26 January 2012

Language options on French satellite TV

Living here in the French countryside, we have a satellite dish for television reception. We subscribe to the only available French service, which is called CanalSat. There used to be a competing service, but the two merged a few years ago.

Most of the programs we watch every day are in French. I like to put on TéléMatin in the morning for news, weather, and features. During the day, we often have Cuisine TV on the screen, watching for new and interesting cooking ideas and recipes. All its shows are in French too. Listening to such shows is great for your comprehension of everyday spoken French.

Cuisine TV has a cast of French cooks and chefs who host its programs, but it also broadcasts cooking shows hosted by English-speaking personalities including Jamie Oliver, Giada DeLaurentiis, Nigella Lawson, Bill Granger, Ainsley Harriot, Rick Stein, James Martin, and others. (If you're American, you might not recognize many of those names, because they are British or Australian cooks.) All those shows are dubbed into French.

Instead of "dubbed" I should say "over-dubbed." In other words, you can hear the English-speaking host's voice in the background, but there's a slightly louder French soundtrack superimposed over the English. It's annoying at first if you speak English, because your ear tries to focus on the original soundtrack rather than on the over-dubbed French. Sometimes you feel like you can't hear either language clearly. A lot of the science and travel documentaries we watch are over-dubbed the same way.

Dubbing is surely an expensive process. Some of Jamie Oliver's old shows were dubbed rather than over-dubbed, and the dubbing was done with considerable skill and talent. You can watch them and almost believe that Jamie really is speaking French with a perfect accent. But all the later shows are over-dubbed. I guess that's a better option for most viewers than on-screen subtitles would be.

Speaking of subtitles, we also get six or seven movie channels as part of our satellite TV package (called un bouquet in French). A lot of the films shown are American and were made in English. We have our decoder boxes set up to show movies with the original English soundtrack when there is one — in other words, if the film is broadcast in VM (version multilingue). If the movie is French, we hear the original French soundtrack.

If we want to watch an American movie with a French-language soundtrack, we can choose that option on the decoder box's menus. It's an option we never use. A lot of the American movies are shown, however, with the original English soundtrack with on-screen subtitles in French. I've gotten used to the subtitles. Often now I don't even notice them, but sometimes I enjoy reading them to see how the English dialog is translated into French. It depends on how many times I've seen a particular movie.

What we never get, however, is subtitles in English. So the two language options for most films are (1)English dialog with French subtitles, or (2) French dialog with no subtitles. Actually, there are two sub-options that are sometimes available. Newer films are sometimes shown in English with the possiblity of turning off the French subtitles. And for some movies and other shows, you can turn on French subtitles for the hearing impaired (les malentendants) along with the original French soundtrack.

The main point is that you never get English subtitles. The system is designed for French-speakers, not English-speakers or other foreigners. Last night, for example, we watched James Cameron's Avatar on one of the movie channels. It's a recent film, so we had the option of turning off the French subtitles and just watching the movie in the original English.

At some points in Avatar, however, the characters speak a language that is neither English nor French. For those segments of incomprehensible dialog, French subtitles, not English, appear on the screen. Those subtitles seem to be hard-coded into the movie. As I said, we never get English subtitles.

Neither do we get any American channels. Some of the French channels show American TV series, with the same language options as for the films on the movie channels. We've seen episodes of Glee, Battlestar Galactica, The Good Wife, and a few other series. There are many more U.S. series on different French channels that I've never watched or even heard of.

Our satellite decoder boxes are both equipped with hard disks onto which we can record shows for watching later. We do that a lot. All the language options I've described above are also available on the shows and films we record.

A number of the British people we know have decoder boxes that they've imported from England and dishes aimed at satellites carrying BBC and other British programming. They watch the same TV programs they would watch back in the British Isles. There's no such option for American television programming, at least not via satellite.


