Shocking? Yes, but the French loved it

Osons peddles crude sex and sick satire - and it's a hit with ratings-driven TV executives. Stephen Jessel reports
Two topless dancers cavort, the band plays and the back-cloth, in the form of the fly buttons of an enormous pair of jeans, parts to introduce two hours of what is widely regarded as one of the most meretricious programmes ever broadcast on French television.

It's an enormous success in terms of audience share. The programme, broadcast in prime-time on Saturday night on the commercial channel TFI, the most popular of France's five uncoded terrestrial channels, is Osons (Let's dare). It was presented by Patrick Sebastien, one of the country's best-known show-business personalities and a friend of President Jacques Chirac.

Even before the broadcast, the showexcited controversy. Although pre- recorded, it was not shown to critics. One newspaper which got wind of its style and contents told readers it preferred to leave three-quarters of a page blank rather than preview it.

On transmission, the show contrived a blend of blasphemy, homophobia, sexism - at one point Sebastien lay on the ground taking photographs up the skirts of passing young women - bad language, half-witted interviews, candid camera stunts and about two decent jokes.

But it was a sketch allegedly parodying the views of Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the far-right and virulently xenophobic National Front, that was held to have broken new ground.

Disguised as Le Pen, Sebastien sat at a piano and crooned to young Front supporters a song entitled "Casser Du Noir", which loosely translates as "beating up blacks''. It concluded with an invitation to the audience to "light your lighters and set them (immigrants) on fire''.

Throughout this number, the camera cut away to a jovial, avuncular Le Pen, sitting at home watching a tape of the item in the company of a friend who was one of Sebastien's guests on the show.

At the end of the song, in a complaisant interview with the friend, he said how amused he had been, was congratulated on his sporting attitude, and awarded a "prize'' - a holiday in Morocco described in a voiceover with a thick Arab accent.

The critics hated the whole thing. The daily Liberation dismissed it as "nausea-television'' while Le Monde ran out of adjectives after describing it as vulgar, crude, filthy, voyeuristic, racist and insulting. But TFI's ratings-obsessed executives are more impressed by the audience - 51.5 per cent of the public watching television that night turned in. This was just under 10 million people - a sixth of the entire population.

The truth is, for a nation that so prides itself on its cultural level, the French watch some very poor television, rare islands of excellence emerging from a sea of American soaps, home-grown sitcoms, grim variety shows and quizzes.

Programming is increasingly driven by the imperatives of the Audimat - the panel of 2,300 households whose viewing habits are closely monitored - and the consequent advertising revenue.

Les Niouzes, an early evening satirical show, was pulled after only five days because of low ratings. The presenter of another programme, dropped for the same reason, was publicly described as "an industrial accident'' by his boss.

The need to come up with the sensational has now infected news programmes, not that many senior TV journalists have ever been too concerned by the distinction between journalism and showbusiness.

France 2, the main public channel, recently put out a rivetting, but quite untrue, report about the sighting of a young Algerian wanted in connection with recent bombings, said to have been filmed buying champagne glasses in a Paris department store.

The same channel has dropped a current affairs series using hidden cameras amid complaints that one recent "exclusive'' was staged. An award to a documentary-maker has been suspended after reports that a Colombian boy in her film, whose eyes were said to have been stolen for transplant purposes, was in fact blind from natural causes.

TFI is planning another Sebastien spectacular. A poll found 70 per cent of those watching were not shocked by Osons, with only 6 per cent "badly shocked". Half disputed the claim that Le Pen was given too easy a ride. But it will be the all-powerful Audimat and the reaction of advertisers that will decide the show's future and, increasingly, much of French television.