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France may be regarded as world famous for its cinema, (1) with a sizeable body of critical literature circulating in journals and books, from studies on the nouvelle vague (2) and the films of Jean-Luc Godard (3) through to Brigitte Bardot as icon and the creme brulee-cracking, interfering Amelie Poulain (Audrey Tautou); (4) but hardly anything is really known about its television outside of France. (5) Presented in the following pages is a selective exploration of French television, which, because of obvious limits of time and space, cannot be exhaustive. It is, nonetheless, an attempt to sketch out the institutional and cultural landscape of French television, to understand its history and dissect some of what is currently happening. French and British scholars, using their different methodological tools and alternative approaches to studying television, have come together to dialogue on this subject. What also emerges is a reminder that what we think we understand within our own framework, changes and takes on new cultural meanings in a different, albeit contemporary, neighbouring European country.

Television, perhaps surprisingly, occupies a strange place in the French national culture. Once an exciting place of experimentation and creative reflection (see, essays by Gilles Delavaud, Michael Witt and John Ellis), today, even for some working in the industry, and especially those writing for it, television has collapsed to a considerably low rank in the cultural hierarchy. So why talk about French television? Many would indeed agree that this is not necessarily the most exciting time for television production in France, yet there are some interesting trends and developments worth noting. To appreciate these and the people behind them, as well as try to grasp the cultural context of French television, it is first useful to have a glance at its television history.

French public service broadcasting, and its relationship with the private sector, is different from most other nations. Unlike the British concept of 'public service' as an independent body, dissociated from government, public service in France is bound up in a complex reciprocal relation with the State. Essentially, television emerged as an instrument of the State. As Waddick Doyle put it, 'In theory at least, the French republic is not only the protector of freedoms but also the body that forms a free citizenry and a national culture'. (6) Lodged deep into this concept of nationhood is a protectionism, in which the function of public service broadcasting is to inoculate the State and endorse French culture, while defending both, at home and abroad. Even today France remains a strong advocate of protectionist quotas for television. It is therefore important to acknowledge that the history of French television is closely bound to the history of the nation and the State's involvement in culture.

At the beginning, the State absorbed television into the service of the nation. Both state-owned and state-controlled, RTF (Radiodiffusion-television francaise) (7) was set up on 4 February 1949, establishing a centralised administrative model and bureaucratic structure that would shape the national public broadcaster. Under the Fifth Republic (following the Second World War), television legislation mutated according to election cycles, subject to the vicissitudes of party politics and changing government policy. From 1958 until 1984, for instance, there were four different statuts (statutes) governing French broadcasting. This exercise of power reveals how the spending, investment and management plans for television became questions of political conviction; and the responsibility for broadcasting fell under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Information, later Culture, sometimes Communication. Employees of the state broadcaster were in effect civil servants, with appointments such as channel controller and chief news editor made directly by the State, (8) which, in turn, compromised freedom of expression (a point developed later in this issue by Claire Secail in her article on French TV news and its reporting of crime).

There was initially only one channel, 'la tele', on RTF, which, in 1955, broadcast a mere 40 hours a week. (9) It is important to acknowledge that television is coded 'as being part of what is called [la] culture audiovisuelle', (10) where the medium is viewed as less reputable, less prestigious and celebrated, than cinema. Television was treated with mild suspicion and this unease translated into how successive governments agonised over how best to govern and regulate it; 'elites in particular were skeptical of television, perceiving it as a harbinger of mass culture and Americanization'. (11)

It is into this context that Jean d'Arcy intervened--charted by Gilles Delavaud in his contribution. Television was at that time questioned as a creative medium, an instrument only used to transmit a cherished French cultural heritage; but d'Arcy, the head of programming at RTF between 1952-59, did not view the public service mission in quite the same way. Under his leadership, French television became animated with a similar sense of triple purpose to the BBC, to educate, inform and entertain, taking culture to the people. Same words, same interpretation: not entirely. In France, television was not, at least not in the minds of early practitioners like d'Arcy, a uniquely educational tool. Television was meant to serve as town crier (bringing news and information), a public service offered by government paid for by public money, like the school system or social security system (national health insurance). The television public service brought French cultural heritage, literature and theatre, into the home as well as counsel (answering practical everyday questions) and entertainment plus instruction.

