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Marketing Channel 4′s The Returned/Les Revenants

Channel 4′s promotion of The Returned/Les Revenants was a bit more fun than most foreign language drama ad campaigns. Were audiences turned on? Sarah Arnold reports.

In May 2013, The Guardian announced Channel 4’s latest TV drama The Returned with the headline “Channel 4 aims to make a killing with subtitled French Drama,” adding: “The broadcaster’s first foreign-language drama series in 20 years features zombies, murderers- and (horror) subtitles.”

The Returned Fig 1

The Returned/Les Revenants (2012 – )

The article made much of the risks associated with foreign language programming, risks somewhat alleviated by the popularity of foreign thrillers and crime dramas on BBC Four such as The Killing and The Bridge, which had challenged perceptions of British audiences as resistant to subtitled television.

Channel 4 sought to capitalise on such audience engagement with foreign programming and set about generating a comprehensive promotional campaign that would launch its new show. However, whereas BBC Four had managed the provision of foreign language programming through careful scheduling and channel placement and had produced a discourse of exclusivity in their promotion of foreign-language shows, Channel 4 took a decisively different approach, launching The Returned in a key prime time slot, which placed it against BBC One’s prestige drama The White Queen. It was, consequently, dependent upon a sizable and diverse audience.

Channel 4 lacks an established back catalogue of foreign language television drama, nor could it rely upon the appeal of genre, given The Returned’s unusual narrative and style. The broadcaster therefore sought to exoticise The Returned’s ‘Frenchness’ through a strategy of playful reference to language, French culture and the non-British stylistic traits of the show.

Where BBC Four had undertaken a process of domestication through the emphasis on already nationally familiar conventions such a genre, Channel 4 positioned the foreignness and difference of The Returned as central to its potential appeal. Through the use of trailers, Channel 4’s pre-air promotional narration, commercial advertising and an assertive Twitter campaign, Channel 4 attempted to acclimatise its audience by presenting its French language as a novelty rather than an inconvenience.

A two-pronged marketing strategy

When Channel 4 announced its acquisition of Les Revenants in early 2013, it made passing reference to the issue of subtitling, but was more keen on promoting the story. A month prior to the show’s premiere (9th June 2013), Channel 4 took a two-pronged strategy to market the show that both highlighted and, strangely, negated The Returned’s Frenchness.

From May, the press began to circulate details of Channel 4’s intentions for the premiere. The first episode would be accompanied by French language ads and a French channel narration to announce the show.

The stunt was undertaken to promote Channel 4’s return to foreign language programming and to generate excitement about its Frenchness. However, the trailer for the show, advertised in the run up to the premiere, used no dialogue (and therefore contained no subtitles) and had only one quick reference to the show’s nationality.

It seems the intention was to first situate The Returned amongst the back catalogue of successful Channel 4 dramas such as Homeland and Utopia: both heavily stylised and centred upon an enigma. Once it had aligned The Returned with its other popular drama output, Channel 4 embarked on the campaign to foreground the show’s French identity and its use of subtitles. Given that it didn’t have a history of subtitled shows and that its audience was both larger and from a typically younger demographic than BBC Four, it worked to make the premiere an event that celebrated rather than apologised for the subtitles.

The immediate response to the first set of French advertisements was positive. On social media, many praised the innovative French contextual framing and were enthusiastic about the programme’s French language.

Where viewers did complain about subtitles, others quickly derided them for being unsophisticated and lazy. Acceptance of subtitles, then, became a signifier of superior taste and intellect. The audience were, it seems, divided into those who saw The Returned as too much of a departure from Channel 4’s usual content, and those who saw it as an enhancement of Channel 4’s brand identity.

The REturned Fig 2

Twitter discussion on the use of French adverts during Channel 4′s premier of The Returned.

However, in the reviews and discussions that followed the premiere broadcast, the advertisements proved a much more contentious issue, with many feeling that Channel 4 ran too many resulting in a fragmented first episode. Although the French language ads were only included once, this was perceived later as an intrusion and a distraction, especially given that other ad breaks were English language. And while the show was largely praised in reviews, the ratings were lower than that of Homeland, which had previously occupied the same slot on the schedule.

Frivolous foreground of Frenchness

It seems that Channel 4’s celebration of its new show through event programming worked against audience engagement and prevented audiences from fully immersing themselves in the narrative.

It is perhaps telling that Channel 4 has refrained from acquiring more foreign language dramas, choosing instead to programme a second series of The Returned. Where BBC Four has situated foreign language programming at the core of its brand identity, Channel 4 has kept it at the periphery.

BBC Four benefited from a broadcast model that emphasised the show itself as event. By placing its foreign language programmes on a niche channel, with no commercial advertising and little paratextual framing, it generated a sense of selectivity and seriousness. Channel 4’s frivolous foregrounding of ‘Frenchness’ as exotic and fun undermined the drama’s inherent grimness as well as the audience expectations of how quality drama should be presented.

In making an issue of language, Channel 4 realised that language was not an issue. The lesson learned, perhaps, is that the popularity of foreign language drama resides more in its familiarity than its difference.

Sarah Arnold is Senior Lecturer in Film & Television at Falmouth University.

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