Dominique Mehl, La télévision de l'intimité. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1996, and Isabelle Pailliart (ed.), L'espace public et l'emprise de la communication, Grenoble: Ellug, 1995.

Hugh Dauncey


Dominique Mehl of the Centre d'étude des mouvements sociaux

(CNRS-EHESS) is well known already for her sensitive and

interesting studies of French television, which include an analysis of

the popular culture transmitted by television in La fenêtre et le

miroir: la télévision et ses programmes(Paris: Payot, 1992). In

this, her most recent contribution, La télévision de l'intimité, she

continues her reflection on the cultural and political implications of

programming trends in French television of the 1990s, linking

analysis of the considerable French vogue for reality programming

(in the form of what are known in France as 'reality-shows') to

considerations of the changing boundaries between the private and

the public in French society.   The debate over the private and the

public forms the link with L'espace public et l'emprise de la

communication, edited by Isabelle Pailliart of the Groupe de

recherche sur les enjeux de la communication (Université de

Grenoble III - Stendhal), which deals precisely with this

relationship between the media and private individuals and the

definition of the public forms of democratic debate. The

contributors to this edited volume, include Pierre Chambat (who has

also contributed much to recent analyses of French reality-shows)

and Bernard Miège, and have all published extensively on the

interactions between communications, politics and society in France.

The main philosophical and theoretical influences on the

contributions to L'espace public et l'emprise de la communication all

stem from Habermas's studies of the public sphere. Pailliart et al

consider that the new forms being assumed by the public sphere

and the increasing domination of communication over society

require new perspectives of study. Because of the complexity of

the phenomena and forces at work in the constant modification of

the form and content of the public sphere, these new perspectives

are necessarily interdisciplinary, combining politics, sociology and

information and communications sciences.         L'espace public et

l'emprise de la communicationthus approaches the issue of the

links between communication and the the defining of the public

sphere on four fronts. Firstly the role of opinion polls in shaping

public thinking is considered; secondly the notions of individualism

and of public and private space are investigated; thirdly, the role of

businesses and business communication in defining 'l'espace public'

is assessed; and fourthly, the influence of televised politics in

drawing the boundary between private and public spheres is

discussed.

The approach of L'espace public et l'emprise de la

communication, although constantly stimulating, seems relentlessly

speculative and theoretical, and the lack of a proper concluding

chapter to the book is perhaps unfortunate, given the richness and

variety of the individual contributions. It may be that many

readers, (particularly non-Francophone) would have welcomed

more synthetic material than is provided in the brief introduction

and final chapter of 'prolongation'. Nevertheless, each chapter is in

itself a rich source of ideas for further thought and analysis, and the

bibliographical references provide a useful source of material for

other scholars wishing to consider the issues.

In contrast, La télévision de l'intimité has the advantage of

applying its analysis to a single, (albeit multiform) phenomenon of

communication in contemporary French society, namely the reality-

show, and of attempting an interpretation of the social and political

significance of the French public's enthusiasm for this kind of

reality programming.     Mehl's approach is based on two years of

empirical research dealing with the analysis of hundreds of hours of

television programmes from the 1990s and various pre-cursors of

reality-shows from previous decades, and a large numberof

interviews with reality-show participants, viewers, producers and

presenters, and various other 'experts' who contribute to different

reality-shows.

Intimate television reveals, in Mehl's analysis, firstly the

difficulty of interpersonal communications in a society supposedly

characterised more and more by information and exchange and the

weakness of intermediate groupings, secondly the inability of

traditional structures of therapy and expertise to respond to the

social and psychological malaise these problems of communication

produce and the crisis of society's attempt to live the culture of

modernity.     Television, and specifically the use of television by

individuals to air their problems and views to television audiences

provides a solution to these problems of communication and values,

and in permitting the 'private' use of a public instrument of

communication, contributes to a redrawing of the boundaries of the

private and the public.

La télévision de l'intimité   addresses the nature of reality-

shows by classifying their treatment of private communication

('l'intimité') into four main categories, according to the way in which

it is translated into discourse for the public sphere.   Thus different

reality-shows deal with the contributions of ordinary citizens either

as 'personal messages', 'therapeutic talking', 'cathode-ray

confession' or 'collective messages', or as combinations of these.

Much of the book is devoted to thorough analyses of how the

reality-shows studied so exhaustively by Mehl give rise to this

classification, providing a fascinating insight into these programmes.

One of the motors of the trend towards what is to be termed

'public private life' or 'private public life', (so confused have the

dividing lines between the public and private spheres now become)

is individualism, which when combined with predominant cultures

of psychology and psychoanalysis drives individuals and audiences

towards the public revelation of personal details, via television.

Mehl is reassuring concerning the effect of these processes on the

image and role of politicians, whom she sees as having as yet

escaped overexposure in the media, partly through the traditional

French respect for the private life of politicians and despite a

number of television programmes portraying them in their family

contexts.   Perhaps the revelations over President Mitterrand's

second family mark a final weakening of this famous discretion of

the French media which will contribute to the increasing

transformation of the public sphere from a space defined by

rationality and expertise to one underpinned by the emotions and

individual experience, dominated by interpersonal relations ?

Mehl sees in the French reality-shows an example of a new

model of television which is in some sense active (and interactive ?)

in the way it intervenes in society to take care of individuals and

their problems, attempting to provide succour and solutions.   This

is 'compassionate television', catering for those who find the culture

of modernity too challenging and also for those who realise that its

values include the right to appear on television in a blurring of

private and public.

La télévision de l'intimité   constitutes in a sense an extended

case study of the second of the ideas explored more theoretically in

L'espace public et l'emprise de la communication, namely the

changing limits and content of public and private under the

influence of individualism and new modes of communication. Mehl

also touches in passing on the implications of the public/private

ambiguity of television for politics and politicians. These are

indeed the most easily accessible of the themes addressed by

Pailliart et al, but it would seem that further research will

increasingly cover the whole range of issues raised by

communication's redefinition of the public and private spheres.

These two books provide excellent starting points for all wishing to

enter the field.

Hugh Dauncey