French Turn Off The Tube

Sets Go Dark

A silent revolution is sweeping France, and it is getting quieter as it grows.

In living rooms across the country, the French are turning off their TVs, rejecting talk shows, game shows, sitcoms, and late-night movies at a clip that has television network executives reeling.

In the first four months of 1997, more than 1 million people here stopped watching television. Major US networks are also facing a viewer exodus, but many disaffected American viewers are turning to cable TV. Mdiamtrie, the French company that monitors viewership, says figures show French TV defectors aren't just changing channels; they're tuning out for good.

This TV rebellion is being waged on two fronts, by young adults and by parents.

While the trend of young adults away from TV viewing is part of a slow technological change here, the stance of parents has ignited a spirited debate about TV's social influence and its effect on children that could easily be taking place on the other side of the Atlantic.

"Our TV broke down, and we just didn't replace it," says Sylvie Lescouzres, a Paris mother of two. She says doing without TV has improved her family's quality of life. "Now the girls play more, and there's more time for other activities. We read more ... and we have time for community groups."

Like Mrs. Lescouzres, most of the 1.28 million TV deserters are urbanites, according to Mdiamtrie. They tend to be middle-class, well-educated, well-informed through radio and newspapers, and interested in culture. They all tell survey takers that not having a television at home gives them more time for hobbies, friends, and family.

These rebels represent a small portion of France's 59 million potential viewers, but they are a group advertisers love to target and networks strive to attract.

Their departure has prompted networks to vigorously clean house. They have gotten rid of some sillier fare and introduced more intellectual shows - but to little effect. The number of deserters has remained steady and even shows signs of rising, Mdiamtrie says.

Some wonder whether a popular revolution is afoot, with the idea of retiring the remote control spreading one household at a time.

Unlike their American counterparts, French network TV deserters aren't just switching to cable or satellite dishes, says Phillipe Deshons of BLLB Mdia, which tracks media in France. Some, however, are turning to multimedia video entertainment such as as home video games like Nintendo and Sony PlayStation.

The Internet, though still in its infancy here, also threatens to lure away TV viewers. French interest in the Internet access lags behind many other European nations, according to the London-based International Telecommunication Union. France Telecom reports only 53,000 subscribers to its Internet service. But the Net has become "trs cool" and is expected to make an increasingly large dent in TV time as personal-computer use grows. An expected drop in computer prices this Christmas should speed the trend.

But the flight from television has less to do with new alternatives than with frustration with TV, says TV critic Florence Assouline. Low-quality programming is often cited as a major reason behind the drop in viewers. Many former viewers also say they were uncomfortable with what they saw as television's single-minded view of the world.

"It's an enormous political power, and it tends to impose one world view," says Soraya Oukil, a doctoral student in Paris. "The images can really overpower the message sometimes, so I prefer print."

Lescouzres marks the beginning of her TV rebellion with the news shown during the 1991 Gulf War. "We felt really manipulated," she remembers.

She says doing without TV is also better for her daughters, who spend more time on sports and practicing the harp. "Sociologists say it's necessary to have time to think, to be bored in order to be creative. That's important," Lescouzres adds.

But not everyone agrees. While there has been virtually no criticism or questioning of adults who turn off TV, children have become the center of a heated debate.

Many say TV can be damaging to children, encouraging them to solve problems with violence and hampering their development. "TV makes human beings cast from the same mold," argues Liliane Lurat, author of "Captive Time: Childhoods Stolen by Television." Says Ms. Lurat, "It gives them the same desires, the same memories. It's a modern form of totalitarianism."

But there is a strong lobby that argues this view is simplistic and that television can offer benefits for children and adults alike.

"Yes, TV is a mass medium, but all studies show that the same message addressed to different people is never received in the same way," writes Dominique Wolton, author of a book on communication. She argues that television offers a range of experience many cannot get firsthand, and that it is one of the few activities shared across class and age lines.

"TV is the bond between all divisions," she writes. "It gives a sense of belonging to our time, of not being excluded."

For children, especially, television can be a source of cultural richness, if used selectively, these supporters argue. And it can be an important tool for social integration. Sociologist Judith Lazare argues TV violence isn't as dangerous here as it is in the United States because French children benefit from a strong, centralized education system that teaches moral values.

"Parents who are anti-TV impose a difficult choice on their children," says psychologist Monique Brachet-Lehur. "Kids like to do what other kids do. They don't like feeling left out or being made fun of for being different."

Maybe so, Lescouzres says, but her daughters are doing just fine.

"They don't seem to be suffering," she says. "When they see the TVs in their friends' house, they come home and say 'It's completely stupid, maman!' "

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