Why Santa Barbara makes it big in France and other soaps don't

 By Judith Sullivan, Soap Opera Weekly, 1991

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One French family designed their new home as a replica of the Capwell mansion of Santa Barbara. Distressed by the absence of bathrooms in the sets seen on TV, these French fans wrote the producers for assistance in creating a bathroom that would have done the Capwells proud.

A 16-year-old Swiss girl has six years' worth of videotapes of Santa Barbara and more than 1,500 magazine articles about the show. Her hobby attracted the interest of a nighttime talk show in France, which interviewed her on the program.

A French fan asked the editors of Télé Star magazine how to get a copy of Santa Barbara's soundtrack - quickly. She wanted to use the wedding march played at Kelly and Joe's wedding in her own upcoming nuptials.

In the six years since the California Capwells and their Santa Barbara neighbors first showed up on French screens, stars like Marcy Walker (Eden), A Martinez (Cruz), Robin Wright (Kelly) and Lane Davies (Mason) have become cultural icons, as enduring in Paris as All my Children's veteran soap queen Susan Lucci (Erica) is in the U.S.. Santa Barbara is one of the most widely viewed shows on French television, and its success has paved the way for other American daytime soaps - among them, CBS's top-rated The Young and the Restless - to make their way into French living rooms. Though Santa Barbara is among the low-rated soaps in the U.S., it has achieved enormous success in France.

There are several factors that contribute to Santa Barbara's popularity there, including the show's early evening time slot and aggressive promotion by the French television press. Nearly half of all the people watching TV at 7 p.m. (5.5 million viewers, including 15 percent of all French women) are tuned to Santa Barbara on France's TF1 channel.

But an American Santa Barbara fan visiting a Parisian household at dinnertime would feel a little lost in the Gallicized Santa Barbara. The show airs in half-hour chunks, so the French are several years behind what U.S. viewers are seeing. (Currently on air there : Eden is being held hostage by Cain; Mason is looking for her; Cruz thinks she is dead; and Eleanor is trying to seduce him.) Some of the actors who have achieved greatest popularity with French fans have already left the show.

One of the strangest things about the French version of Santa Barbara is the name of the Capwell patriarch : Jed Allan's C.C. is called Channing, pronounced Shaneengue. The French pronounce the names of Cruz and Eden as we do.

The show's actors have achieved virtual cult status among the French. Marcy Walker's personal life has been widely reported on by the press, and rarely a week goes by that the blond actress does not grace the cover of one of France's half-dozen weekly television publications. If Walker isn't the cover star du jour, then Martinez, Wright, Judith McConnell (Sophia) or Todd McKee (ex-Ted) often is.

Télé Star offered Walker and her family a trip to Paris in 1988, during which she was constantly approached by autograph-seekers. In 1989, several episodes of the soap were shot in France, focusing on the disappearance and recovery of Cruz and Eden's baby daughter. The throngs of gawkers turned the shooting into "a madhouse. The actors couldn't walk out of their hotel," says Jerry Zanitsch, vice president for marketing of New World International, which distributes both Santa Barbara and The Bold and the Beautiful. On a personal visit last year, Davies and McKee were similarly bombarded by exuberant fans, according to Zanitsch. Martinez told an interviewer from Télé Star that droves of avid fans followed him around even when he and his family visited the Louvre.

The French demonstrate their passion for the soap in many ways. They regularly write the show's producers, and merchants in the real-life city of Santa Barbara, California, have had to brush up on their French to accommodate the French tourists who visit the Capwell family's stomping grounds, according to New World. TF1 has published four separate novelizations based on Santa Barbara scripts. The first two sold quite well, numbers 3 and 4 were less popular, a publishing source says.

Sebastien Fiorelli, a 21-year old student, started a French Santa Barbara fan club three years ago. It now has about 100 members, he says. Members can obtain all of the episodes of Santa Barbara on videotape, as well as photographs of the cast specially ordered from the U.S., and a newsletter with show gossip and information.

The French are certainly not alone in their appreciation of Santa Barbara, which now airs in more than 40 countries and earlier this month became the first soap to have a regular programming slot in the Soviet Union. New World sells the daytime drama all over Europe, including in Greece, Yugoslavia and Denmark.

But French viewers are the ones most often cited by New World and television journalists as Santa Barbara's most loyal international fans. TF1's marketing director Catherine Grandcoing says the show has universal appeal : "It is certain that the bulk of the audience is very young. It plays well among children, among women, of course, but there are also men who definitely watch Santa Barbara."

Fiorelli says he got hooked on the show because the plots are simple yet suspenseful. Fan club member Gérard Abily, 22, a soap fan via Dallas and Dynasty, says he especially likes the show's music : He often hooks up his stereo to the TV to tape songs directly from the show. Among his favorite past and present characters are Mason (episodes with Davies in the role are still airing in France) and the "woman who really loves him," Mary, played by Harley Kozak (French viewers already saw her die when a huge letter "C" fell on her from the roof of the Capwell Hotel; they have also watched Mason marry Victoria).

