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French TV5 Heralds New Wave Of Language Channels in US

From New Orleans to New England, some Francophiles are saying ooh-la-la to TV5. Last weekend, TV5 became the first 24-hour French-language television channel in the United States. For now, it is available to anyone subscribing to a satellite TV network.

Jean-Louis Duclion, a French citizen living in Boston, is thrilled. "Earlier French programs were offered for only two hours a day," he says. "We have a very strong Franco-American presence in New England, and it meets the needs of our community."

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TV5 is part of a growing number of efforts to market 24-hour single-language channels in the US, following the success of day-long Spanish-only channels. Next month the International Channel will launch a digital platform that will include 24-hour channels in Filipino (ABS-CBN), Arabic (ART), Chinese (CCTV-4), and Italian (RAI), besides French TV5.

The Montreal-based TV5 is a collaboration of public and private television broadcasters in France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Canada. The service is new to the US, but promoters say the decade-old network reaches an estimated 72 million households in more than 100 countries.

The TV5 menu is pot-au-feu and reads like a typical American network grid, minus the sports. It is not about France, but about the French language.

The emphasis is on entertainment - talk shows, game shows, soaps, and cooking shows such as "Les Grands Gourmands" in which chef Jean-Luc Petitrenaud takes his show to the French countryside, sampling regional dishes.

The best draws for a wider audience are films. January, for instance, showcases a mini retrospective of director Jean Renoir, including his much-acclaimed "Le Crime de Monsieur Lange." Next in programming prominence are the newsmagazines from different Francophone areas around the world, including a special program on African affairs.

A big reason TV5 ventured into an already saturated American market can be found in census figures. More than 2 million people in the US speak French at home, making it the third-largest linguistic community after English and Spanish. The number of French speakers is growing with increased immigration from French-speaking countries such as Haiti.

Also, some 13,000 educators teach French to 1.3 million students - a segment to which TV5 has responded with educational lecons of varying levels.

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"Except for the Saturday-night movies, the programs will not have subtitles," says Guy Gougeon, chief executive officer of TV5 International. "Our initial research indicates that our core viewers would prefer not to have subtitles."

TV5's future depends on an emerging TV technology - digital spectrum - which television broadcasters are expected to convert to by 2006. The new technology will make it possible to broadcast more channels.

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