Earlier this year Channel 4 broadcast the first episode of much anticipated new French zombie drama, ‘The Returned’.
Set in a small Alpine village, where a group of men, women and children do not yet know they are dead, the supernatural thriller was written and directed by Frenchman Fabrice Gobert and starred a cast of unknown Gallic actors. And it proved to be quite the hit indeed.
The first episode was the fourth most watched show on Channel 4 that week and the final episode of the eight-part series was watched by 1.9 million UK viewers. With excellent ratings in the bag, it’s set to return for a second series.
So, what’s the big deal about ‘The Returned’? Well, that’s simple: it was Channel 4’s first subtitled foreign language drama in over 20 years.
To mark the occasion, Channel 4 broke new ground by broadcasting the UK’s first ever ad break made up entirely of French language adverts with English subtitles.
So, if a subtitled programme can be so popular, then why the lack of foreign language programmes over recent years?
Back in the 1980s, it turns out that television programmes with foreign languages and subtitles were not so uncommon. In 1984 the German mini-series ‘Heimat’ was broadcast on the BBC and proved popular due to the weighty subject matter of Nazis and World War Two. In 1988, the Hindi series ‘Maharabhat’ was extremely popular on the BBC, with around five million viewers.
During the 1990s foreign language programmes virtually disappeared, but that all changed in the mid-2000s when the BBC once again started showing subtitled programming.
French television police drama series ‘Spiral’, first shown on BBC Four in 2006, was the channel’s first French-language drama series, attracting a modest audience of around 200,000. Firm critical approval led to the BBC broadcasting subsequent series in 2009, 2011 and 2013. In 2008, the BBC also began broadcasting Swedish inspector series ‘Wallander’, with some episodes attracting more than half a million viewers.
Yet it was Danish series, ‘The Killing’, first broadcast on the BBC in early 2011, that became a global sensation, garnering critical acclaim, a cult following and many industry awards. Subsequent series regularly attracted over one million viewers, and an American remake was soon released.
The BBC has continued to enjoy success with foreign language programming ever since. Swedish/Danish crime thriller, ‘The Bridge’, and Danish political drama ‘The Borgen’ both proved popular with UK viewers and just this year, BBC Four secured the exclusive first run UK broadcast rights to the Belgian thriller series ‘Salamander’.
So, what’s the reason for the rising popularity of subtitled foreign TV programmes? Unfortunately, there’s no definitive answer. It’s been suggested that it could be a form of snobbery as people are able to boast about watching foreign language shows. Or maybe it’s just another example of globalisation. More television channels mean more options. It’s also likely to be cheaper for channels to buy programmes that are already made, rather than paying for them to be produced from scratch.
Whatever the reason, it’s a great way for television audiences to become more familiar with different cultures and different languages. And luckily for us linguists, signs suggest that foreign speaking programmes are only set to become more and more popular in the years to come.