Writing for Everyone

Screenwriters and Their Audience. The Example of Plus belle la vie

Écrire pour tout le monde. Les scénaristes de Plus belle la vie face à leur public

Escribir para todo el mundo. Los autores de Plus belle la vie frente a su público

Muriel Mille

Translated by Katharine Throssell

Translated from:
Écrire pour tout le monde

References

Electronic reference

Muriel Mille, « Writing for Everyone », Biens symboliques / Symbolic Goods [Online], 6 | 2020, Online since 30 April 2020, connection on 03 August 2020. URL : https://revue.biens-symboliques.net/403

Drawing on the example of a French soap opera, PBLV, this article demonstrates how television screenwriters integrate audience constraints into the production of fiction. Writers take into account viewing statistics, although the main concern for audience numbers lies with the producer and the TV channel. Although they are themselves highly educated and in intellectual professions, they tend to consider their audience as being largely working class. This representation underlies the rules of screenwriting they apply, which aim to attract and captivate an audience that is often considered inattentive. It also supposes a belief in the effects of television itself and its power of addiction. Yet the representation is not based on either a precise knowledge of the audience, nor on the writers’ own television viewing habits. The attitudes screenwriters have towards their public is in fact defined by the social distance that separates them. This representation informs the way they valorize their work by imbibing the soap opera with pedagogic objectives.

À partir de l’exemple d’un feuilleton télévisé français, cet article montre comment les scénaristes de séries intègrent les contraintes d’audience à la fabrication de fiction. Les auteur·rice·s se tiennent au courant des taux d’audience, même si la préoccupation pour les chiffres du public reste du ressort de la chaîne et du producteur. Elles-mêmes et eux-mêmes fortement diplômé·e·s et appartenant aux professions intellectuelles, ils et elles se représentent leur public comme plutôt populaire. Cette représentation sous-tend les règles d’écriture qu’ils se donnent et qui visent à attirer et captiver un public souvent perçu comme inattentif. Elle suppose aussi une croyance dans les effets de la télévision et dans sa capacité à susciter l’addiction. Or cette représentation n’est fondée ni sur une connaissance précise de leur public ni sur leur propre visionnage des programmes télévisuels. Le rapport des scénaristes à leur public est alors défini par la distance sociale qu’ils et elles éprouvent vis-à-vis de celui-ci. C’est en fonction de cette représentation qu’ils et elles revalorisent leur travail en fixant au feuilleton une mission pédagogique.

A partir del ejemplo de una telenovela francesa de televisión, este artículo muestra cómo los guionistas de series integran las limitaciones de audiencia en la fabricación de la ficción. Los autores y autoras se informan de las tasas de audiencia, aunque la cuestión de las cifras de público continúa siendo competencia del canal y del productor. Las actrices y actores, en gran medida diplomados y de profesiones intelectuales, se representan su público como más bien popular. Esta representación subyace a las reglas de escritura adoptadas y que buscan atraer y cautivar un público que regularmente es percibido como inatento. Esta representación también implica una creencia en los efectos de la televisión y en su capacidad de suscitar adicción. Sin embargo, esta creencia no está fundada ni en un conocimiento preciso de su público ni en el visionado de programas televisivos. Así, la relación de los guionistas con su público es definida por la distancia social que ellos y ellas experimentan en relación con él. Es en función de esta representación que ellos y ellas revalorizan su trabajo otorgándole a la telenovela una misión pedagógica.

Destiny of a television programme is linked to its ability to attract a large audience. At the commercial pole of the field of cultural production (Bourdieu 1996), television is defined as a “standardized cultural industry,” governed by potential sanctions dependent on viewing figures (Champagne 1994:15). Programmes are also “designed based on the supposed expectations of the public” (Champagne 1971). Yet the economy of cultural goods is characterized by its uncertainty (Menger 2014) particularly for television (Pasquier 1995). Studies conducted on producers and programmers in the United States demonstrate that in spite of the estimated audience figures available, they are never absolutely sure how their creations will be received (Gitlin 2000). So how do those who produce symbolic goods integrate the possible reactions of the audience into their creative process? This article sets out to answer this question based on the example of a French soap opera, Plus belle la vie (PBLV), which has aired daily on the public channel France 3 since August 2004. This programme sets itself apart from the rest of French audio-visual production both in its industrialized production and its longevity, with more than 3,000 episodes to date. It tells the story of the inhabitants of a working-class neighbourhood in Marseille, drawing on plot twists, suspense, current events, and relationships among the characters.

Fig. 1. “Place du Mistral” (Studio set for the shooting)

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Screenshot from the series, season 2.

