Why I watch ‘la télé’

TV controlMy name is Mel and I am a TV addict. There, I’ve said it. You do not want to get between me and my favorite programs: sitcoms, dramas, the odd soap. TV characters are not just my favorite form of entertainment, they are my close personal friends.

When I first moved to France, I felt alone. The televised offering on the basic French channels was frankly pathetic. There was almost nothing that wasn’t dubbed, and watching reruns of American cop shows when the words don’t match the lips was beyond me. Unless something is offered in the original language (even if that language is not English or French), I refuse to watch it. I don’t mind reading subtitles but I want to hear the real voices.

So we got cable and I was saved. We had the BBC! We even had a few channels with American programs in V.O. (‘Version Originale’ or original language version with subtitles). My life changed as I went to my happy place most evenings, once again in the company of friendly faces.

Then we moved to the country and there was no cable. Desolation set in. Until I discovered…wait for it: Sky TV! We weren’t technically allowed access in France but there were ways around it (if you work for Sky, stop reading now). We had a satellite dish installed on our roof and the Sky+ Box became my new BFF.

Suddenly there was a full complement of British TV channels, including movies, all in English! I raved about how wonderful it was for the kids’ English, how fabulous for them to have access to high-quality programming. You could even add subtitles in English to aid comprehension! Well worth the expense. Who was I kidding? It was My Box, no one else’s.

I still watch my box nightly and enjoy a fabulous lineup of original British and American television, mostly recorded in advance, enabling me to zap through the commercials. But that’s entertainment; for news and information I watch French TV.

There are many reasons to watch French television. Sitcom is not one of them. The French do certain kinds of TV really well, especially live shows. Investigative news and information (Envoyé Spécial, 13h15 le samedi/dimanche). Comedy shorts like ‘Un gars et une fille’, ‘Caméra Café’). I’ve never been a fan of the longer dramas and comedies – the scripting is wooden, more like televised theatre than natural speech, and the dialogue may be clever but is just not funny. Most French people watch films on TV and consider series television to be crap. When I see what’s on offer, I can only agree.

Television is a wonderful tool for learning a language. Watching TV in French did wonders for my comprehension. Not just of the language, although that improved immensely. It also taught me a lot about les Français, what is important to them, how they interact – all the social cues and subtext that make up French culture.

The commercials were also a reason to watch. Back in the day when advertisers still spent big budgets on TV, some of best spots were made in France. The subtlety of the humor was brilliant – but why couldn’t they translate that into decent comedy series?

The nightly news, ‘le 20 heures’, taught me to decode the world according to the French. It is not the same as the world portrayed in North America: international news plays a bigger role, although French politics are centre stage. How the French see the rest of the world, especially les américains, has been key to understanding so many things in this country.

Then I discovered the televised format the French do best: live talk shows. These programs are featured in the access-to-prime time slot leading up to the dinner hour. They usually feature a round table of guests and ‘chroniquers’ or TV hosts/editorialists. So while I get dinner ready and enjoy a glass of something, I get a very French view on politics, current affairs, music, film and entertainment. All in good fun.

For years we faithfully watched ‘Le Grand Journal’ on Canal Plus (a pay channel with free access at certain times.) It features the highly entertaining Les Guignols along with an all-star lineup of international guests promoting books, films, albums. Having worked in television, I can say that the technical production of a nightly program like this is amazing. Over the years I witnessed some of the funniest moments ever captured on live television in France, especially back in the days with Philippe Gildas as host and Antoine de Caunes as funny man. But the hosts changed and I never recovered my love of the show after Michel Denizot left to edit the French version of Vanity Fair.

Now my favorite talk show is C’est à Vous. The premise is a dinner party. The guests arrive, usually bearing a hostess gift like flowers or some interesting trinket, and sit around the table while a chef prepares a meal in the open kitchen. The program continues as dinner is served, replete with wine and dessert. It is all very civilized but with lots of humor and sans prétension.

