The French TV Landscape: The Organized Chaos

French TV Channels

[Editor’s Note: Daemon’s TV is proud to have a fantastic guest writer from across the pond. Please welcome Carole, one of the writers of the great French TV website, Critictoo. Carole was nice enough to put together a great article explaining the ins and outs of French TV.

If you have you ever been upset when a show was on hiatus for a week or two or whether you had to wait until 10 pm to watch your favorite show, then trust me that after reading this article, you will gain some newfound appreciation of how US TV Networks operate.]

When Sandie asked me if I could write about TV broadcasting in France, she mentioned remembering that the main programming occurring mainly on Saturday nights. While that used to be the case, that was a long time ago!

French TV Broadcasting is a very challenging topic these days because a lot of change occurred during the last 3 years, and scripted TV (like you call it) has become more prominent.

Before I go any further, let me break down the basics of French television:

Our French box

First of all, there are five free TV networks that everybody has:

TF1, France 2, France 3, France 5/Arte, M6.

The First and last one (TF1 and M6) are private and thrive thanks to advertising mostly.

France 2, France 3, France 5/Arte are part of what we call France Televisions (sometimes referred in Variety) and are government funded. Their revenue comes from advertising of course and public subsidies (Taken from a license fee paid by each French viewer).

In addition, there is also Canal + (which is the French version HBO or Showtime, if we must make a comparison). It is subscriber supported and does not have any commercials. In the world of TV shows, it’s an important channel.

While there are other ways of watching TV (Cable, Satellite and more), recently there was an important evolution of our television: DTT (Digital Terrestrial Television).

DTT is composed of 20 free digital channels. You buy a little box, you connect it, and here we go! (You can have extra channels, but you must pay for them.)

American TV shows in France

From what I know, Americans are not really open to foreign programs. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a criticism, just an observation. I know that there are notable exceptions such as Torchwood or Flashpoint. Still, US TV Shows lead the pack in France.

I grew up with American TV shows. And, even if England is really close, their production doesn’t export so well in France. It’s better these days but it still is a small part of the French TV landscape. So in France, Americans have the power!

During my parents’ youth (the 70’s), there were some good French TV shows. That is not really the case anymore as I only grew up with some ok French TV shows. Right now, I watch US TV shows primarily. So let’s face it, French production is muddying along while shows like CSI dominate our little box.

French Schedule

I’m going to make a parallel between your networks and ours, with the intention of making it clearer.

ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC and The CW program TV shows start at 8 p.m. and the night stop at 11 p.m. Honestly, I have no idea what is on after.

Well, here, TF1, France 2/3, M6 or Canal + or any other channels, don’t begin at the same time slot.

At 8 p.m, for most part, it’s the evening news (except on cable or TNT) for half an hour. Sometimes, you can have commercials on TF1 and then around 9 pm, you start watching primetime TV.

Recently, to make things more complicated, our president changed the rules. So, France Televisions begins now its prime-time at 8:35 p.m, because there are no more ads after 8 p.m.

I’m gonna take very precise examples, but non exhaustive, to illustrate the way the schedule is done here :

Monday, March 2nd

Monday March 2nd French TV Schedule

[**Editor’s note: Notice the uneven start times]

This is the prime-time, the first part of the evening, and except for Canal +, everybody has access to these channels.

The night goes on:

Monday March 2nd French TV Schedule Part 2

[**Editor’s Note: The crazy times keep going. Try to Tivo That]

I’m pretty sure I made my point!

There is no precise time to schedule a TV show. It’s when the channel wants to. In addition, French TV don’t follow the American rhythm of one episode per week. They prefer a 2 episode rhythm where you can have a new episode followed by an old episode. Or sometime you can even have 3 new episodes per week.

The best part, I think, is that there is only one commercial break (3-5 minutes long), in private networks and no break during a program for France Televisions.

I’m gonna stay on TF1, the big channel:

TF1 Schedule

There are 2 French TV shows, and sometimes, there are none (we make them more like in England, if I can say). You can have an American TV show Tuesday, not really a big of a deal, and Sunday.

Sunday is a different story all together. Literally.

For a long time, TF1 scheduled a movie on Sunday. It was, apparently, like a tradition. But the numbers were not so good, and in September ’06, TF1 decided to put CSI on air at this time slot. That created a ruckus for folks. A poll even said that only 34% were in favor of TV shows on Sunday. I didn’t really care about that, but I know that some of my friends were against.

The irony of it all was two folds:

1) France 2, the public channel, always scheduled ER Sunday night and at the time, nobody complained about that.


2) CSI had better ratings than movies.

So, today, there is no ideal moment or day to watch a specific TV show. We just wait until the channel announces the broadcasting.

Now, to make matters worse, the challenge becomes having to determine which of the primetime shows are actually worthy to watch.

CSI is a big deal for TF1 (And I mean the whole franchise). It can be schedule on prime or later. Even on a Sunday afternoon. France 2 made all its success in this category with Without a Trace and Cold Case (today, ER is the in second or third part of the evening).

M6 has the very popular NCIS, had good numbers with Prison Break, Bones or Medium. It’s a hard game, and TF1 is the best. The network has CSI, Grey’s Anatomy, Criminal Minds, and House. Very successful shows here.

But this week, Life is debuting. As you may know, this is a very good show with Damian Lewis (well, personally, I like it a lot). In the US, it airs on Wednesdays at 9 p.m. if I am not mistaken. I know, ratings are not great, but when it’s the case here, it’s removed from the program schedule. I digress. Here in France, the show begins Wednesday, after House, at 11:15 p.m. House and Grey’s Anatomy were also programmed in these time slots (but on a different day) before they were moved to primetime (with season 3 for both shows).

It’s not the same game on DTT, and it can be risky. The Sarah Connor Chronicles (on prime Thursday night on TMC on DTT) has good numbers, but after two nights, Burn Notice had to be removed (on prime the same night, on W9 on TNT).

So, some shows are really big success and go to prime, others will never have this chance because the viewers will not follow. Monk (on TF1) has good ratings in the afternoon (during the week or on week-end) but could never survive on prime. Lost and Heroes survived on prime one season, after they tanked, the channel changed the schedule (TF1, too!).

A sitcom has not access to prime. The best for this category, it’s 8 p.m., for people who don’t watch news.

We can go on like that for a long time… If it’s really simple for me, I can easily imagine that it’s not for you. It’s very French actually; we always make things complicated especially when they could be simple

Today, we live in a period where there are a lot of changes. TV shows are more present, France Television evolves and changes… This is, right now, a mix between the way American, English, and French make television.

Merci for your attention

Carole –