and don’t like. He’s a guy who’s as rational as he is naive. A funny combination. He has this real sense of wonderment.”
Dr. André Caron, founder and director of The Centre for Youth and Media, Université de Montréal, syas: “Here at the Media Centre we’ve worked very closely with Michel on program policy, research and development for R.-C. We prestest the shows and look at programming strategy.”
Sesame Street Years
Besides their Old Timers Hockey affiliation (with the hint from Caron that Lavoie may be the better goal scorer), the two men have known each other since the mid-1970’s during the early days of Sesame Street. Caron was doing his PhD at Harvard with the acclaimed Dr. Jerry Lesser, a key personality at the Children’s Television Workshop, the creators of Sesame Street, when Lavoie was asked in 1975 to executive produce the Canadian version.
“They contacted Michel and asked him to be the director of the show. Michel came up with the direction and ended up doing research with my sister and brother-in-law.”
Brought out the best
Dr. Alison d’Anglejan, a recently retired psycho-linguist from the Université de Montreal and a member of the Sesame Street advisory board since 1976, says “Working with Michel was enormous fun. He’s a witty, bright, caring person who brought out the best in everyone.”
“Michel’s concept for Canadian Sesame Street was to introduce some content that was part of Canada, such as multiculturalism. We taught a little French to sensitize the children to the fact that one in four Canadians is French-speaking. It was important that it didn’t look like the American show. He always wanted it to have symbols and content that were specifically Canadian.”
Listen to kids
Jean-Pierre Morin says he approached Lavoie with a program concept called Watatatow in 1990. The show became a long-running and award winning teen soap, in part because of Lavoie’s decision to program it at 5 p.m., making additional Telefilm funding available. “By the end of the year, we’ll have produced 562 episodes We do 90 a year! says Morin.
Lavoie also programmed JBM’s latest show La Bande à Frankie, and earlier, Pixcom’s critically acclaimed teen special Ici Ados-Canada.
“More and more we’re pressured to make children’s shows for the parents. But Michel always makes children’s shows for children. He listens to kids, says Morin.
Of her husband and the father of her two daughters, Patricia Lavoie, VP live-action production and development with Cinar Films, says: “He’s not necessarily a guy who stands in the spotlight with ease. But this tribute is well deserved.”
The TV programming and producing couple met while standing in line to register for post-BA work at Concordia University and have worked in the same field ever since, including many yeas on Sesame Street.
“We lived the show for many years. Finally, we made a deal to stop talking about it at home…and get a life,” says Patricia Lavoie.
“I wouldn’t say that Michel is exactly retired. He’s leaving the CBC. He wants to enter the private sector and do new things. All his international contacts are important because that’s the way our industry is headed–with more foreign co production. So Michel is being courted and has offers to consider.
You’ve really got to love children’s programming and kids to do the job well,” she says. “It wasn’t a high-profile field when we got into it. Michel has been so successful at what he does because he’s focused, he has a lot of energy, and he’s enthusiastic.. But most importantly, he has this ability to understand both the French and English cultures.”