© Muriel Mille

Aiming to reflect current social events, the programme emphasizes the generational and social diversity of its characters. After a shaky start, at the time this research was conducted between 2008 and 2010, the series was reaching an average audience of between five and six million daily viewers, which is a successful audience for public television. The show’s viewers are diverse; although there are twice as many women and working-class people who watch the show as there are men and members of the upper classes respectively, there is a large proportion of regular viewers of all social categories combined1.

Table 1. Results of the study Pratiques culturelles des Français, Cultural Practices of the French on PBLV

Out of 100 respondents in each group

Plus belle la vie

Total

12

Sex

Men

9

Women

15

Age

15 to 19 years old

16

20 to 24 years old

13

25 to 34 years old

11

35 to 44 years old

9

45 to 54 years old

11

55 to 64 years old

13

65 years old and over

15

Level of education

No formal qualification, finished primary school

15

Vocational training

12

Finished middle school

13

Finished high school

10

Undergraduate (2 or 3 years post-secondary)

9

Graduate (4 years or more post-secondary)

5

Currently studying

13

Socio-professional category of head of household

Farmer

23

Tradesmen, sales, small business owner

10

Managers and senior intellectual occupations

6

Intermediate occupations

10

Employees

14

Manual workers

15

Unemployed

17

How to read the table : 12% of the total population of the respondents of the Pratiques culturelles des Français national survey (2008) cite Plus belle la vie when they are asked which television series they watch regularly.

Source: Survey on the cultural practices of French people (Enquête Pratiques culturelles des Français), 2008/DEPS Ministry for Culture and Communication (DEPS ministère de la Culture et de la Communication).

The programme considers itself an “omnibus” cultural good, targeted at the greatest number (Bourdieu 1984: 442). This article looks at how the economic objective of attracting the greatest number plays out in practical terms for the producers concerned. Like writers (Lahire 2006) or television producers (Dagnaud 2006; Brigaud-Robert 2011), screenwriters generally come from privileged classes and are highly educated. In spite of their initial artistic ambitions, these writers find themselves at the commercial pole of the cultural field for the duration of their collaboration on the soap opera. Their attitude towards the potential audience is therefore not straightforward, as it might be for the more restricted pole of the artistic field, in which producers and audience share the same dispositions and schema for the categorization of the social world (Bourdieu 1996). This is the result of an anticipation, and the awareness of a kind of distance from their audience. Despite the impact of ratings as a constraining force on the work of producers of symbolic goods for mass production (Bourdieu 1996; 1998), few studies have explored these producers’ attitudes towards their audience. In cultural industries, there are various ways of attempting to measure audience, as Cecile Méadel has demonstrated regarding viewing estimates for television and radio (2010). But these studies are often combined with what professionals call their “instinct,” as was the case for the film producers studied in the 1930s by Hortense Powdermaker (1950). Similarly, the artistic directors of record companies studied by Antoine Hennion (1989) in the 1980s above all emphasized their intuitive ability to predict the next big hits. More recently, Stephen Zafirau has shown that Hollywood film producers try to cultivate their “feeling for the public,” aware of the potential distance between them (Banks, Mayer, Caldwell 2009). In pursuing these considerations, this article aims to study the concrete representations and practices by which the audience is taken into account by screenwriters, and the consequences of these representations on the content the writers produce. This leads us to explore the representations that “mass culture” producers have of their audiences, and to move beyond their valorization of instinct in order to analyse their socially situated attitudes towards television viewers.

This research is based on an ethnographic study of the process of producing a soap opera [see the show’s website Plus belle la vie], conducted between October 2008 and August 2010, with several periods of observation of different stages of the production process. Produced by Telfrance Series, and Rendez-vous Production, in collaboration with the technical teams of France 3 Region, production took place both in Paris and Marseille. In Paris, the screenwriting was divided into two stages, and between fifteen contributors, coordinated by a writing director. A first group of eight writers wrote the plotlines for the five episodes of a week’s viewing (the step outline), while a second group of authors wrote the dialogues. In Marseille, both the filming and the directors were overseen by the art director and his assistants. Alongside this observation period, around fifty interviews were conducted with production agents on the series, including twenty-five with screenwriters.

1. Factoring in the Audience: The Division of Labour

The production of a television series involves a significant division of labour within the creative process, working to very tight deadlines (Mille 2016). The concern for the audience and for ratings is part of the moral division of labour within this production (Hughes 1996). The audience represents both a strategic concern for the producers and a constraint for writers. In cultural industries, the work of creative staff is thus subject to significant control by managers of these businesses (Hesmondhalgh 2002).

