TÉLÉROMAN

As a television genre, the weekly, prime-time téléroman can be defined as "A television program, fictitious in character with a realistic descriptive style which is comprised of a series of continuous episodes, diffused with fixed periodicity and characterized by a sequentiality which is either episodal, overlapping, or both" (author's translation).

The genre is generally recognized, both at home and abroad, as being specific to the French language television industry in Canada, located in the province of Québec and intimately associated with Québec society and its dominant francophone culture (82% of nearly 7 million inhabitants).

The term literally means "tele-novel" which strongly suggests its direct lineage with the modern, especially the nineteenth century, popular novel. The serial character of the téléroman makes it a descendant of Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas and Eugene Sue whose works were published as series, one chapter or episode at a time, in the popular daily pennypress of their time. The upshot was of course to build customer loyalty for the supporting print media, a function not unlike that of the téléroman for the visual medium of television.

Next came the serial novel (the French feuilleton), a work of fiction written for the popular press. In this case authors, such as Honoré de Balzac, would write individual chapters which were then massively distributed and read at regular intervals; in other words, the "novel" was only produced in book form when each individual chapter had already been published. This new literature testifies to the technologies of modern mass communications in a liberal, urban, industrial, capitalist society. Because of its proximity to the United States, Québec has benefitted and profited from these new technologies and even produced a cottage industry of popular serial novels, both within the pages of the popular press and between the covers of chapbooks.

With the advent of radio, both public and private, the serial novel became a permanent fixture of programming with such favorite radioromans (radio drama or radio-novel) as La Pension Velder, Jeunesse dorée, La famille Plouffe and the grandaddy of them all, Un homme et son péché. These of course developed under the far reaching shadow of the U.S. radio soap opera. While importing many of its basic characteristics, the Québec radioroman showed the imprint of local cultural moorings, particularly in its reference to the history of this French speaking population on the North American continent dating back to the early seventeenth century (1604), its nationalistic fervor, its agrarian heritage and its forced adaptation to accelerated industrialization, urbanization and modernization.

There were no in-house writers for these radio plays; one could not earn a decent living writing radioromans or, for that matter, any type of novel. Still, many of the first telenovelists were radionovelists who were also established literary novelists. A literary profession of successful, independent novelists and telenovelists only emerged some ten years ago.

With the advent of television, classical and modern theatre (also prominent on radio--as in the United States), moved onto the small screen along with the radioroman. As elsewhere, theatre was shortlived on TV while the radioroman went on to become the téléroman. The téléroman, building on the loyal following of the radioroman by bringing "to life" the main characters of two of the best loved and most enduring radio productions, Un homme et son péché and La famille Plouffe, was able to experiment with new themes and new styles of writing. It thus adapted the century old popular novel to this modern medium without sacrificing tradition and its most endearing qualities.

As an indication not only of the rapid growth of the téléroman, but of the centrality of the position it holds within both the televison industry and the public discourse on television itself, one can cite the following figures. A recent repertoire lists nearly 600 titles of original works of fiction, including téléromans, produced by Québécois screenwriters to the delight of tens of millions of television viewers from 1952 to 1992. A comparable feat is not to be found in any other French language television industry, including France's. Nor is the popularity of locally produced television fiction in Québec to be equalled anywhere, particularly in terms of the loyalty that the téléroman commands. The "Who Killed JR" episode of Dallas set a new standard in American television market research with its 54 point market share, in the early 1980s, and it has rarely been challenged since. In Québec a 50 point market share is considered the basic standard of a successful show with the yearly best-sellers, reaching the high 70s and low 80s.


