France: TV for big thinkers

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    Frederic Taddei hosts “Ce soir ou jamais,” translated "Tonight or Never," an hour-long French TV program meant to foster genuine intellectual exchange on hot topics and big ideas, the popular and the meta. Recent subjects include Gaza, the Group of 20, and the state of French rock music.
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A local, slife-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

PARIS – France is famed for matters intellectual. That’s hard to find on French TV though, often a sea of slick commercial chit-chat and inanity.

But at 10:30 p.m. on France 3, there’s “Ce soir ou jamais,” to help. Translated “Tonight or Never,” it’s an hour-long mental swim with top French thinkers: The brightest square off in debate on hot topics and big ideas, the popular and the meta.

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American TV has nothing quite like it – not Charlie Rose, not Bill Moyers. One guest may talk as long as five minutes, if unorthodox host, Frederic Taddei, allows it. The idea is genuine intellectual exchange in a medium thought to humble the word. “Tonight or Never” has 600,000 nightly viewers, and reaches across the Mediterranean to living rooms in Morocco and Algeria.

“We want to bring distance,” says deputy editor Sandrine Treiner. “The show is not about what happens, but what it means.... Our audience are people who think about the world.”

Recent topics included Gaza, the Group of 20, and the state of French rock music. At higher altitudes, historians argued whether France should legislate study of the slave trade and the Holocaust. Muslim writers Tariq Ramadan and Abdelwahhab Meddeb took up democracy and Islam. (Mr. Ramadan wants the West to look in the mirror on the creation of Islamophobia; Mr. Meddeb wants Islam to look in the mirror, deal with modernity, and reinterpret.)

“Tonight or Never” began in 2006. French public TV chief Patrick de Carolis wanted current events seen through the lens of culture. In finding Mr. Taddei – known for his live, late-night interviews with hand-held cameras in Paris clubs and scenes – a formula was born. It has evolved, simplified. The show challenges the adage that medium is message – but “Tonight or Never” also does flashy, opens with a jazz sax, and ends with a live band, à la Conan O’Brien or Jay Leno.

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