1.1. The Audience: Primary Concern of Channel and Producers

Those who are the most concerned about the audience and its reactions are those who are the most economically and symbolically connected to the success of the show: the programme managers for the channel, the producer, and the managers within the different stages of the production process. The channel and the producer are particularly attentive to ratings and regularly conduct “audience share surveys” through the channel’s market research department. The audience is represented as a target to be reached, incarnated in statistical aggregates. This quantitative concern can be seen in the comments of France Télévision’s2 head of programming, Antoine T.3:

“One of the principles of soap operas, I think, is that they have a large audience, but they’re never watched primarily by a single target, so when we only look at one target, this does not work because we’re not looking at the criteria of the channel’s audience4.”

In producing this series, the broadcaster had minimal audience criteria, assuming it would appeal to a broad and therefore heterogenous audience. They wanted to reach a younger audience while also maintaining the fidelity of older viewers. This focus on the audience is the everyday responsibility of the programme manager and his or her team, who read the different versions of the scripts, paying attention to what might not appeal to the audience, and writing notes for the producer and screenwriters. The job of taking the audience into account is therefore partly delegated to professionals who act as intermediaries between the fields of cultural production and cultural consumption (Roueff 2013).

The show’s continuation is dependent upon the audience figures. They are written into the contract between the broadcaster and producer and are constantly monitored. The continuation of the series beyond the 130 episodes initially planned was dependent on these figures. They were initially very poor, but they got better. The show overcame its initial difficulties to the point where it was actively competing with the news programmes which air at the same time on other channels, and this was a source of pride and valorization. The show’s audience results were posted each day on the office door of the Marseille unit’s head of production. In the studio hall there was a timeline on the wall showing the progressive increases in audience for the show over the first one thousand PBLV episodes.

Fig. 2. A note from the producer after the show received good ratings, put up in the PBLV studio, august 2010

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The note says: “Congratulations to you all for a successful show and great audience results!”

© Muriel Mille

The producers and broadcasters thus oversee every stage in the process with the aim of raising viewing figures. A first annual seminar brings together the producers, the artistic director, the writing director, the production director, and the acting coach to select the upcoming stories proposed by the writers. Oversight continues with the validation of the step outline, dialogues, casting, and finally editing, which are all evaluated according to the economics of the show and concerns regarding audience. Notes are produced for writers. On an everyday level, it is the directors of each stage of production—the writing director and the artistic director in particular—who take on the responsibility of audience. The artistic director of PBLV, Nicolas R., emphasizes the extent to which his job involves wooing viewers:

“Because you have to remember that everything we do is for the viewer. And, in fact, the audience is far from stupid, far from being a group of idiots stuck in front of the TV who will watch no matter what. Today, they have real choices, they have the possibility of watching all sorts of things. […] So there is a real element of seduction in what we do5.”

The distribution of this responsibility for audience figures corresponds to the role of professionals in the division of labour, their commercial and strategic interests, and their initial training. Antoine T., the head of fiction for France Telévision, for example, began his career in the market research division of France 3, after studying at Sciences Po Paris and completing a specialized Master’s in audiovisual studies at Paris Dauphine University. Similarly, the manager of drama at France 3 studied communications at Sciences Po. Others were socialized to the importance of audience through their professional trajectories within audiovisual production. The programming manager, Sylvie F., is a former television producer (children’s television and soap operas), who initially studied law. The producer, François C., wanted to become a director after studying literature and screenwriting. He worked as first assistant director, and then location manager and production manager in advertising and television, before becoming a producer. Both writing directors, Yves L. and Luc S., studied screenwriting at a Parisian university, while the artistic director, Nicolas R., studied history before becoming project manager at a web agency, then location manager for a television series. Through their different educational backgrounds and qualifications, but especially through their professional experiences in positions of different kinds of responsibility in the audiovisual sphere, these professionals were socialized to be aware of audience figures.

1.2. Authors Constrained by the Audience

However, for the screenwriters, the concern regarding the audience does not appear in the form of an awareness of ratings. Screenwriters are aware of the marketing framework of the series but are reluctant to include the quantitative aspect of viewing figures into their everyday work. On the contrary, the authors have a professional culture that is imbued with mistrust of audience figures (Mille 2010; Pasquier 1995). They are anxious to preserve their professional autonomy and the artistic vision of their work as disinterested, according to the model of artistic professions and producers of the narrow pole of production (Bourdieu 1996; Freidson 1994) with whom they share both ambition and education. Attentiveness to audience figures is a matter for the channel, confirms Serge P., aged 42 (at the time of interviewing), a step outline writer, who graduated from both an institute of political science and France’s leading cinema school, FEMIS.