Plateau 'C'est à vous'I love this show. It is so very French to entertain à table. Socially, people relax and the conversational exchanges are more natural. The program usually ends on a live performance by an up-and-coming artist on stage but much more intimate than the performances on the Grand Journal.

C'est à vous

Hostess with the mostest: Anne-Sopie Lapix on France 5

The program host, Anne-Sophie Lapix, is the essence of the modern French woman:  elegant, natural, not overly made up. Authentic and smart. I cannot praise her enough as she manages to hold it together with warmth and intelligence no matter how stroppy certain guests get or even in a recent medical emergency when one of the co-hosts, Patrick Cohen, fainted on set. So catch it if you can, although I’m not sure it’s accessible outside France.

Do you watch TV? C’mon, you can admit it – we’re all friends here.


  1. davidprosser · March 5, 2015

    I’m addicted to any of the antique shows, Bargain Hunt, Put Your Money here Your Mouth Is, The Big Bargain Trip etc and don’t make me miss my Big Bang Theory if you value your life.It’s the best comedy on TV anywhere.
    xxx Massive Hugs Mel xxx

    • MELewis · March 5, 2015

      My kids are addicted to the BBT but I could never get into it. My favorite shows are mostly on Brit TV these days but I’m also ‘accro’ to certain US series like the (rather naughty) Girls. Glad to have a fellow TV fan in the blogosphere! Biggest bises xx

  2. cheergerm · March 5, 2015

    Ok, twist my arm…. I LOVE TV…there, I said it. 😁

    • MELewis · March 5, 2015

      And don’t you feel better? I know I do….so happy to have moral support with my addiction. Cheers my dear!

  3. Albert the Dog · March 5, 2015

    I don’t pay much attention to the TV unless football or tennis is on (I think like the ball moving across the green/blue space). But my People definitely watch: news (public TV news or BBC) and sports mostly.

    They have an Apple TV device now, which connects to on-demand shows and their Netflix account. They don’t watch any series on broadcast TV, but they use Netflix to watch series (a lot of British series, actually). And lately, the Lady has been watching a Spanish series on Netflix to improve her Spanish.

    • MELewis · March 5, 2015

      Your people sound very modern. We also have an Apple TV but I can’t seem to get it to replace my Sky Box. As for Netflix, we are starting to get a limited offering in France but it’s nowhere near as good as you get state-side. My Frenchies sometimes watch TV with me, especially when my hero Cesar Milan and our four-legged friends are on!

  4. Mélanie · March 5, 2015

    My name is Mélanie and I am NOT a TV addict, but I do watch Canal+, la 2 et la 5… 🙂

    • MELewis · March 5, 2015

      They offer the best of French TV. We are clearly on the same channels!

      • Mélanie · March 14, 2015

        of course, we’re 2 Mels… 😉

  5. Osyth · March 5, 2015

    I only have the 12 French channels here by choice and it is a work in progress, a labour of love because in the end I am British and we do things differently to the French – particularly comedically. But you are so right – it helps mahusively with my French comprenhension – both of the language and the nuances of culture. I also pay 5.99 euro a month for a thing called a telepass which gets me access to BBC, ITV and C4 and feeds my aching need for British Drama, comedy and tooth-aching tosh. Great piece by the way …. you always manage to make me nod and smile and quite often blast out an unfeminine guffaw 😀

    • MELewis · March 6, 2015

      Kudos to you for braving it out with the basic French channels….although by the sounds of it, that telepass is a lifeline. Thanks for your compliments, Osyth, it warms my cockles to know that my little struggles are shared and enjoyed by fellow expats. Bises xx

  6. jetgirlcos · March 6, 2015

    Thanks for sharing your TV habits with us! I love reading about your French life 🙂 It’s funny, but although I love TV, especially police shows like NCIS, or Sci-Fi shows like Dr. Who, I only watch with my husband. I can’t really get French TV in Colorado (!) but I can watch certain shows on the internet, like from TV5, for helping me learn. My favorite is Chef Guy Martin’s “Épicerie Fine”…I love learning about French food and culture this way, and it’s why we went to Le Grand Véfour (which was awesome!) in Paris for our anniversary dinner!