Delavaud begins with an introduction to d'Arcy's thoughts about television as a creative form, similar in tone to what the Cahiers critics had to say about film, and no doubt influenced by existentialism. D'Arcy's ideas about television creativity are followed by an analysis of the series he produced, Lectures pour tous (1953-68). Inaugurating the genre of the television book show (emission litteraire), the series absorbed the cultural mission of television, 'bringing the rich legacy of the French humanistic tradition directly into the homes and heads of the nation's citizens'. (12) During its 15-year run, Lectures pour tous 'provided one of the dominant platforms for the televising of philosophy in France', (130 with guests including Umberto Eco, Roland Barthes, Vladimir Nabokov, Michel Foucault, Jean-Paul Sartre--Simone de Beauvoir also appeared to discuss her latest book, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958). If turning philosophy into a form of public life was not enough, what the series also did, in accordance with the creative principles articulated by d'Arcy, was to produce a television mise en scene for the look and 'feel' of that public debate. As Tamara Chaplin says, 'few countries have worked as hard as France to merge the word and the image via the small screen'. (14)

The 1960s was an era of expansion. On 18 April 1964, the second channel was launched; and colour was introduced in 1967. Television ownership rose during the period, from 13 per cent in 1960 to 70 per cent a decade later. (15) Along with the increase in revenue collected from the redevance (licence fee), advertising was introduced in 1968. In only one decade French television had caught up with what it had taken the UK and the United States 20 years to accomplish.

Legislation transformed RTF into ORTF (Office de Radiodiffusion-television francaise), which was established on 27 June 1964. Through the authority held by these different bodies, the State was directly involved in television; these organisations exercised control of industrial and commercial objectives, limited competition and protected the market, until the beginning of privatisation in the mid-1980s when ratings and advertising revenues started to dictate broadcast policy.

In July 1974, the Chirac Government (under the presidency of Valery Giscard d'Estaing) announced the end of the ORTF. It was transformed into seven separate bodies--three television channels or Societes de programme (TF1, Antenne 2, FR3), a radio company (Radio France), a production company (SFP), an engineering company (TDF) and INA (Institut National de la Communication Audiovisuelle; later changed to Institut National de l'Audiovisuel). Created by what Jill Forbes called a 'legislative afterthought', (16) INA emerged as an important producer, particularly in the field of documentary. 'INA thus became one of three new bodies to hold a producer's card [carte de producteur], and between 1975 and 1979 the production team, under Manette Bertin ... undertook a policy of co-production.' (17) What was produced by INA was remarkable, with 'a commitment to the new and the experimental'; (18) but INA also 'intervened at a time when few new or original productions were being mounted by television elsewhere in France as a direct result of the ORTF reform'. (19)

As an outcome, the list of filmmakers funded by INA's first production policy (20) is exceptional; and the article by Michael Witt examines how this policy led to an exhilarating period of invention and ingenuity in French documentary, contributing to its renaissance in the 1980s and 1990s, propelled further by the underpinning philosophical and political spirit of May 1968. Television's originality, and much of its early appeal, was based on the live broadcast, and this, in turn, contributed to, as discussed by Witt, the foundation of a school of documentary in terms of its themes and content. Spurred on by Thierry Garrel, documentary filmmakers found their place in INA and on television working with the institution to find new means of creation and expression, all the while informing, instructing and entertaining the eyes and minds of the audience.