One television journalist suggests the French like Santa Barbara because it is more down-to-earth than the glitzier nighttime soaps. "The actors' looks correspond to French tastes... Marcy Walker is cute and nice, but not too beautiful. Cruz is not too handsome. He is not an extraordinary leading man," he says.

"The characters are brilliant, beautiful, rich and in good health," says TF1's Grandcoing. TF1 personnel have had several brainstorming sessions to analyze the popularity of the California-based soap. The specific results are confidential, but in general it is believed that the French audience appreciates the elements of make-believe indigenous to all soap operas, she says. "(They like) the very concept of Santa Barbara, its dream (element). The characters make you dream. They love and they hate. These characters inspire dreams, but that is the very basis of the soap opera (genre)," she explains.

TF1's director of programming, Pascale Toussaint, spent two weeks at NBC watching the show being taped and putting together a behind-the-scenes report on Santa Barbara. "I am very interested in Santa Barbara," she says. "I think it is a very good soap, very well put together. Viewers can get involved in an episode without having seen the beginning of the series and still follow the next episodes." The fact that TF1 started showing Santa Barbara just a year after the series kicked off is also helpful, Toussaint says.

The show's storylines and character development are also quite interesting, she says. "The characters are nice, they are attractive. The story is very well dramatized. In each episode, something always happens. They always have the ability to maintain the suspense."

In fact, while she was in California, Toussaint says she found herself getting caught up in the intrigue of current episodes, and admits that she found it frustrating to have to return to France with an unresolved murder plot still dangling.

The show's acting quality and storylines are not its only assets, according to one of Toussaint's co-workers. Part of Santa Barbara's success in France has to do with its early evening time slot. Anne Petrolacci, director of TF1's acquisitions service, says bluntly : "(Santa Barbara) resembles dozens of other products. You know, in the U.S. it is an afternoon product like many others. There is no point in saying it is the greatest soap on Earth. That is not true. It is a soap like all other soaps." To Petrolacci, the cozy time slot is nine-tenths of the battle for ratings pre-eminence. "It is not just a function of the product itself, but of the placement of the product in the schedule," she says.

Santa Barbara debuted on France's then public, now private TF1, the top-rated of France's five broadcast networks, in October '85. At the time, TF1 was looking for something to challenge the 7 p.m. competition of a popular Jeopardy-like game show on channel 2 and the local news on channel 3, according to Toussaint. Once it decided on Santa Barbara, TF1 went all out to promote the show, hoping that French audiences might prefer sheer entertainment over a tough game show or local news. Almost immediately, Santa Barbara, the first American daytime soap to air in France, tapped into the popularity of Dallas and Dynasty (which are now off the air). Santa Barbara premiered with an audience share of over 16 percent, and within six weeks was drawing 40 percent of what is known as "prime-time access" viewership, viewers who tune in before the nightly news and the evening's prime-time schedule of films or variety shows.

Santa Barbara's ratings have held steady for six years, and today, 20 percent of French households tune in five nights a week; the soap is sandwiched between French versions of Family Feud and Wheel of Fortune. The soap's main competition is other American fare - MacGyver, The A-Team, Kojak and Little House on the Prairie.

TF1's Toussaint says the 1985 decision to air the soap was a good one, but might not as well today. "The soap is a product that takes a long time to fit in. I'm not quite sure today, with six channels (the five broadcast ones plus a decoder-only channel) we would take the same risk," Toussaint explains. Nonetheless, taking that risk six years ago has paid off big time.

French television officials believe Santa Barbara gets a boost from the regular coverage in TV magazines that inundate French newsstands. Télé Star also plasters reproductions of its covers in the Paris metro cars and buses, so many commuters spend 10 hours or so of their work week under the smiling photo of a member of the Santa Barbara cast.

Like their U.S. counterparts, French soap magazines devote their space to features about the actors' homes, their children and their hobbies, among other topics. Marcy Walker's Erica Kane-style pattern of short-lived marriages has been well documented, often in prose not unlike soap opera dialogue. One recent piece about Walker in Télé Magazine began : "At 29, she is living through another emotional failure. She had promised herself that her third marriage would be her last. However, after 18 months of joint living, she is leaving her husband. Had she possibly already met the new man of her dreams ?" Later, the writer advised readers not to worry about Walker's future. "She is young, beautiful and rich. There will be other roles and other partners."

Ciné Télé Revue, a Belgian publication, also devotes plenty of ink to the angst-ridden Californians. Its sometimes features pieces about plot developments, actors and characters the French will not see for months or years. For example, last year Ciné Télé Revue did a long profile of Stella Stevens, who will not show up (there) as Phyllis Blake, Gina's mother, for several years. Ciné Télé Revue has already done an article about Todd McKee's move over to The Bold and the Beautiful (he plays Jake). The French will neither see Santa Barbara without McKee nor The Bold and the Beautiful with him for quite a while.

