'TeleFrance,' 'Japan 120': foreign TV comes to US

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In the summer of 1976, Jean-Claude Baker, a Frenchman living in New York City , noticed that there was no French programming available on television. But in France, he knew, there were dozens of American programs, from ''I love Lucy'' to ''Kojak.''

So in the spirit of brotherhood, and with the Statue of Liberty for a precedent, he decided to give New York a bicentennial present from France. He produced what came to be known as TeleFrance USA - French television programming for an American audience.

TeleFrance was only the first of several production companies that now offer international programming to Americans via cable television. More than just foreign films from the 1940s, you can tune in to a Japanese documentary, an Icelandic talk show, or a real French cooking show.

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Some programs are in English, and were specially created for US viewers. Others have been foreign favorites and are shown in the original language with subtitles. All attempt to give Americans a closer look at the world around them.

But don't expect to see the French equivalent of ''Kojak'' or reruns of ''The Blob That Ate Tokyo.'' Except for classic films, the international programs are current - three to four years old at most.

Arnie Rosenthal, executive vice-president of TeleFrance, proudly notes that the programming is not French TV game shows or soap operas. ''We look at ourselves as a cultural service. This is the finest French programming available. We are bringing over Comedie Francaise, Moliere, Truffaut films.''

He sees TeleFrance's utility this way: ''There are some very international cities in the US, like New York or Boston. But in middle America, in places like Peoria, there are no foreign movie houses. Like anyone else, (people there) want to see a Truffaut film, they want to see a Moliere play, but there's no theater in town. So they go to us. And it's like Europe coming to them.''

Apparently Americans like Europe coming to them. TeleFrance, which in 1978 was bought by Gaumont films - Europe's largest filmmaker - is now available to 7 .5 million cable households. And it's growing at a steady rate.

TeleFrance is broadcast four hours per night. Programs run the gamut from theater, films, and literary adaptions such as ''Les Miserables'' by Victor Hugo , to shows that are similar to TV miniseries.

Mr. Rosenthal says one program has gone up enormously in popularity. ''Cordon Bleu Cooking'' is a real French cooking show with real French chefs (speaking, of all things, French). The program is subtitled - but never fear, gourmets: Both metric and standard English measurements are given.

The Satellite Program Network of Tulsa, Okla., devotes 25 percent of its programming to international shows. In addition to TeleFrance, SPN broadcasts four other international programs on 370 cable companies each week.

Bill Sullivan, director of Information Services for SPN, states that ''Americans are very interested in looking at other cultures. It's fascinating to see how others do things that are routine to us.''

Mr. Sullivan says the international shows have been so well received that SPN is looking to expand programming. ''We're constantly talking with foreign governments, and producers from foreign countries.''

SPN is currently negotiating with one country in South America and several in Europe. ''In the next three or four months we'll probably add another two or three programs. We're talking all the time to people from all over the world about programming for the American audience from their country,'' Sullivan says.

SPN now offers the following programs:

* ''Japan 120,'' programs originally produced for Japanese television, and provided by the Japan Center for Information and Cultural Affairs.

* ''Scandanavian Weekly,'' English-language programming from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland, produced for US audiences.

* ''Mediterranean Echoes,'' produced in Greece. It focuses on music, but also features art, drama, and archaeology.

* ''Hello Jerusalem,'' which is produced in Jerusalem in English, and looks at culture in Israel.

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