“Among the partners working on PBLV, the one that claims to be the most aware of public reaction is obviously the channel. It is the channel that does qualitative studies and surveys, and tells us: ‘Ah, the viewers think this, the viewers think that.’ And so, us, we have to… We do take that into account. […] But we don’t really say: ‘We’re writing for a 40-something-year-old housewife with 2.5 children living outside Paris.’ No.”6

Yet the screenwriters interviewed integrated this commercial framework into their writing; as Yvan S., a dialogue writer, puts it: “The goal is that people watch.” The initial failure of the series led the writers to be more attentive to audience figures and follow their development. Screenwriters sometimes even go onto internet forums to read viewer reactions. This was the case for Claire D. (who has written step outlines for four years), in the context of a plot twist she had cowritten: “particularly during the story arc of Sybille’s imaginary friend, I liked to go and watch. People imagine so many things7.”

The constraint of the audience is reiterated by the producer and the broadcaster through their production notes and their selection of proposed plot lines. It is also present on an everyday basis in the recommendations and decisions of the head of writing. The authors know the audience figures communicated by the broadcaster, in the form of aggregate data produced by Mediametrie8 (by age group, gender, and socio-economic categories summarized in two broad categories, upper or lower class). The results of qualitative studies are communicated more selectively by the channel to justify their decisions. The channel regularly expresses its reticence regarding supernatural storylines in the series or warns writers to avoid certain subjects. Thus, during the airing of the episode in which an adolescent, Raphaël, stabs a man in a police station (episode 1,176), a note from the broadcaster advises against displaying images of young people resorting to violence too frequently.

In working on the soap, these screenwriters have accepted the professional constraints that characterize it (Mille 2018): collective creation, quick writing, division of the scriptwriting, limited production means. The writers behind PBLV accept the commercial nature of their work on the series all the better when this is a temporary position, or a consolation prize. The majority of the screenwriters on the series did not initially want to work for television, but rather aimed for cinema, or even theatre. Working on this show is therefore a job while they are waiting to work in cinema or on a more prestigious series. Depending on the writers and their resources, this temporary position may be more or less long term.

These screenwriters accept becoming part of the collective writing of the soap and its commercial framework, but they may also find forms of gratification in the series’ popularity, according to the first head writer, Luc S. (who is 50 years old and became a screenwriter after studying literature). He initially wanted to write for the theatre, and eventually worked for television from the 1990s, becoming a writer for major summer television dramas (along with Yves L. who followed him as head writer). Alongside his work for the soap, he launched an independent publishing house in 2006.

“And then I joined PBLV because I was a bit fried in TV. I hadn’t worked for two years. I thought, ‘I’ll just do the last ones, make a bit of cash’ before quitting. [] And then I found myself getting a taste for the wonderful form of this thing. It is really great to work on a daily show, you have this dialogue with the audience, and that really has been an amazing experience9.”

Even though PBLV is not the primary source of satisfaction for their artistic ambitions, writers may find symbolic forms of retribution in working for such a popular and successful series.

1.3. A Sense of Distance from the Public

Although screenwriters are informed of audience figures, their representations of the public remain vague, and often take the form of a sense of distance. Sofia M. has been a screenwriter for the show since 2004, and she describes her surprise at its success:

“What was really incredible, is that [the audience figures]got so high, it was mind-blowing […] And then, there were the age ranges that really surprised us as well. We thought that we were working for an older age range, when in fact, when we saw that it was really transgenerational, when there are 4-year-old kids, as well as people in their 20s, 30s, and 60s, we were really impressed10.”

The head writer, Yves L., reiterates the breadth of the show’s audience, while also associating it more specifically with working class social groups:

“Now we’re at five and a half million people every evening, you know, so… I think that everyone is watching. I know that in general, the audience is more working class, and the show is more popular outside Paris11.”

This observation is fairly close to the actual makeup of the audience, according to the survey on the cultural practices of the French people conducted in 200812. Moreover, the PBLV audience is embodied in “real people,” and the success and longevity of the show allow the writers to actually meet these people. A dialogue writer, around 30 years old, who attended FEMIS and lives with a director in a working-class neighbourhood of Paris cites the example of the reactions of the employees at her son’s crèche:

“My son goes to crèche and all of the care workers are fans of the series, and they always say: ‘Ah, you work on Plus belle la vie! [admiringly]’ It is quite funny really13!”

When the screenwriters give examples of the show’s audience, they always use working-class people, generally women (children’s care workers or supermarket attendants) rather than examples among their own family and friends. Indeed, the social circles of these writers, who live in Paris and are highly educated members of senior intellectual professions, correspond to the social categories that are least likely to watch the series, according to the Cultural Practices of the French study.

