By Jessica Noone
French ‘Reality Television’: More Than a Matter of Taste? was written by Hugh Dauncey and was published in the European Journal of Communication in March 1996. It takes an academic approach to the study of reality tv in France.
Reality programming started in France in the early 1990s, from American and Italian origins. Reality shows seem to be indicators of trends toward postmodernity in France. French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg divides reality TV into three different categories depending upon their content and style of presentation. These are the téléfilm, information-débat, and variétés. He states that the crucial ingredient in all reality shows is “the notion of authenticity or the obvious reality of the situations being presented to the television audience” (88) and studies Temoin No. 1 as an early example.
Resistance to cultural imperialism and importation of programming created “styles and forms of RP more in tune with national and cultural priorities.” (95) French reality programming tends to concentrate on topics of love, sex and family relationships and is divided into three main themes: everyday dramas of courage, talking about feelings and civic action.
Critiques: The French worry about the quality, not decency, of the programs in terms of their cultural value, stemming from French television’s paranoia about ‘cultural imperialism’. For critics, reality shows “represent the worst excesses of a lowest-common-denominator programming policy driven by audience viewing ratings”. (97) Shows tend to be criticized on political acceptability and ethical value rather than quality in a subjective manner.
Justification: Reality shows are viewed by some to be a healthy example of modernization in French TV and that they meet the demands of an increasingly sophisticated audience, especially with aspects of interactive participation. The low cost of the production of reality shows is one of the main reasons for their increase in numbers. Arguments for these shows started by trying to fit into CSA guidelines, and has moved toward a ‘discourse of justification’, emphasizing the direct democracy and empowering effects of RP.
French reality television is popular, but shows the difficulty of “French attempts of establish a French television with a wide appeal which does not betray the state’s higher aspirations for France as a beacon of civilization.” (97) Reality shows are most likely to be found on commercial channels, however, Dauncey warns that “France should realize that by producing its own, inexpensive, popular and populist television in the form of reality shows, it is undermining its higher order ambitions to be the foremost purveyor of quality culture.” (101)
This article remains relevant as a study of early reality programming in France, but needs to be updated to include many popular programs which emerged after the time of writing, including Loft Story and Secret Story.