The most extensive Santa Barbara coverage appears in Télé Star, though. Its marketing department even sponsors a daily game aimed at loyal Santa Barbara viewers. After each installment, callers working for TF1 dial randomly selected numbers in the phone book and ask respondents a question related to that evening's episode (such as "Whom did Kelly call ?" or "What is the name of Gina's neighbor ?"). The winner is eligible for a cash prize that increases by 10,000 FF (about $1,850) each day. The caller can win even more by correctly identifying the Santa Barbara character (or the actor who plays him or her) whose photo is on that day's listing in the current edition of Télé Star.

Télé Star marketing director Jean Peigné says his magazine's early jump onto the Santa Barbara bandwagon has been one of the soap's success, as well as the fact that, "It is a lot less childish than some of the other soaps", he says. Peigné has an insider's interest in the show : he knows and likes Walker, and created French lyrics for the Santa Barbara theme. The song goes something like this : "Santa Barbara, will you tell me why I have such angst ? Santa Barbara, I don't know. I live like a rollicking boat, carrying my memories." It rhymes in French !

As far as Santa Barbara's popularity, Peigné and TF1's Grandcoing agree that the intense coverage of the soap raises the issue of cause and effect.

In the 1990s were commercialized in France Santa Barbara chewing gums with inside photos of the actors to be collected (photos by Sébastien F.).
Click on the photos to enlarge them

Since Santa Barbara's debut in 1985, its popularity has led to the airing of other American soaps. French audiences have met the fictional residents of Geona City (The Young and the Restless), Chicago (Generations), Salem (Days of our Lives) and other soap locales. None of these series has drawn as large an audience, however; the French reception of other American daytime dramas has been mixed at best.

The one exception is The Young and the Restless - the French know it as The Fires of Love - the top-rated CBS soap, which also appeals to the French late-lunch crowd. TF1 began airing the saga of Geona City in August 1988, showing the hour-long episodes intact from 1:30 to 2:20, with one commercial interruption. The Young and the Restless is seen in 14 percent of French households and by 12 percent of all women. More than half the people watching TV right after the lunchtime news are tune into The Fires. Television magazines recently began including articles about The Young and the Restless stars, especially Tom Bierdz (ex-Phillip Chancellor III) and Lauralee Bell (Cricket).

TF1 also airs Hatreds & Passions (Guiding Light) at 9 a.m.. It is especially popular with older viewers, Grandcoing says. Perhaps TF1's oddest programming decision, however, involves Procter & Gamble's now-defunct Search for Tomorrow, which airs between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. week days and is called It's Already Tomorrow. Search for Tomorrow was originally shown at a more watchable time, but poor viewership prompted the network to offer it only to insomniacs. In addition, European regulations put a de facto cap on the number of hours of American programming that can be aired over French airwaves, but those rules do not apply in the middle of the night, Grandcoing says. TF1 also shows episodes of Knots Landing (called West Coast) daily, right after The Young and the Restless and preceding a German soap called The Black Forrest Clinic. It's a lineup that differs little from afternoon network fare in the U.S..

TF1 is the only network that has met with any success showing American soaps in the evening. Antenne 2, a public station, has tried and failed, even though it buys shows that are popular in the U.S.. Currently, Antenne 2 airs The Bold and the Beautiful (once called Top Models, then renamed Love, Glory and Beauty), Loving (called Lovingly Yours) and Days of our Lives (called Days and Lives). The network also aired several episodes of Generations this year after it was canceled in the U.S..

Antenne 2 fared poorly with Days of our Lives, which it scheduled opposite the French Wheel of Fortune. The NBC soap premiered in late July, when many French vacationers were more interested in windsurfing and tanning than the goings-on in Salem. The show was soon scuttled out of the 7:30 p.m. time slot to one opposite the popular The Young and the Restless. Days of our Lives' ratings in France didn't improve, and the show was pulled from the schedule in November, before Antenne 2 showed all the episodes it purchased from Columbia / Tri-Star International Television, which also distributes The Young and the Restless.

Antenne 2 has scheduled Loving and The Bold and the Beautiful back to back, and until recently TF1 aired Guiding Light in the morning. Then it put Guiding Light on a two-month hiatus, replacing it with a French program in order to meet its 1991 quota of non-imported programming. Neither of the Antenne 2 soaps was successful in the afternoon, according to Bibiane Godfroid, Antenne 2's director of programming. As TF1 does with Knots Landing, Antenne 2 recently tried airing reruns of Falcon Crest in the early afternoon opposite The Young and the Restless, then bounced Falcon Crest to a 6 a.m. time slot this fall. Though the Channings and the Giobertis were popular in France when the series first aired, few French people are interested in the goings-on in Tuscany these days, Godfroid says.

Godfroid blames the show's tepid ratings on the mindset of the French viewer, which is more attuned to other types of programming, such as talk and cop shows. "The public wants to learn, to do something other than just dream about love stories. So we are re-evaluating the whole notion of afternoon soaps."