Once I understood “beavers tails” weren’t actual cute beavers’ fried tails but just a name for a kind of waffle, I started to relax. I had mastered North American supermarket (80% frozen food, 10% junk food and 10% “healthy” bars), I could drive an automatic car, and I had learned to check addresses before walking mile-long streets hoping to bump into the right building.
But there were one thing I couldn’t yet figure out: the TV.
“There are many ways to speak about TV, but in a business perspective, let’s be realistic: at the basis, TF1’s job is helping Coca-Cola, for example, to sell its product. What we sell to Coca-Cola is available human brain time. Nothing is more difficult than obtaining this availability. This is where permanent change is located. We must always look out for popular programs, follow trends, surf on tendencies, in a context in which information is speeding up, getting manifold and trivialized.” (TF1, French private network’s CEO, Patrick Le Lay)
See, back in France, it was quite simple. I had a small black and white TV with a broken antenna I had to trap between a pile of books and the edge of the couch in order to get clear reception. I only watched TV when: 1) I was copying Chinese ideograms for practice (a repetitive task!) 2) I was drawing 3) I was plucking my eyebrows.
We had 6 channels. Really, only five. Or four.
- TF1, a private TV network, is basically the right-wing campaign headquarter. It boasts excellent news at 1 p.m. where you can learn about the last guy who make handmade oak casting rod in a small village, how civilization destroy small business, all that because of the immigrants and the youth who doesn’t even go the Mass anymore. Crucial news, usually broadcast prime-time.
- France 2 and France 3 are part of the public network, the former being very”local”. France 2 was the channel I watched most back then, with a lot of talk show—not the Jerry Springer kind, more like “Middle-East politics towards peace” head games.
- Arte is Franco-German. Do I need to say more? Alright. Black and white silent movies about blind Ukrainian dancer performing for the first time in Uzbekistan. “Is red the key to existentialist paintings” kind of talk shows. All subtitled in German.
- Canal + is pay television with a monthly X-rated movie on the first Saturday of the month. Only reason I know that is because back in high school, guys would brag about watching it, even though all they could see were encrypted pixelated naked bodies.
- Finally, M6 is another private network which thrives on US series badly dubbed in French. The channel is mostly famous for introducing reality-TV in France in 2001 with the show “Loft Story” (Big Brother).
With so few networks, no need to say that I never had a remote. I just stuck to one channel for the night and never bothered channel-surfing.
You see where I come from and you probably see where I’m going. I’m holding the remote in my hand right now, and I see 998 channels. Granted, we have cable. But still! Why on earth would you have a channel dedicated to weather forecast? To plan landing? To biographies? What’s the idea here? “Oh, I feel like watching planes landing tonight”? Or “gee, I’m so lazy I can’t step out to see what’s the weather like”? “I desperately need to know more about Sandra Bullock while I’m eating”?
Oh yeah… that’s because every bloody five minutes you get twenty minutes of commercials! I see!
France is straightforward and borderline boring when it comes to commercials. Private networks do have one commercial break during movies or shows. One. And public networks only have one break before and after the program! Yes, French don’t pee apparently, nor they eat, makes calls, do homework or go grab a beer when they watch TV. When French watch, they sit their butt in front of the screen and they don’t move for two hours! They don’t change channel!
Can’t blame you though. The first couple of times, I didn’t mind the commercial breaks. But hey, like everybody else, I got sick of seeing clean toilets being scrubbed, happy kids being fed, great families buying SUVs and poor little rich women applying for high-interests credit cards. So I was introduced the wonderful world of channel surfing.
Step one, pick up the remote. Step two, select another channel. Eventually, there would be a commercial break as well. Pick the remote again or best, keep it handy. Select another channel. Etc. Basically, search for actual shows or program and avoid commercials. Forget about actually watching a show—that’s not the point. Duh. The point is to surf between commercial breaks.
Commercials are okay. Saying “fuck” is not. In which kind of world are we living for, I’m starting to wonder. Cause in France, commercials are bad but hosts, politicians, the audience are expected to swear. France doesn’t beep “”merde”, “enculé” or “putain”. This is punctuation. The magnificence of French language. Art. “Beeep” isn’t. Beep is cowardice. If the talk-show theme is “my sister is having sex with my lesbian partner” don’t expect much politeness for fuck sake! (excuse my French). The way US TV manages to be puritan yet extremely offensive will always baffled me.
Now if you don’t mind, I’m just gonna read. A book. During commercial breaks.