More than half of the writers interviewed attended screenwriting schools, some of which are highly prestigious, such as the FEMIS school for cinema (ten out of the forty-three writers interviewed). They are aware of the distance between their experience of the social world and that of the show’s protagonists and viewers. They find themselves in a situation of having to narrate the lives of characters from different social backgrounds, intended for an audience that is perceived as being both heterogenous and working class. Both in the interviews and in the writers’ meetings, screenwriters sometimes express their awareness of their “class ethnocentrism” (Grignon & Passeron 1989), as is the case of former head writer Luc S.

PBLV is aimed at a very working-class audience. And the France it shows is rather middle class. […] The problem is that the French writers […] are not actually members of either the working class nor the middle class, they are members of the privileged classes, and sometimes even very, very privileged classes. So it’s not easy for us to tell the stories of the ‘little people’ of France, to be perfectly clear.”

It is above all in relation to the working-class characters that the writers express their feeling of disconnection. But they refuse to be cynical and condescending, as Serge P. explains: “We don’t take the viewers for idiots.” On the contrary, they try to remain credible for a working-class audience by trying to project themselves into what they imagine are their viewers’ living conditions. For example, during a writers meeting, the character of Wanda, a retired actress living on a small budget makes a fifty-euro bet with a female construction worker. The head dialogue writer, Natalie D. said that she found the amount of the bet too high in relation to the supposed revenue of the character, but also of the viewers.

Natalie comments that for some people fifty euros is a lot. “Some people told me that when Samia lent Melanie fifty euros, they were surprised Samia had fifty euros in her purse.” She adds, “this is a much harsher reality.” She gives the example of her son’s driving instructor, who earns 1,000 euros a month and has had to spread out payments for the school canteen. She concludes, “we have to realize what it is really like for people.” Yves L. agrees, saying “yes, the average wage is 1,200 euros!”

The audience is also incarnated in the screenwriters’ broader networks and occasional encounters, or in a general image of television viewers as socially remote, rather than in emblematic figures such as the “housewife under 50,” who is the target of advertisers (Bourdon 1998; Poels 2013), or the “Sheffield bus conductor’s wife,” for BBC journalists (Schlesinger 1987: 125).

Fig. 3. Fans waiting outside the studio at Belle de Mai in Marseille where the series is filmed, august 2010

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© Muriel Mille

2. Incorporating Viewers into Production

Being attentive to the audience is also a factor in the writing directives established from the beginning of the show, which demonstrate a certain perception of the television viewer as both passive and inattentive. This is similar to the image of the consumer subject to the effects of the media developed in critical discourses on cultural industries (Horkheimer & Adorno 1974).

The screenwriters see themselves as having to maintain the viewers’ interest so that they return each day to watch the episodes. During the professional fair for television screenwriters, Scénaristes en série, held at Aix-les-bains in 2007, the two head dialogue writers presented themselves as “drama dealers” providing “drugs for viewers.” They drew satisfaction from their ability to create addiction and control the expectations of viewers. They were thus able to systematize the screenwriting rules for the mass audience, by imposing a daily cliffhanger. Each episode ends with an unresolved situation creating frustration for the viewer. Artistic director Nicholas R. explains, “the basis for the cliffhanger logic is: ‘I make you frustrated, I don’t tell you what is happening. If you want to know, come back tomorrow, if you want to end this frustration, see you at ten past eight tomorrow!’” During writers’ meetings, there is frequent criticism of the dynamics of different sequences, particularly of those that are considered “boring” or “sluggish.” These considerations are based on the idea that the only way to maintain their viewers’ attention is by provoking their frustration. The writers responsible for the step outline, which is central to the cooperative process, must therefore produce cliffhangers and plot twists to fill out the episodes.

Another rule of writing, which mainly concerns the dialogue writers, consists in ensuring that viewers can easily follow the characters’ actions. Head dialogue writer Nathalie D. describes her work like this: “If they switch channels once in twenty-six minutes, it’s over, they’re gone, so you really have to captivate them14.” The dialogues in situations of the soap must all speak with one voice according to a principle established by the head dialogue writer:

“There is a bit of everything in PBLV. There is comedy, there is drama, there is crime, and we want each scene to be clearly in its intended tone. In other words, we do not want to mix up comedy with an emotional scene. […] So, if we ever used irony in this drama, people wouldn’t believe it anymore15.”

This coherence of voice and style is associated with what is seen as uncritical reception, which must be facilitated by narrative, dialogue, staging, editing, and music. Chloe L., a 28-year-old dialogue writer who has been working for a year on the show, says:

“You have to put yourself in the viewer’s shoes, and ask—‘are they really going to understand this? What happens if they miss some piece of information, for example. Are they still going to take this into account?’… One episode follows on from another so the info has to be immediately understood, otherwise… you lose someone16.”