This extraordinary period of innovation and freedom in documentary filmmaking inspired others from aboard. John Ellis' polemic 1984 essay is reprinted here, offering a personal perspective on how this creative flowering in France was perceived in the UK at a moment when the broadcasting ecology of Channel 4 started to change and the impulse to experiment dwindle. Yet these experimental documentaries were often not broadcast in France. As mentioned by Witt, these films were offered to every broadcaster. However, some took them but never aired them; or, if they did take the films, the broadcaster scheduled them late into the night where they found only a small, minority audience. The period Witt and Ellis describe left an indelible mark; but mostly television reverted to 'regular TV', except perhaps for ARTE, Canal Plus and some of the other specialised cable channels like Paris Premiere. Nevertheless, a deep-seated respect for documentaries grew out of this tradition and has remained strong in France. Although more recently the form has fallen into the shadows, partly due to public disinterest, or perhaps the programming policies at the commercial terrestrial channels. However, documentaries are still occasionally shown on certain channels during primetime, where they vie with the fictions on the other channels.

INA, and the research on television it undertook, during this period of creativity, put France ahead of other countries. INA was not only responsible for innovative production in France, but it was also 'concerned with training, research, experimentation, conservation and the exploitation of the national audiovisual heritage'. (21) Before the Television Bill passed into law in 1974, paving the way for INA, parliamentary debates over the reform of ORTF highlighted the important role of research and experimentation, as well as the need for professional training and archive. The Chinaud Report, (22) meanwhile, zeroed in on the necessity to improve standards in archival conservation and archiving practices. Addressing how INA responded to these calls, the French television historian Isabelle Veyrat-Masson reviews the history of the organisation with emphasis on the purpose of archiving audiovisual material. Starting as an archive for professionals and offering help with training, INA became, after the 1992 Copyright Registration Law, a legal deposit. This led to the creation of the Inatheque in 1995.

The INA archive project sought to be exhaustive. It encouraged research on television, and what it had to say about French society and thought gave rise to a veritable social anthropology through the audiovisual medium. The history told by Veyrat-Masson deals with the question of archival practices, availability and nationhood, especially once the Bibliotheque Franq:ois-Mitterrand (23) in Paris opened to the public in October 1998. Veyrat-Masson thus adds to the archive debate that CST has long been committed to broadening, (24) with a contribution focused on digitalisation and the role archives play within the collective memory of a nation.

The state of French television since the late 1980s has become a far more mixed affair, with public and private channels competing in the domestic market and privately-owned companies, like TFI and the encrypted pay TV channel Canal Plus, emerging as major international players. From the 1980s it became possible to watch television all day on some of the channels, which increased with the proliferation of cable and satellite channels. But this very active period in French television coincided, because of TV fictions, with a decline in its reputation. People might have watched Sous le soleil (1996-2008; it was a record breaking export for France in mostly non-Anglophone territories (25)) while professing to hate it, or decried the fact that teens were watching Helene et les Gargons (1992-94), despite researchers desiring to comprehend the phenomenon. (26) Many other daytime soap opera fictions were imported, such as the dubbed into French US Guiding Light (1952-2009), Loving (1983-95), Days of Our Lives (1965-present), The Young and the Restless (1973-present) or Latin-American telenovelas. Night time soaps came to terrestrial channels in the late-1980s/early1990s, with Dallas (1978-91), followed by Dynasty (1981-89) and Falcon Crest (1981-90), always regarded as a guilty pleasure given the poor reputation of entertainment television. The only fictions with any credibility were the telefilms (made-for-TV movies) like Maupassant classics (27)--films featuring cinema stars. If telefilm was a more noble form of fiction than the series for a long time, documentaries had little to fear; but the tendency is now being reversed.

The discovery of US series (28) at the end of the 1990s, especially ER (1994-2009) (29) and Ally McBeal (1997-2002), and later CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000-present), Law&Order (1990-2010) and Heroes (2006-10), marked a significant turning point in the public's perception of the shows. No one could have failed to notice the shift, when Lost (2004-10) replaced the Sunday night film on TF1: neither television executives and advertisers, nor audiences. This was the beginning of a major reversal in public attitudes towards fictional entertainment and television watching. Viewers started to recognise that TV fiction could not only entertain but inform. As people became more knowledgeable, for example, about issues facing the legal professions, the Ministry of Justice in France became concerned that the French were mistaking the American criminal justice system for their own as a result of watching popular shows like Ally McBeal or The Practice (1997-2004). It was certainly cheaper to purchase foreign series than to produce French-made alternatives. (30) When the industry did commit to producing a new series it was rarely greeted with any enthusiasm from the audience; and besides, the writers could produce neither the quality nor the quantity required to satisfy demand. Yet these developments did eventually generate a new energy in French television fiction writing. Barbara Villez conducts an interview with Nathalie Laurent, the artistic director of fictions at TFI, France's most prominent commercial channel, to discuss these issues.