    • MELewis · March 6, 2015

      It’s true that online options are a god-send when you live outside the country. I just wish the whole world would get together and solve the access and rights issue – we live in a global village and it’s so unfair that we can’t all access the same content! Sounds like you enjoyed a fabulous anniversary dinner – I am envious! 🙂

  7. Colin Bisset · March 6, 2015

    When I moved to Australia I went into mourning for BBC and Channel 4 as Aussie TV was so awful. But a bright light here is SBS, a TV station for all the different communities in this country. So we get endless French films, the daily French news and the occasional French TV serial in amongst the Chinese dating shows, the Italian cop serials and the Indian news. But I’m very happy to enter my virtual French world – helps me improve my language.

    • MELewis · March 8, 2015

      Mourning: that sure says how I felt for my shows when I first came to France. It’s true that you adjust and find new content that makes you happy in different ways. Glad to hear you’re enjoying an international offering downunder. I recently watched an Aussie dramedy on Sky that was quite good – a quirky blend of the comic and so-called ‘real-life’ drama (forget what it was called though).

  8. wanderingcows · March 7, 2015

    You’re quite right about how watching tv helps with learning a language. When I was learning Spanish, I used to watch the hospital sitcom Grey’s Anatomy on DVD – first in English for my own enjoyment so that I’d get the whole story, then in Spanish with Spanish subtitles. I’ve ended up learning the words for neurosurgeon and operating theatre, which i’ve not had the occasion to use – thank goodness – although one day the phrase “the wound leaves a scar” might come in handy !

    • MELewis · March 8, 2015

      Ha, ha! That brings back memories of a dry period in which I had no English options and began watching the series ER in French. I was so desperate I overlooked my VO policy and accepted the dubbing. To this day, I still hear those voiceover actors on other programs and think to myself: But what is Dr. Green doing on program X? xx

  9. emilycommander · March 9, 2015

    Hello! Thanks for some good recommendations. I have been trying hard with French TV for about a year now and have not yet found my niche…

    • MELewis · March 10, 2015

      It’s an acquired taste…but if you’re interested in documentary-style programs, take a look at the ones mentioned by Suzanne below. Bon courage!

  10. Suzanne et Pierre · March 9, 2015

    I agree with you that French TV is a bit boring and I hate the dubbing of everything into French…I also want the original language. We did watch the news, some news program as well as some of their documentary type program on France – Thalassa, Des Racines et des Ailes, Le Grand Tour…a nice way to learn about France, their customs and places to visit. By the way, Un gars, une fille was originally created in Quebec. The French version is a copy but I never found it as good as the original…(Suzanne)

    • MELewis · March 10, 2015

      Merci Suzanne, I did not know that about ‘Un gars et une fille’! Seems we never get any French Canadian TV here, which is strange considering how little original French programming there is in the world. I’ll look for it online. And all the programs you mention are great examples of quality documentary programs I’ve enjoyed here in France. Hope you’re enjoying a better televised offering back in Québec!

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  12. phildange · June 4, 2015

    My favourite funny series is Kaamelott, a version of King Arthur and his knights . They speak like we do nowadays and I laugh at all 10 mns episodes .
    But in serious series, French TV has dramatically improved in the last years. Engrenages, Braco, Les Revenants, Le Bureau des Légendes, all produced by Canal + are on par with the best, and I’m personally of Profilage too .

    • MELewis · June 4, 2015

      Agree it has dramatically (literally and figuratively!) improved. But as I lean towards the lighter comedy side, I still prefer the Brits! Some good shows there, though.

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