From this perspective, the television viewer is defined by their irregularity and lack of concentration. This representation of reception has been crystallized in the writing rules. The first lines of the scene often serve to set the scene and establish the characters’ mindsets and motivations. Similarly, the characters in this soap explicitly state everything they are feeling. Through this narrative style and writing, the audience’s reception is assumed to be discontinuous, distant, and inattentive. Indeed, television is considered to be a “medium that you don’t look at” (Darras 2003).

While the writers are aware of the distance that separates them from their audience, they seek to create characters with whom viewers can identify with. With this in mind, they are attentive to the coherence of these characters, but also to the ways in which they express their emotions. One of the step outline writers, who has been present since the beginning of the show, Sofia M., put it like this: “I don’t think that it is an image of real life. But then, psychologically, it is possible to see yourself in it. Emotionally, you can see yourself.” The authors try to emphasize the appropriateness of the characters’ emotions. Jean L., who has worked on the step outline for the past four years, says:

“I think that the most fundamental realism in the series, is psychological realism: you have to believe. Whether it is A, B, C, whatever, we have to feel what the characters feel, and think: ‘yes, if I was in his place, that is what I would do17.’”

Their definition of realism, for a television series punctuated by often far-fetched plot twists, is close to the “emotional realism” analysed by Ien Ang in her study of the reception of the television show Dallas in the Netherlands. In this study, interviewees considered this series “realistic,” despite it being about rich Texans far removed from their own everyday reality, because the feelings that the characters experience and demonstrate on-screen were perceived as authentic (Ang 1985).

Characters in PBLV often talk about their feelings. Dialogue writer Chloe L. sees this openness as one of the difficulties in writing soap operas:

“The characters say much more than they would in real life, they open up much more easily. Because that is how it is, you know. So sometimes, you have to force yourself a bit, because we want to write characters who are ambiguous, tortured, but, no, they are not like that!”

The screenwriting rules in place for this show are often directly opposed to the screenwriters’ own preferences in terms of drama. Indeed, they reflect an understanding of reception based on a strong identification with characters and drama as a form of escape (Mauger & Poliak 1998), which is the opposite of a more scholarly consumption of cultural goods.

3. Writers’ Attitudes Towards the Audience: A Sense of Responsibility and Distance

The writers therefore incorporate the audience into their writing through rules that reveal a certain conception of how television is received, and which extends to the feeling of responsibility that they express about their work. These writers thus appropriate the injunction to address the greatest number of possible viewers by looking to transmit a message through their scripts. In this, they position themselves in the vein of television programmes from the post-war era aimed at a “general public” seen as being both instructed and entertained by television programmes (Bourdon 2011; Souchon 1980).

3.1. A Sense of Responsibility

The initial objective of the series is to represent the cohabitation of residents from various backgrounds and social environments in a neighbourhood defined as “working class.” The representation of diversity emanates from the desire of the broadcaster, the producer, and the creators of the series to show “togetherness.” In the words of former head writer Luc S.: “I think it was a collective goal to say yes, we can live together. And that’s what PBLV is for.” The screenwriters, who tend to be politically left-leaning, gain satisfaction from working on a series that has a fairly progressive discourse on the social world. Claire D., a step outline writer, emphasizes the importance of transmitting certain messages through the show: “I’m happy because I think to myself, great, if it gets through, if there are things that are transmitted.” The pedagogical aspect of the soap opera is based on a belief in the powers of television, and an understanding of the audience as people to inform, or even educate. Writers are therefore regularly concerned about the morals of the stories they tell. During a plot line about youth drinking, Joëlle P., who has been a screenwriter for five years on the programme, wondered: “We have to agree, are we condemning this18?” The writers emphasize their sense of responsibility towards the audience, as Yves L., the head writer, explains:

Yves L. : – You try to not be politically correct at all, but not be irresponsible either, you know, there has to be a middle ground[laughs], between the…
Interviewer: –What would being irresponsible be like?
Yves L. : – Oh well, I don’t know, for example to, say, not use condoms, things like that. Saying, like, ‘drugs are super cool’… We explored cannabis without saying it was an absolute evil. But we’re not going to justify it either.”

The idea that television viewers believe what they are told is often implicit when these writers talk about their responsibility. The show’s success, as well as its manifest realism, lead them to fear that the audience, or a part of it, really believes in it. Joëlle P. mentions this in relation to a plot she is particularly proud of, about water pollution from a pharmaceutical company in Marseille:

“And it worked really well because there were even calls into the water treatment centre in Marseille, saying: ‘Can you deny it?’ ‘Deny what? It’s not news!’ And even the guy from the water company who told us that some people were calling to know if there was pollution in other areas of Marseille—except that Mistral19 doesn’t exist!”

