Jimmy Fallon and SNL With French Subtitles? Oui, Please!

by Guillaume Clement

24 February 2016

Live from New York it’s Saturday Night Live (albeit broadcast one week later, with French subtitles on an obscure cable channel)!
Jimmy Fallon performing "New French Girlfriend" (2012) 

For a few weeks now, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon has been broadcast regularly on a French cable channel with French subtitles. While this constitutes good news for French viewers and may give access to Fallon’s jokes (and American pop culture in general) to audiences regardless of their level of proficiency in English, one might wonder whether such a venture actually makes sense.

It seems to me that the French target market for American talk shows (a small enough target as it is!) is already satisfyingly catered to by the highlight clips that the likes of Fallon, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel or Seth Meyers post to their respective YouTube channels, which are available without any geographic restrictions. Besides, MCM, the French channel that currently boasts Fallon as part of its lineup, there’s a second-rate cable channel whose heady days as a pop music channel date back to the ‘90s, not unlike MTV if you will.

MCM is now available as part of certain cable or satellite packages whose appeal has steadily decreased now that more than 20 free-to-air digital channels (télévision numérique terrestre—a package which is disturbingly known as “TNT” around here) are available to French households, without even mentioning VOD platforms like Netflix. The only people who are likely to subscribe to cable or satellite packages these days are probably old enough to be your grandparents, and they wouldn’t watch Fallon, even with French subtitles, even in a huge font to help with their declining eyesight. On top of all this, Fallon’s talk-show has already been available to French viewers—without subtitles—for a few years now on NBC’s international business-oriented channel CNBC, which many households get as part of their free news channels’ package.

Had the rights to Fallon’s show been acquired by one of the main networks (or Canal +, our beloved premium cable channel, which I previously wrote is one of the main powerhouses in French pop culture—think of a French HBO, but bigger), then I would have been optimistic about the show’s appeal and potential impact on French viewers. Sadly, I don’t think that’s going to be the case.

Let’s be honest: the target market for American talk shows in France is probably a group of English-speaking 20- and 30-somethings (possibly students in particular) who source most of their entertainment from the Internet, especially YouTube. Let us also not forget that such talk shows are composed of short segments like interviews, silly games and musical performances. Thus, shows are easily broken down into short videos that fans can then post to their social media pages.

I suspect that most viewers interested in a specific talk-show host or guest would rather spend a few minutes looking for the specific video they are interested in on YouTube than sit through entire episodes (let alone subscribe to an entire cable package) to do so). Therefore, the fact that a TV network would want to buy the rights to a successful talk show these days might well be seen as a last-ditch effort to try and appeal to viewers who have drifted off to the internet.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad about Fallon being broadcast and translated in my country, but I’m just wondering whether a second-rate cable channel is the best vector for what may be perceived as the early stages of a cultural revolution. France may, at times, try hard to be self-sufficient when it comes to pop culture, leading to a certain kind of mistrust towards American cultural influence, at least from certain cultural outlets and old-fashioned media.

There’s still reason for hope, though. Fallon’s presence on French TV listings is not a one-off since Saturday Night Live is now also shown on another cable channel (Comédie Plus, which belongs to the Canal Plus network) with French subtitles, usually a week after its US broadcast. Once again, Canal Plus needs to be acknowledged for its pathfinding role and sense of cultural awareness. Thanks to its international stature and connections to the Universal group, but also to its longstanding position as a successful premium channel, Canal Plus has long been able to offer bold English-language programming, such as Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, which would be broadcast every day with French subtitles from 2007 to 2009 (most notably during the 2008 US Presidential election, which probably helped attract more viewers looking for coverage of the campaign). This goes to show that there is a section of the French viewership that is craving the late-night shenanigans of American comedians.

What I do lament the fact that the main French networks have so far remained oblivious to this trend and carry on with the old-fashioned talk-show à la française. Now, some French talk-shows did spawn a handful of excellent comedians, especially in the ‘90s, such as Nulle Part Ailleurs (Nowhere Else) and La Grosse Emission (The Big Show). Both of these shows have featured members of Les Nuls, who, in turn, wrote and starred in the only known French SNL adaptation to date, but these shows are long gone now.

The dominant trend in recent years has been (very) long shows, usually featuring more hosts than guests, as is the case with Le Grand Journal, Canal Plus’s flagship prime-time show, which is divided into two segments—one being more political and the other, more pop-culture-oriented.

Some other successful shows on free-to-air French channels include Touche Pas à mon Poste (Hands Off My TV Set) and the late-night, and aptly-named, On n’est pas couché (Bedtime is a long time away), which clocks in at an astounding three and a half hours—without any commercial breaks.

In each of these three shows, the main host is helped by a handful of secondary hosts (or chroniqueurs), who are supposed to bring a different angle to interviews and debates, but the guests often end up speaking less than what appears to be a swarm of very chatty hosts (or, I feel compelled to say, host of hosts).

To be fair, attempts at adapting American-style talk-shows in France, with French comedians, have been made in the past, but such attempts have sadly failed, perhaps because said comedians were simply not funny enough (as may have been the case with Ce Soir Avec Arthur).

Or is it because French viewers are not used to such a specific talk-show format? It’s hard to tell, since in both countries the aim of a talk show remains the same: a guest is interviewed and tries to be funny in order to awkwardly plug his or her movie / record / TV show. But I would argue that most viewers tune in to these talk shows, especially in Fallon’s case, for the monologue, the jokes and the silly antics, rather than to find out about the latest cool movie, which is something that anyone can do for themselves on the Internet.

Here, the main issue may once again be the difficulty of cultural adaptation. Some French viewers may not be quite ready yet for Fallon’s monologues, which often reference topical, pop-cultural news items which may sometimes be specific to the United States, and Gallic téléspectateurs may feel more at ease in their overcrowded, political talk-shows. Nevertheless, the cultural barrier can be overcome, especially if we consider the example of the UK, a country that has long been, for obvious cultural and linguistic reasons, more open to the specificities of American cultural products. While Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show (Jon Stewart’s heir apparent on Comedy Central) is the only US talk show currently being broadcast on British TV, Britain can boast talk-shows of its own which already follow the American format, such as The Jonathan Ross Show and The Graham Norton Show show, which is even being broadcast in America by the BBC.

The Atlantic Ocean is not a one-way street, if you will, as American viewers now seem to like their late-night shows with a dash of Britishness, with British comedians John Oliver and James Corden now hosting two popular shows on HBO and CBS, following treading a path carved out by Craig Ferguson a few years earlier. Little did the Scot know, that he was leading yet another British invasion.

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