PARIS DAYS ; French TV zapped by the trash barons

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The Independent Online
I can date precisely the moment I decided Paris was a hardship post. It was a Saturday at around 5.30pm (or 4.30pm in Britain). I was listening to the BBC World Service coverage of the third round of the FA Cup. Fifteen minutes before the end of the commentary game, and the round-up of final scores, a smug, schoolmistressy voice, announced (with a tone of sadistic glee): "We are now going over to the world news in German..." Panic.

I located the signal from Radio Five Live, fighting to be heard on the medium wave above Radio Sofia and an Italian Euro-pop station. Like a member of the Resistance precariously tuned into coded wartime announcements from London, I decrypted the football scores, flat on the floor, ear pressed to a spluttering radio.

Paris has its compensations, but they are not audio-visual. The scandal of Saturday afternoons is compounded by the unsatisfactory situation on the television on Saturday evenings. And on Sunday evenings, Monday evenings, Tuesday evenings, Wednesday evenings ...

We signed upfor cable television, which offers 30 choices plus six pay- as-you-view channels. I was never much of a telly addict in Britain but began watching avidly in Paris, hoping to improve my French and my knowledge of France. I had been told the advent of cable, and privatisation of the principal television station, TFI, had improved quality and variety.

Not a bit of it. In a recent poll, 64 per cent of French people said they had experienced physical illness after watching television, through tedium or fury at being taken for abruti (cretins); 66 per cent said television insulted their intelligence, compared to 36 per cent 10 years ago. Question: has French television got more stupid - or viewers more intelligent?

Here is a typical night's trawl through the Parisian cable menu. Zap. TFI, sinking in popularity but still watched by a third of viewers, is showing a dubbed American B-grade film from the 1980s, Cherie, J'ai retreci les gosses (Honey, I've Shrunk the Kids). Zap. State-owned France 2 has a pedestrian game-show in which contestants guess the names of old French songs.

Zap. Canal Jimmy is showing Fawlty Towers, dubbed. Basil "Il ne faut pas parler de la guerre" Fawlty emerges bizarrely in his French spoken persona as a rather sedate man. Zap. On the Animal Channel, hyenas are eating wildebeest, in washed-out, dubbed BBC footage from the 1960s.

Zap. Arte, the arts channel, watched by 1 per cent of viewers, has an implacably obscure German documentary on post-war refugees, with occasionally visible French sub-titles.

Zap. State-owned France 3 has one of the bookish talking- heads shows which drive foreigners crazy. A reverential interviewer is taking the author through his latest work, with the book open in front of him. The assumption seems to be that viewers will also have the book open in front of them.

Zap. BBC Prime, a disappointing mish-mash of old and ancient BBC drama and sit-coms, is showing I, Claudius (circa 1970). BBC1, still available in Brussels, was abolished in France a few years ago for a tangle of BBC copyright and French regulatory reasons. Zap. The Animal Channel again. Hyenas are now eating zebras.

There is no shortage of rubbish on British television. But where, one asks, is the French version of Our Friends in the North, or House of Cards, or Ballykissangel or even EastEnders? France still has an inventive cinema, a thriving literature. Its television, for all the posturing about the need to defend France from American teleculture, is a creative wasteland.

Coverage of news and current affairs is solid enough, much less domestically obsessed than British television and more willing to give complex subjects room to breathe. But there is a curious obsession, indoors and outdoors, with enormous, obsolete, hand-held microphones, wielded sensuously like ice creams or phallic symbols.

Why is French television so bad? Professionals and commentators offer a mixture of reasons. Lack of funding. Overregulation (films are banned before 11pm on Saturdays to encourage people to go the cinema). There were too many years of government control of too few channels; then there was a flood of cable channels all at once, mostly under-resourced, or seeking a quick profit.

None of this solves the mystery. This is an intelligent, inventive, culturally sophisticated, discriminating nation - which refuses to tolerate second-rate wine, second-rate green beans or second-rate trousers. Why does it create, and tolerate, second-rate television?