Fig. 4. The Mistral Bar, on the studio set, august 2010

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© Muriel Mille

Like other television professionals, writers are characterized by the “intense feeling of the power of television, and as a result, of their responsibility” (Chalvon-Demersay 2005: 80). When they believe they are transmitting a pedagogical message, or when they mention their sense of responsibility, the writers convey a belief in the effects of television. At the extreme opposite of the valorization of art for art’s sake, which marks the pole of limited production of artistic fields, screenwriters legitimize and revalorize their work on the soap opera by endowing it with a pedagogical mission. This understanding of their role corresponds to the educational mission given to television when public service television channels were created. Jérôme Bourdon demonstrates how the audience was initially considered an “entity to be educated” (2001: 207), at least until the arrival of commercial competition. This pedagogical approach can be seen as similar to the legitimist relationship with the working classes analysed in Le savant et le Populaire (Grignon & Passeron 1989). Screenwriters implicitly project an audience that is working class, partly lacking in cultural resources and autonomy, and which needs to be informed. In so doing, they affirm their own legitimacy in recounting the social world.

3.2. The Audience Cannot Accept Everything

The series considers itself more progressive on certain themes than other prime-time productions on major channels, French broadcasters having a reputation for being risk-averse. The writers and others involved in PBLV are also proud of the show’s ability to deal with “all subjects.” This contributes to a sense of freedom that they have in their work. The artistic director explains that they are proud of having been the first fiction programme to show a gay couple kissing on French prime-time television. However, the broadcaster and the producer are often concerned about what might be acceptable to the public. The treatment of certain themes is associated with questions about what may, or may not, shock viewers. The image of the audience as being largely working class, but also “transgenerational,” made up of both older people and children, is associated with more conservative opinions in the minds of the screenwriters, producer, and broadcaster, once again with a rather gloomy view of the working classes. They must produce content that is acceptable to this audience, but also which the Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel (France’s regulatory body for television programmes) will not censor for certain age groups, in particular children. The question of what the public will accept is primarily mentioned in relation to the representation of violence and sexuality on the show. During a writers meeting, for example20, the writers of the step outline discuss a plot in which Wanda, a retired actress, finds a job as a phone sex operator:

Myriam: – XPhone sex Wanda, it’s funny.
Yves: – That’s what they proposed to us.
Sofia: – But they have no idea! In Short Cuts21, what is funny is that she is minding her children and she… but we can’t do that!
Claire: – Wanda talking dirty!
Serge: – You can’t show it.
Jean: – Unless it’s Mistress Wanda. So, she’s a mistress, but without any explicit content.

Rather than rejecting this idea, the authors try to find a way to convey it that will not be shocking or unsuitable for children22. Sadomasochism thus appears to be less shocking than erotic phone calls. Similarly, a plot involving gay parents gave rise to a discussion between writers about possible public reactions23. Céline and Virginie want to have a child through DIY artificial insemination, with the help of their gay friend, Thomas. Their decision leads to discussions around the neighbourhood. Thomas’s father, Roland, is enthusiastic, but his wife, Mirta—who is more Catholic and right wing—is opposed to it.

Gilles, dialogue writer: – It’s not really well received if you’re Catholic.
Nathalie, head dialogue writer, quotes their reasoning: – ‘Gays don’t have kids.’
Myriam, writer of the step outline: – And that will be the opinion of most of the people who are watching, don’t delude yourselves…
Nathalie: – It’s hard not to make Mirta ridiculous.

The screenwriters project conservative opinions onto part of their audience; opinions which are so far removed from their own that they have difficulty developing Mirta’s reasoning. For Nathalie D., this character represents “popular wisdom” but without becoming a caricature. These professionals must face up to the contradiction that comes from wanting to promote a cause that is dear to them without alienating certain elements of the audience assumed to be more conservative. The educational ambition of the writers as well as the desire to redeem the popular soap opera through its political mission thus runs up against their contradictions and their representations of a more politically conservative working-class audience—which may lead them to self-censor their writing.

*

This article has provided analysis of the process by which the audience and the anticipation of its reception are taken into account by screenwriters for a soap opera aimed at a large audience. Unlike producers at the pole of limited production, they integrate this economic aspect into their work, even though it is primarily a concern of the channel and specialized intermediaries. These writers have high levels of cultural capital, belong to senior intellectual professions, and seek to write a fictional world that appears real to everyone, and to address the working class, which makes up the majority of their audience. Screenwriters apply writing rules that depict the television consumer as passive and inattentive. This legitimist conception of television goes hand-in-hand with a sense of responsibility towards the public to be informed. The writers feel a kind of social distance from their audience, which is not reflected in class condescension or cynicism, but rather in the adoption of an educational role. Their vision of the general public has consequences for the narrative content of the series; they tend to be euphemistic about social reality on screen, to make it more acceptable to a large number of viewers. It is both due to the conceptions of the audience and the speed of production that, in spite of the writers’ original intentions, the series reproduces a certain number of stereotypical representations of social reality.

