Entertainment:Bonjour, Garbage Tv

Americans do it. the Dutch do it. Even Australians do it. So why shouldn't the French do it? Reality TV, that is. Ever since "Loft Story," the Gallic version of "Big Brother," premiered last month, it has become one of the most popular--and profitable--shows in French television history. Last week some 10 million viewers--nearly a 40 percent share of the audience--tuned in to watch a group of strangers eat, sleep, shower, quarrel and flirt together. The rules: 11 people go into a sealed apartment. One by one, they're voted out until two "winners" (a man and a woman) are left alone (except for the 26 cameras and 55 microphones, of course). Then they move into a plush, $450,000 Paris apartment. If they can tough it out together for six more months, the place is theirs.

Sounds simple enough. Elsewhere in the world, such fare would provoke water-cooler speculation, bookmaker odds and perhaps the disapproving clucks of a few intellectual snobs. But France isn't most places. "Loft Story's" intense popularity has produced a kind of backlash the country hasn't seen since Jose Bove took on McDonald's. The fact that their compatriots are not only producing such drivel but gluing themselves to the tube to watch it is more than most French intellectuals can bear. Culture Minister Catherine Tasca lamented the "cynicism" of the program, and called for the French television regulatory agency to review whether the contestants' contracts were legal. Jerome Clement, head of the art and documentary station Arte, declared in Le Monde last week that the show was a symptom of "rampant fascism" developing in Europe. Associations that lobby for privacy rights launched "rescue" campaigns to "free" the members of the loft, throwing tomatoes and yogurt containers at the studio and calling for an end to la tele poubelle--garbage TV.

Lighten up, says Thomas Notermans, spokesman for Endemol Productions in the Netherlands, which created the show and franchised it to the French. "We are not harming people," he scoffs. "We are making exciting entertainment." Monique Dagneau, a sociologist and media expert at the Sorbonne, thinks it's time for the intellectual elite to face up to, well, reality. "The famous 'French exception' doesn't apply anymore," she says. The French do not live on a higher cultural plane than the rest of the world. "It turns out we're just as capable of being seduced by television as anyone else," she says.

Indeed. From the moment the show started, on April 26, it was a hit on cable and the Web as well as in its more abbreviated broadcast version. About 10,000 people signed up for the 24-hour pay-TV cable version ($10) within the first day; by the end of the week, an additional 60,000 had joined them. Internet sites dedicated to the show were so inundated with visitors that several overloaded and had to shut down. It has propelled the little private network M6--formerly notable for video clips, soft-core porn and offbeat talk shows--to the forefront of the French airwaves, with a 64 percent boost in advertising revenues. "Even in Cannes, the film cognoscenti can't seem to shut up about the French show," says Agnes Wildenstein of the Cinematheque Francaise.

The basics of "Loft Story" are cribbed from its big-brotherly predecessors. It started with six men and five women trying to endure the ordeals and dalliances for 70 days in the sealed loft on the outskirts of Paris. One by one, they choose their least favorite roommate. The public, by phone-in vote, makes the final decision on who's got to go.

The program has learned from the mistakes of others, notably America's dreary "Big Brother," which was eclipsed by "Survivor." In the French version, couples don't have to sleep together, says Notermans, but that is certainly not discouraged. Since the goal of the contestants is to wind up primus inter pairs, there's a premium on coupling up. Within the first two weeks, Loana, a much-discussed former stripper, was filmed cavorting in the pool with Jean-Edouard. The edited television broadcast was coy about just how much happened, but the racier, complete version was shown on the Internet.

It's not as if the French have never seen this stuff before. Their popular culture is filled with lowbrow, often libidinous milestones. It's just never been as pervasive, invasive or internationally obvious as "Loft Story." In the 1960s a show called "Intervilles" introduced a genre that is still popular: pitting the residents of French towns against each other in absurd and sometimes humiliating competitions--including dressing up in horse outfits and galloping around in the mud. Starting in the late '80s, a company called AB Productions flooded French airwaves. Among the many instant hits was one called "Helen and the Boys," a sitcom featuring deep cleavage and shallow dialogue. Today a show called "It's My Choice" is a "Jerry Springer" knockoff in which audiences boo and cheer guests a l'americaine. Before "Loft Story," M6 was already tilting the ratings with a sensational attempt at investigative journalism called "Forbidden Zone." The subjects of the two top-rated episodes: sex habits and prostitution.

For some critics, "Loft Story" is emblematic of all that is wrong with French TV. The fact that M6 is privately owned has invited the wrath of those recalcitrant few who maintain that the only way to guarantee high standards is government control of France's major networks. A handful have voiced fears that France will follow the example of Italy, where Silvio Berlusconi benefited from his control of the lowbrow private media to secure his election win. But the intellectuals' real concern is probably closer to home. "The French elite's control of the culture is slowly disappearing," says Waddick Doyle, a professor of communications at American University in Paris.

Apart from the Eiffel Tower (also reviled in its day), what is more symbolic of French culture than women throwing their belle epoque petticoats in the air? It would take a lot more than a television show to erase cultural traditions that date back centuries. All that is in danger, in fact, is the relatively new French notion that the country is, or should be, immune to the weaknesses of the rest of the world. "People complain, but no one is going to stop 'Loft Story'," says Dagneau. "And if the networks decide later on to do something much worse, the French will eat that right up too." Ooh-la-la, as they say. And on with the show.