The Channel Bringing Francophone Culture to the U.S.

TV5MONDE is produced in a studio in the 17th arrondissement of Paris, and is the world’s third largest television network after MTV and CNN. This public channel contributes to spreading the influence of the French language and Francophone cultures across 200 different countries, including the United States.
Singer Angélique Kidjo, a figurehead of Francophone culture, hosts 21e Siècle on TV5MONDE, a news magazine show coproduced with the U.N. © Bex Singleton

The Los-Angeles-based Franco-Beninese singer Angélique Kidjo received the Grammy Award for the Best World Music Album. A trio of young French women known as L.E.J. raised the roof of a club in Greenwich Village. The Parisian rapper MHD who pioneered afro trap – a blend of African rhythms and French lyrics – made his first steps in the United States in the courtyard of the MoMA PS1 Museum in Queens. These three examples all have one thing in common: They were all featured on a 2016 summer special edition of TV5MONDE’s Rendez-Vous d’Amérique music show, whose energy is only matched by its eclectic choice of artists. This magazine show has been getting people talking from New York and California to Michigan and Louisiana since 2010, showcasing the latest in Francophone culture. Presenting the multifaceted face of the Francophone world and spreading the French language is the raison d’être of TV5MONDE, which is now watched by almost 297 million households worldwide and has one million viewers in the United States, where the channel has been available on satellite television since 1998.

The TV5 channel was founded in the early 1980s, at a time when European Francophone television channels were looking to expand their market and broadcast their respective shows internationally. Supported by the French Minister for Foreign Affairs, the TF1, Antenne 2 and FR3 channels partnered up with Radio Télévision Suisse (RTS) and Radio Télévision Belge Francophone (RTBF) in order to share a number of their programs. TV5 began broadcasting for three hours a day on January 2, 1984, first solely in France then later in the Netherlands. With the advent of satellite television, the channel widened its broadcasting territory to include Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean in 1992, followed by the Asian continent and the Pacific in 1996, and the Maghreb and the Middle East in 1998.

TV5 is 49% owned by the France Télévisions company, which also manages five other French public television channels. The other TV5 shareholders include the Belgian and Swiss television networks (11.11% each), Radio Canada (6.67%) and Télé Québec (4.44%). Renamed TV5MONDE in 2006, the channel now broadcasts non-stop, advertising-free television in 200 countries and territories.

The United States – where 55% of the channel’s subscribers do not speak French – enjoys a special status: it is the only country to have its own TV5 subsidiary, launched in 2001. Originally seen as an “ethnic” channel only aimed at Francophones, TV5MONDE USA is now watched by a vast American audience with a penchant for French culture. TV5MONDE USA is the “jewel in the crown” of the French company, and is available on subscription across the United States via the leading American cable and satellite operators. In the long-standing Francophone households in Maine and Louisiana, TV5 even comes as part of the standard package of channels.

“A Showcase Abroad”

“We are more a broadcasting company than a producer,” says Patrice Courtaban, the chief operating officer of TV5MONDE USA. Some 35% of the programs broadcast by TV5 in the United States are provided by partner media outlets, such as news programs from France 2, RTBF and Radio-Canada, the investigative program Envoyé Spécial, and gameshows including Des chiffres et des lettres and Fort Boyard. Based in an office in West Hollywood, California, the seven TV5MONDE USA employees are mainly in charge of acquiring programs and negotiating their broadcasting rights across the American territory. While certain programs are filmed in the United States – such as the cultural magazine show Rendez-Vous d’Amérique and documentaries on Francophones in Louisiana and Maine, which are all shown during special annual weekend editions – the production and broadcasting of all programs is managed from Paris. “TV5’s main objective is to be a showcase abroad for movies, series and documentaries produced in member countries,” says Patrice Courtaban.

TV5 is the leading broadcaster of Francophone movies in the United States, with three new showings every week and a catalogue of 130 movies available on demand. Most French cinematic productions are shown on TV5MONDE, which is something the channel’s COO is quick to point out. Cycles of Quebecer, Belgian and African movies are also created every year. “Netflix is a major broadcaster of international films in the United States, but they are increasingly focused on original U.S. productions,” he says. “TV5 remains a reliable partner that Francophone movie distributors can count on.” Support for French cinema in the United States is also reflected by the numerous film festivals – including one in Seattle in October, one in Miami in March and one in Newport Beach in April – which have all signed partnerships with TV5.

In its endeavors to meet the expectations of an audience composed of French immigrants, American Francophiles and Francophones from all over the world, TV5MONDE offers television listings featuring everything from French New Wave movies to the latest comedy productions. “We offer three new movies every week: a classic, a movie about heritage, history or the arts, and a movie released during the year.” And to ensure the movies are broadcast during prime time across the three American time zones, the channel shows each film at least twice per month at different times. A movie shown at 8:30 p.m. in New York (5:30 p.m. on the West Coast), for example, will be repeated two weeks later at 10:30 p.m. in San Francisco (1:30 a.m. on the East Coast). The strategy seems to be working: Movie-lovers make up between 70 and 80% of the subscribers to TV5MONDE USA.

“The Children of Today Are the Francophiles of Tomorrow”

TV5 broadcasts cultural programs in French with English subtitles across the United States and in almost 1,000 hotels, but its French-language service doesn’t stop there. The channel’s website also offers tools for learning and teaching French. Students use a series of educational exercises classified according to theme and level (from beginners to lessons for professionals), which are then completed using the channel’s shows.

For example, with the help of a music video about The Little Prince, beginners learn how to describe an animal. Using an interview with Simone de Beauvoir, intermediary students learn about the feminist movement and its history. TV5MONDE’s educational materials help “several thousand people learning French” in the United States, and are available online, in classes given by the Alliance Française organizations and in American public schools.

In Louisiana and Utah, TV5 has equipped the states’ dual-language immersion schools with satellite receivers and digital video recorders. Teachers have access to the channel’s programs, and can use them to organize activities with their students. “The resources available mean we can make comparisons between the French and American cultures,” says Anne Lair, one of the French Dual Immersion Program State Coordinators in Salt Lake City. “A recent activity on the current migrant crisis allowed us to explain the war in Syria and link it to immigration policy in the United States.”

TV5MONDE also adapted its educational program for TiVi5, its kids’ channel launched in the United States in 2012. Activities aimed at introducing children to the French language use cartoons, series and other fun television shows. According to Patrice Courtaban, the channel needs to quickly appeal to younger generations if it wants to make the channel durable and secure its position in the U.S.A. “French is still the second-most-taught foreign language in the United States, behind Spanish. The enthusiasm is there! The children of today are the Francophiles of tomorrow.”

Article published in the September 2016 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.