Other non-fiction programmes belong to the model championed by d'Arcy--informing and instructing while entertaining. Shows that came out of the early period created a long-term tendency, which continued through the 1980s and 1990s--literary programmes: Bernard Pivot's Apostrophes (1975-1990, later becoming Bouillon de Culture 1991-2001); discussion shows: Alain Jerome presenting Armand Jammot's Dossiers de l'Ecran (1967-91) sparked by a film in the first part and issues debated by guests in the second, Michel Polac's Droit de Reponse (1981-87), some of which are discussed by Patrick Charaudeau, Guy Lochard and Jean-Claude Soulages in their contribution on the talk-show in France.

Another television talk-show institution is the France 2 breakfast show, Telematin (1985-present). Ian Christie discusses its production style, detecting influences from the television experimentation of the 1980s as well as a strong French cinematic tradition--all of which can be seen in the aesthetics of this show. But Telematin is also an indication of the French acceptance of monopoly--there is only one breakfast show and always has been. The channels may be in competition with one another, but at the same time have divided up the audiovisual landscape, (31) targeting specific audiences.

Competition has nevertheless left TV news chasing the audience, leading to sensationalisation, particularly in the reporting of crime. Taking an historical perspective, Claire Secail traces how television news has handled stories of crime over time. Television has frequently been used for political ends, by capitalising not only on the growing importance of crime stories in the evening news, but also in the public taste for them. Secail charts a complex reciprocal history involving politicians and journalists over crime reporting.

The issue concludes with perspectives on translation, adaptation of culture and trading television. Shannon Wells-Lassagne offers insight into the remaking of the UK sitcom, The Office (2001-3) into the French, Le Bureau (2006). This contribution explores the shift of premise, setting and characters into a French context, but also engages with the reasons behind its ultimate failure in France. Wells-Lassagne's investigation into why Le Bureau failed to find an audience raises some fundamental questions about the limits of adaptation and insufficiences of translation.

Building on similar themes, the dossier deals with the international success of the policier series Engrenages (2005-present), known in the UK as Spiral. This collection of pieces explores why the series became the biggest-selling TV export in foreign territories that had rarely, if ever, licensed French TV shows before. The dossier combines statistical data of French viewers watching the show on Canal Plus, two interviews with those involved in the international circulation of Engrenages and a reflective piece on Spiral at BBC Four. This collection of different voices from different perspectives offers a nuanced picture of the movement of a fiction from one territory to another: it focuses on how Engrenages translated into Spiral, how a regular French investigation show morphed into a critically-acclaimed Euro-crime hit. What did one culture see that the other did not? Spiral certainly opened up new possibilities for French TV sales; but the successful trading of Spiral (and its limits) also raises some important critical questions in how cultural worth and value also become traded, transferred and translated. Spiral did well in the UK because it mattered to those who mattered; and as, Lucy Mazdon claims, language and location strongly conditioned the reception of the show in the UK, adding value and prestige.

An objective of the issue, but also an unexpected challenge which arose in the translation and editing, is the confrontation of two perspectives: articles about French television written by French TV scholars read through a British perspective; UK academics writing about French television through the prism of their own experience and expectations. While talking about the same thing, our comprehension did not always coincide. It took a lot of discussion to take advantage of the collaboration between French and British scholars to enhance our appreciation of what the other was saying.

So what was obvious in one context was not obvious in another national/cultural environment; French conceptualisation and British pragmatism shapes the way we receive information and echoes throughout and across this issue; and this resonance reveals the necessity for new theories and new approaches to translating ideas, adapting theories and conceptualising the slippages and critical lacuna.