  1. I've discovered you don't need the CanalSat or ADSL TV box to watch the VM version on the basic channels. If you have TNT (numerical -- and I think that is now the norm all over France), then you can get the VM version, with or without subtitles, with your TV's remote control -- on channels that carry VM: TF1, M6, W9, TMC... If ARTE is showing an American movie, sometimes you get the V.O. by selecting "German"!
    The thing is, the function was not covered in the help guide, so I had to stumble upon it myself. Same thing when I wanted to find out how to get the English version on our SFR TV unit. I had to find it on my own.
    For both the TV, a Samsung, and the SFR TV unit, I can't seem to set the language preferences permanently. So, for example, on TF1, if I want to watch Grey's Anatomy in English, I have to set the language when I turn on the channel, and if I get bored and zap but then decide to go back to it, I have to set the laguage again. On CanalSat, you set your language preferences once and for all.

  2. Just curious, do you and Walt ever speak French to each other? More likely that you would sometimes insert an occasional French word.

  3. We had two horrible masts on the longere when we bought it... both leading up to elderly UHF aerials... yes! UHF!
    I don't think anyone had watched TV here for eons... and we couldn't use a mobile... I had to drive to the nearest hill to ring Pauline if she was in the UK.
    That's changed a bit... we got the masts removed as they were damaging the 'smokestacks' [or chimney in UK English]... mobile reception HAS improved substantially and we can get a reasonable signal in the converted laiterie... but the walls of the longere are just too thick to let a signal through.
    We have a TV... and therefore have to pay the reception tax... but we cannot recieve a signal! Hmmmph!!
    But are we worried? Nah!
    We honestly haven't missed anything... except perhaps David Attenborough's latest series... and we'll be able to get that on disc shortly... and we use internet Radio via iTunes... which allows us to get on with more things than sitting glued to a box!
    Although we do miss TV5 which we used to watch a lot in the UK... and I agree with Ken that it helps with comprehension... I just wish that something would help me speak French better.

    Thw WV is "jambini"... a.k.a. Egg Language... now I CAN speak that!!

  4. Ellen, I didn't know about that. But then we don't get TNT. We only have CanalSat and the hundreds of German, Spanish, Polish, Italian, etc. etc. channels that come in for free through the dish. I like getting the 6 movie channels plus Turner Classic Movies and others, so I'm not about to give up CanalSat. How would I live without Cuisine TV?

    Andrew, you're right, we really only speak French to each other, except for the occasional word or expression, when we are with people who don't speak English.

    Tim, you should be able to get TNT using a standard TV aerial, what they call a "rake" (rateau) in French. Maybe you don't want to put one up. We had one in our attic before the renovation and expansion, but now it sits unused in the garage. We don't need it.

    As for speaking French vs. aural comprehension, the only way to get better is to spend time with people who don't speak English, so you have no choice but to go through the trial and error process of trying to express your ideas in French -- and for a long time. As long as you can fall back on English, well, progress will be slow.

  5. Tim, in America, we call chimneys chimneys on houses. Industrial buildings and locomotives have smokestacks.

  6. France seems to have a policy with DVDs of "add any subtitle as long as it's not English" - even when the movie has had an international release and the subtitles exist.

    Two years ago the French Culture Minister was moaning about France's cultural exports becoming less relevant! HELLO!!! Either people are not aware they exist or you can't buy them in accessible format.

  7. and then there's the "magic" slingbox.....I have it set up here in VA and my daughter can watch all the channels we have via her computer in Paris.....she can program it to record anything, or watch anything she wants on comcast....amazing

  8. We are familiar here in the US with several of those cooks: Jamie Oliver, Giada DeLaurentiis, Nigella Lawson.

    I don't know where things were with cable cooking channels in the US when you still lived in the US, but those three are quite well known now, certainly. The others you mentioned are new to me.

    Wow! Is this your first ever post with no photo? :)

  9. Judy, no, I'm sure I've done quite a few posts without photos. And yes, Jamie Oliver and Nigella were on TV when we lived in San Francisco.

    Mike, I'll have to go look at the few French DVDs I've bought off Amazon.fr to see if they have English subtitles.

    Melinda, I have to find out more about the slingbox.

  10. @Judith: My two favourite British cooking shows right now are

    How to Cook Like Heston (Blumenthal) - each week he concentrates on a different ingredient. So far he's done beef, egg, chocolate, chicken.