The Plouffe Family
Photo courtesy of the National Archives of Canada

Not surprisingly the téléroman has spawned some small but vibrant secondary commercial ventures and represents some notable investments by other communications industries. For example, a glossy magazine Téléroman is published four times a year with a readership of some 50,000. The well established television guides such as TV Hebdo, with nearly a million readers, often feature well known faces of actors or characters of the popular téléroman on its cover. Each year moreover, it devotes a special edition of the current lineup of best and least known téléromans. Every major daily newspaper publishes the weekly schedule of television programming and has a television critic whose main subject is the téléroman: its costs, production, writers, actors, characters, intrigues, and audience rates. Talk shows quite regularly invite authors, actors and TV characters to meet live studio audiences. Even "serious" public affairs television shows, magazines and newspapers give thoughtful attention to the phenomenon. Of course the téléroman, with its well known and loved characters, is a bonanza for advertising agencies selling everything from sundries, to soft drinks, to automobiles; they are the spokespersons for industries; they appear on public announcements and telethons for the sick and the needy. But most importantly, these well known and well loved actors and characters have contributed to the birth and growth of a thriving, creative, French language Québec-based advertising industry. Not too many years ago, this industry's main revenue was translating English language, Toronto or New York conceived, television commercials. Today French language advertisements for national Canadian and American brand names are conceived and produced in Québec. The most eloquent product example is Pepsi, which failed miserably in the Québec market until some 10 years ago when the company agreed to hire a local agency to build its campaign around a well known fictitious comic figure. It has become a remarkable success story in its own right. Other examples abound and include, for example, campaigns by Bell Canada and General Motors.

Another commercial spinoff, besides the inevitable merchandizing of effigies on dolls, lunch boxes, and posters, is the phenomenon of "living museums." Here the sets, whether original or reconstructed, of téléromans such as Un homme et son péché, Le temps d'une paix, Les filles de Caleb, or Cormoran are rebuilt in their "natural" outdoor surroundings. These téléromans are historically grounded, either in a specific time frame such as the 1930s or 1940s, or in the lives of past public and semi-public figures. The actual historical site on which these sets are built, the authentic dwellings upon which they are grafted, even the now-permanent presence of actual descendants of the romanticized characters in these reconstructed settings, all lend a "museum" and educational quality to these commercial enterprises. The téléroman is thus much more than a television genre, it is also an industry in itself and a generator of economic activities in industrially related sectors.

One of the recurring themes in the téléroman is the city, and this city is Montréal, the largest French language city in North America. It is a character in its own right in the same manner as the London of Charles Dickens, Paris in the novels by Balzac and Zola, or New York and San Francisco for the modern American teleseries. The téléroman often looks and sounds like an indictment of the city with its wealth of social problems--anonymous violence, rackets, abused children, battered women, drug abuse, solitude, poverty, homelessness. But it is also an ode to the city's magnetism--riches, arts, adventure, beauty, fulfillment, empowerment, enlightenment, and above all, the chance for true love. The téléroman exudes both a sense of déjà vu and elsewhereism.

The téléroman focuses on the ordinary, even on the anti-hero who is allowed to fail, sometimes disastrously. It reaches into the banality of everyday life to gather the stuff out of which characters of flesh and blood appear on the television screen, live and evolve, cry and laugh, cheat and repent, love and hate, and sometimes disappear. The fact that ordinariness can be both enticing and serialized and still command loyalty from seasoned viewers of some forty years of television fiction, is the greatest hommage that can be paid to these writers, producers and actors. Such skill is attested to by the popularity, for example, of Chambres en ville, an exploration of the pains and joys of growing up as a teenager in Montréal.

Another remarkable feature of the Québécois téléroman lies in its distinctive mixture of gendered world views. This particular mixture can be traced to the presence and influence of the women working in the teleroman's creative communities. Telenovelists include women such as former journalist Fabienne Larouche, former journalist and Québec cabinet minister Lise Payette and her daughter Sylvie. Renowned women actors of both theatre and screen play lead roles in the téléroman. And women novelists whose best-selling novels have been adapted to the television genre, such as Arlette Cousture (Les filles de Caleb) and Francine Ouellet (Au nom du père) often contribute to the creative process.

The téléroman, like other works of fiction in many other societies, is a testimony to the creative use of technology, in this case a technology to transmit at a distance and in real time, images and sounds. Through the efforts and talents of many artists, professionals, and technicians a world of fiction is created. It is a world in which reality takes on certain meanings for a geographically, socially, historically and culturally designated community. That the téléroman succeeds in achieving this is not unique; what is unique is that it does so in a unique fashion. It thus contributes a small but original viewpoint, or narrative, to the accumulated human legacy of past efforts to give meaning to the lives of ordinary people.

-Roger de la Garde & Gisèle Tchoungui

 

See also Canadian Programming in French; Family Plouffe/La Famile Plouffe; Soap Opera; Telenovela