Part of the project has been the unforeseen discourse of what we started to call 'shocks', the unexpected disclosing of cultural difference, the sudden disorientation engendered by the different ways of thinking and performing scholarship, never entirely anticipated when we started. This cultural encounter got us thinking about the perception of another culture shaped in and through our own cultural understandings; wearing the 'lenses' of one's own country and hearing with one's own language. It requires multiple ways of thinking and talking, of looking and seeing, of conceptualising the possibilities at the borders of meaning making.

There is research being undertaken in France that requires translation. There are essays by critics like Serge Daney and Andre Bazin which remain un-translated, and there are others that are being published here for the first time. This issue is offered as a significant step in contributing to that mission; but it also encourages further research into the different channels addressing different publics (channels like Paris Premiere not mentioned here), traditions of French acting translating (or not) into television, acquisitions and sales, collaboration between education and television within the French context, government efforts to control television viewing practices (Hadopi Laws, for example), as well as further work on trading television and translating cultural value/worth of channel brands and its productions internationally.


The Cardiff School of Creative and Cultural Industries based at the University of Glamorgan continue to fund CST, for which the editors are extremely grateful. As ever, we extend appreciation to Greg Thorpe, for managing the project at MUP, as well as Meredith Carroll, for her support at the Press. The editors of this themed-issue, in particular, would like to acknowledge and extend our heartfelt thanks to the many individuals whose help, advice and generosity made this issue possible. In particular, our gratitude goes to Eloise Villez for translating the French into English, and Mike Allen for copyediting. The editors would also like to extend thanks to Isabelle Veyrat-Masson for additional research information and clarification. Barbara Villez would like to thank Nathalie Laurent, Elodie Florent, Sandrine Diot and Stephane Dubois from TF1, for help in putting the TFI interview together. Janet McCabe thanks Michael Temple for invaluable advice, as well as Sue Deeks and Lisa Henshall at the BBC, and Laetitia Recayte at Newen Distribution, for giving generously of their time and giving permission to reprint the interviews for the dossier.

Barbara Villez Paris, July 2012

Janet McCabe London, July 2012


(1) See, for example, Michael Temple and Michael Witt, eds, The French Cinema Book, bfi Publishing, 2008; Remi Fournier Lanzoni, French Cinema: From Its Beginnings to the Present, Continuum, 2004; Lucy Mazdon, France on Film: Reflections on Popular French Cinema, Columbia University Press, 2001; Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau, eds, French Film: Texts and Contexts, Routledge, 2000.

(2) See, for example, Ginette Vincendeau and Peter Graham, eds, The French New Wave: Critical Landmarks, bfi Publishing, 2009; Dorota Ostrowska, Reading the French New Wave, Columbia University Press, 2008; Naomi Greene, The French New Wave: A New Look, Wallflower Press, 2007; Richard Neupert, A History of the French New Wave Cinema, 2nd Edition, University of Wisconsin Press, 2007; Jim Hillier, ed, Cahiers du Cinema: The 1950s: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave. Volume 1, Harvard University Press, 1985; Jim Hillier, ed, Cahiers du Cinema: 1960-1968: New Wave, New Cinema, Reevaluating Hollywood. Volume 2, Harvard University Press, 1992.

(3) See, for example, Jean-Luc Godard, Godard on Godard, Da Capo Press, 1986; Richard Brody, Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, Picador, 2009; Michael Temple, James S. Williams, Michael Witt, eds, For Ever Godard, Black Dog Publishing, 2007; Douglas Morrey, Jean-Luc Godard, Manchester University Press, 2005; David Sterritt, The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible, Cambridge University Press, 1999; Kaja Silverman, Harun Farocki, Speaking About Godard, NYU Press, 1998.

(4) See, for example, Ginette Vincendeau, Stars and Stardom in French Cinema, Continuum International Publishing, 2000.