    The Fabulous Baker Brothers - two brothers, one a prize-winning baker, the other a chef-turned-butcher, compete and collaborate on various breads, pies, tarts etc.

    @Ken: I've browsed FNAC and Amazon endlessly looking for French movies with English subtitles. Sometimes they will have 15 or more languages on one disc but not English.

    The only way to get the subtitles is to rip the movie to a file and download a subtitle file made by volunteers. Quality varies enormously but it does help you through a lot of films.

    I think maybe 2 of the 40 French-produced DVDs I have include English subtitles.

  11. Mike, are you looking for DVDs on amazon.fr? Maybe amazon.co.uk would be a better source for subtitled French films. But I don't know. I don't think any of the British or American DVDs I have (several dozens) have French subtitles.

    I also have only three French DVDs in my limited collection. One has English subtitles, and the other two have no subtitles at all. I have dozens of French movies that I've recorded onto DVD off CanalSat CinéCinéma, but none has any subtitles at all.

    I'm not sure the British cooking shows you mention would be available in any form in the U.S. Even if they are available on DVD, they would probably be Region 2, and in the U.S. you can only watch Region 1 DVDs. Here in France, I have one DVD player that will play disks encoded for both regions, but another that will only play Region 2 disks. I have to run my American DVDs through DVD Decrypter and then re-record the files onto blank DVDs to be able to play them on that machine.

  12. @Ken: only a tiny fraction of French movies are released as DVDs overseas. If I can find them in the UK or Australia I'll get those - funnily enough there are a number of French films that are *only* available via overseas releases but not in France.

    Betty Blue for example was released in Australia on DVD about 10 years before France (and in a better print).

    I've noticed French movie stores often have a better selection of Woody Allen and Martin Scorcese movies than their own productions.

    If your DVD player was made in the last 5-6 years it probably has a code to allow it to override region codes. Even my US DVD player 10 years ago let me do that. You just punch in the code on your remote and off you go. You can either just google your DVD model number and "region" to find it, or email me and I'll look it up.

    Usually the cheaper the DVD player the more likely it will play DVDs from anywhere. I just had to replace my old DVD cheap player and for the same price (on sale at LeClerc last week), I got one with BluRay and WiFi support. So in addition to playing movies off a USB thumb drive it will stream them off my computer or network hard drive via wireless. Saves a lot of DVD burning!

  13. No photo, but interesting post;) Netflix has many french movies with English subtitles. Since I'm hard of hearing subtitles make me very happy.

    That "sling box" sounds like something you might enjoy.

  14. Wow, Mike, that would be nice if my player (which was sold as a multizone unit but doesn't seem to be) would play U.S. region DVDs -- even though by now I think I've de-zoned all the ones I have. I found the user guide here:
    But I don't see anything in it about a code to allow me to play zone 2 discs.

  15. Hi Evelyn, I don't think I've heard or asked, but I hope you didn't have any damage or inconvenience from the big storms and tornadoes in Ala. a few days ago. Bises...

  16. @Ken: The manufacturers rarely post the codes on their own website, although some sneakily print them on a loose piece of paper and stick them inside the box.

    This one is a little harder than a code to unlock, it requires either upgrading its firmware or using an Infra-Red code sent from a laptop device to the DVD player.

    The instructions are here:


  17. Thanks, Mike. That looks a little iffy to me, and complicated. But it's good to know in case I decide to apply the new firmware in the future. So far, so good, and as I said, I've de-zoned most of my DVDs already so that I can play them on the 610AV. I also have the Pioneer DV-380 and it will play Region 1 and Region 2 DVDs. What's maddening is that the 610 was sold as Region 1 compatible but will only play Region 2 disks.

  18. For those desperate for US TV there's http://ustvnow.com/. You can get free channels for free. If I remember correctly you need to put in a zipcode and perhaps somehow prove you are American. (I kind of forget the details; I signed up but after a few tries decided I really didn't miss US TV that much.) If you want HBO and other pay channels, you have to pay here, too.

  19. Thanks for well wishes, Ken. No storm damage here- we missed two when we were in CA, out!

  20. This is great news.
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