Analysing the work of these producers of symbolic goods for mass distribution allows us to study their concrete effects of the heteronomy of the field of cultural production in their practices. This research reveals the ambivalent relationships producers of symbolic goods for mass distribution have with their audiences. The screenwriters are therefore not involved in the same way and do not develop the same relationship with the audience, depending on the projects they are working on. Writers in the field of mass symbolic production are described as being a “proletariat-like intelligentsia” experiencing the contradictions of their dominated position within the field of cultural production (Bourdieu 1971). In his book On Television (1998), Bourdieu analyses the frustration resulting from the contradictory position in which journalists are placed, and the cynicism of channel managers. The analysis questions the idea that cynicism or frustration among producers of symbolic goods for mass distribution is necessary, and demonstrates how they find forms of material and symbolic gratification in the act of working on a series for a general audience.

1 While the intellectual classes, senior managers, and other more socio-economically privileged groups watch the soap opera less, this is primarily

2 France Télévision is the national public broadcasting service in France; it is made up of five channels: France 2, France 3, France 4, France 5, and

3 All names have been changed to respect the anonymity of the professionals I met during my research.

4 Interview from January 2010.

5 Interview from August 2009.

6 Interview from June 2009.

7 Interview from June 2010.

8 Private survey institute for measuring television and radio audiences.

9 Interview from October 2008.

10 Interview from October 2009 with Julie J.

11 The French notion of “populaire” and “popular classes” is sometimes ambiguous (Bourdieu 1983) and difficult to translate into English. We have

12 See Table 1.

13 Interview from November 2009.

14 Interview from October 2008.

15 Interview from October 2008.

16 Interview from May 2010.

17 Interview from August 2010.

18 Observation carried out in May 2010.

19 The name of the fictional neighbourhood in Marseille where the soap opera takes place.

20 Observation in November 2008.

21 Film by Robert Altman, 1993.

22 This plot was eventually filmed with Wanda as Princess Cruella, in June 2009.

23 Observation in December 2008.

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1 While the intellectual classes, senior managers, and other more socio-economically privileged groups watch the soap opera less, this is primarily because they watch less television than other social groups (see Table 1).

2 France Télévision is the national public broadcasting service in France; it is made up of five channels: France 2, France 3, France 4, France 5, and France Ô.

3 All names have been changed to respect the anonymity of the professionals I met during my research.

4 Interview from January 2010.

5 Interview from August 2009.

6 Interview from June 2009.

7 Interview from June 2010.

8 Private survey institute for measuring television and radio audiences.

9 Interview from October 2008.

10 Interview from October 2009 with Julie J.

11 The French notion of “populaire” and “popular classes” is sometimes ambiguous (Bourdieu 1983) and difficult to translate into English. We have opted to translated it as “working class,” a term which reflects Oliver Schwartz’s usage of populaire, emphasizing both the limitations of this concept and its ongoing relevance in referring to a “dominated group” characterized both by “subordination in work and social and political relations,” and by cultural barriers (Schwartz 2011).

12 See Table 1.

13 Interview from November 2009.

14 Interview from October 2008.

15 Interview from October 2008.

16 Interview from May 2010.

17 Interview from August 2010.

18 Observation carried out in May 2010.

19 The name of the fictional neighbourhood in Marseille where the soap opera takes place.

20 Observation in November 2008.

21 Film by Robert Altman, 1993.

22 This plot was eventually filmed with Wanda as Princess Cruella, in June 2009.

23 Observation in December 2008.

Fig. 1. “Place du Mistral” (Studio set for the shooting)

Fig. 1. “Place du Mistral” (Studio set for the shooting)

Screenshot from the series, season 2.

© Muriel Mille

Fig. 2. A note from the producer after the show received good ratings, put up in the PBLV studio, august 2010

Fig. 2. A note from the producer after the show received good ratings, put up in the PBLV studio, august 2010

The note says: “Congratulations to you all for a successful show and great audience results!”

© Muriel Mille

Fig. 3. Fans waiting outside the studio at Belle de Mai in Marseille where the series is filmed, august 2010

Fig. 3. Fans waiting outside the studio at Belle de Mai in Marseille where the series is filmed, august 2010

© Muriel Mille

Fig. 4. The Mistral Bar, on the studio set, august 2010

Fig. 4. The Mistral Bar, on the studio set, august 2010

© Muriel Mille

Muriel Mille

Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines – Laboratoire professions, institutions, temporalités (Printemps)

By this author

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