(5) Studies on French television in the English language are few, but include: Lucy Mazdon, 'Contemporary French Television, the Nation, and the Family: Continuity and Change,' Television & New Media, 2, November 2001, 335-349; Michael Scriven and Monia Lecomte, eds, Television Broadcasting in Contemporary Britain and France, Bergahan Books, 1999; Hugh Dauncey, 'French "Reality Television'" More than a matter of taste?' European Journal of Communication, 11, 1, 1996, 83-106; Hugh Dauncey, 'Reality shows on French Television: Tele-verite, Tele-service, Tele-civisme or Tele-flicaille?' French Cultural Studies, 5, 13, 1994, 85-98.

(6) Waddick Doyle, 'French Television,' in John Sinclair and Graeme Turner, eds, Contemporary World Television, bfi Publishing, 2004, p. 74.

(7) RTF replaced the post-war RDF (Radiodiffusion francaise), founded on 23 March 1945, which, in turn, superseded RN Radiodiffusion Nationale), inaugurated on 29 July 1939.

(8) Jill Forbes, 'How INA Became an Institution,' in Jill Forbes, ed, INA--French for Innovation: the Work of the Institut National de la Communication in Cinema and Television, BFI Dossier 22, British Film Institute, 1984, p. 6.

(9) Isabelle Veyrat-Masson and Monique Sauvage, Histoire de la television francaise, de 1935 a nos jours, 2012, p. 45.

(10) Doyle, 'French Television,' p. 74.

(11) Tamara Chaplin, Turning on the Mind: French Philosophers on Television, University of Chicago Press, 2007, p. 31.

(12) Ibid., p. 52.

(13) Ibid.

(14) Ibid.

(15) Figures quoted in Forbes, 'How INA Became an Institution,' p. 6

(16) Forbes, 'How INA Became an Institution,' p. 6.

(17) Ibid., p. 8.

(18) A Statement by Jacques Pomonti, President of INA, in Forbes, ed., INA--French for Innovation, p. 2.

(19) Forbes, 'How INA Became an Institution,' p. 8.

(20) See, 'Production Policy: Two Interviews with Manette Bertin,' in Forbes, ed., INA French for Innovation, p. 11-16.

(21) A Statement by Jacques Pomonti, INA--French for Innovation, p. 2.

(22) The Chinaud Report. Journal Officiel, Documents Assemblee Nationale, 1873-74, 1072, 20 June 1974.

(23) Bibliotheque nationale de France (BNF); for further information, see,, accessed 21 July 2012.

(24) See, 'Television Archives: Accessing TV History' themed-issue, Lez Cooke and Robin Nelson, eds, Critical Studies in Television, 5, 2, Autumn 2010.

(25) The soap opera aired in Germany (on channel VOX), Switzerland (TRS), Finland (Chanel 4) and Denmark (TV2), as well as Brazil, Russia, Colombia, South Korea, Hungary, Mexico, Peru, Poland, Slovenia, Turkey, Serbia, Estonia, Tajikistan and Ukraine (to name a few).

(26) Dominique Pasquier, La Culture des Sentiments. L'experience televisuelle des adolescents, Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l'Homme, 1999.

(27) For example, Aux champs, France 5, (rerun) 30 April 2012; La Parure, France 2, (rerun) 10 March 2009.

(28) In primetime, these US shows are dubbed into French; but sometimes, late at night, on lesser known channels, these programmes can be viewed in English with French subtitles. Currently, it is possible to find some series, like Dr. House on TF1, in English during primetime, because the technology allows viewers to choose between the dubbed and original versions. This is an interesting development and requires further research.

(29) For French audience reception of the series, see, Sabine Chalvon-Demersay, 'La Confusion des conditions. Une enquete sur la serie televisee Urgences,' Reseaux, 95, 1999, 235-83.

(30) See Barbara Villez, Series televisions de la Justice, PUF, 2005, chapter 5; translated and updated in Television and the Legal System, Routledge, 2009, chapter 5.

(31) French audiovisual landscape in French is known as the PAF (le paysage audiovisuel francais).
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Author:Villez, Barbara; McCabe, Janet
Publication:Critical Studies in Television
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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