French TV is not US TV
More sex and nudity
They don't mind putting some pretty racy stuff on TV. They'll air NC17 movies with group sex and fetishistic behavior after about 9:00 on a weeknight, with nothing more than a little warning in the bottom corner of the screen like the "-12" in the screen capture to the right. That symbol indicates that the content of the program may be inappropriate for children under the age of 12.
Nudity is commonly featured in the evening news either as a matter of biology or in the occasional humor, fluff piece. It's always relatively tasteful, and there are many indications that such an open and honest treatment of nudity is probably healthy for children anyway.
Although, it's hard to really make a case for some of the smut that goes on later at night. It varies from stupid celebrity makeout sessions to stuff going on in the backseat of a limo that seems racier than most HBO latenight programming.
France has had a lot fewer channels for a long time. Well into the Twentieth Century, there were only a couple channels in France and TF1 was government-run.
My parents told me that TF1, France 2, France 3 and France 5 have since been privatized, but you can still see that they keep the aura of a public institution. This is positive in that they try not to sensationalize stories as much as some of the other stations like M6 which has always been private.
Arte, a channel that showcases cooperation between Germany and France has a lot of really cool programming. It has a mood that reminds me of a college radio station or public broadcast affiliate. There is interesting programming and, even if it errs on the side of being nerdy, it's always stimulating.
The longstanding Canal+ a channel you once had to pirate with a special box made just to capture that one channel, is now a very common household item (probably more common than HBO in the US, but I don't have the numbers to verify that).
And satellites are absurdly common now too, making a lot of what I'm saying outdated. I don't know what French satellite TV is like, but it's a lot like ours. You can see some programming on French TV that I don't get on my US box including alternative media sources from stations in Cuba and Iraq.
On the whole though, it seems like France has very few channels compared to the hundreds on basic cable in most US population centers.
One of the social effects of having only a dozen or so channels on basic cable is that people are much more likely to have common television watching experiences.
It reminds me of historical accounts of people listening to radio broadcasts in the privacy of their own homes knowing full well that all their friends were listening to the same program. Back when US TVs featured that blank Indian screen for all the dead hours at night, you were much more likely to find out that your friends had watched the same things as you.
This is still the case in France. I'll commonly hear conversations start up about the report they did on TF1. Or everybody will smile when they realize they all watched the same classic 1970s comedy film that ran on M6 at 8:00 last night. I can't remember the last time a group of totally different individuals who just happen to be working together all watched the same show.
Gullible viewer syndrome
One thing I really dislike about TV over there is how gullible the programmers assume we are as viewers. They still have to present a "you are watching a commercial" message that has to last a certain amount of time to separate shows from ads. This is the kind of thing we do on Saturday morning cartoons since it's hard for kids to realize the difference between the show and the commercials. Adults should probably understand the difference though.
Also, news stations will regularly perform quasi-reenactments. In a story about a hunter hurting a friend in the woods, they'll follow the hunter out to the woods with a camera and he'll talk all whispery while describing what he did a week ago even though the camera is there. Or the story will involve an interview where a person says "That's when I got a phone call" (in French of course) and suddenly they have stock footage of that person answering the phone. Ya, okay, I know what a phone call looks like. You didn't have to fake one for me.
Also the translations are really bad. But I don't know if US news channels are any better. A lot of pundits speak in English in the original broadcasts so I KNOW the French translations are poor. I catch them missing small nuances and larger meanings all the time. But I bet American translations of Arabic and East Asian languages is just as bad.
Things start to look the same
As I mentioned before, satellites are making more channels available and things are beginning to get very similar between French and US TV.
Furthermore, show selection is getting more and more similar. French TV outside of primetime has always been dominated by American syndication. I grew up watching Adam West speak French to Robin and you can still catch TJ Hooker within a couple hours of Monk.
But now, even primetime is being swept by American shows. Heroes gets dubbed and broadcasted within ONE DAY of the original American broadcast. And similar programs syndicate shows like Prisonbreak and House very very quickly.
So one day, it'll all be the same. Oh well.
Well...not EXACTLY the same...
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