A guide to watching French TV channels

A guide to watching French TV channels

by Anne-Lise Vassoille

Updated November 7, 2022

It’s well-known that watching television can be a great way to help you learn a foreign language. It’s particularly useful if you’re keen to improve your listening skills and extend your vocabulary, even if you already have a higher level of French. It also gives you a window into popular culture and the way of life in France. Nowadays, there are many ways to access some French TV shows, even when you live abroad. To give you a better idea of what’s available, we have listed the most important French TV channels, the kind of shows they are known for and how to watch them.

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Terrestrial French television

These traditional channels can be watched on a TV even with a simple terrestrial antenna or via their website, as long as you have an address in France. You may also be able to access some of them in certain neighboring countries. There are five main terrestrial channels. It’s worth noting that they are often referred to by their channel number, rather than their official name: TF1 is commonly called la une, France 2 la deux, France 3 la trois, France 5 la cinq and M6 la six.

France Télévision

Labeled as France TV on its website, France Télévision regroups the four fully public TV channels in France, namely France 2, France 3, France 4 and France 5, among other things. Each has its own identity: France 2 is the main generalist channel, France 3 has more of a regional focus, France 4 is aimed at younger audiences and France 5 is the more cultural and educational channel. 

Privately-owned channels

TF1 (which stands for Télévision Française 1) is the oldest national French TV channel. Initially a public channel, it was privatized in 1987. In terms of audience, it’s the biggest commercial channel in France. It broadcasts a large variety of both French and international TV shows, including reality TV. 

Born in 1987, M6 is among the youngest French terrestrial channels. Originally conceived of as a music channel, similar to MTV, this channel tends to be aimed at a younger audience. Like TF1, it also broadcasts many commercially successful TV shows. You can watch some of its programs from abroad through M6 International, if you happen to subscribe to such channel distributors as Thema.

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Subscription and cable channels

For a few decades now, these traditional channels have encountered fiercer competition from a growing number of subscriptions and cable channels. The first and most famous is Canal +, which has been broadcasting a mix of encrypted and unencrypted shows since 1984. With its often irreverent tone, it has launched the career of several famous French comedians. It has also gained plaudit for producing some of the most critically acclaimed and popular French series and films. 

Since the 1990s, cable and satellite channels have grown in number and popularity. These days, they tend to come through une box (a common term to refer to a Wifi box allowing to watch a bundle of TV channels and streaming platforms), with various package deals offered by home broadband suppliers, like Free, Bouygues Telecom or Orange, just to name a few. Rather than being generalist, such channels tend to focus on a specific area of interest, be it news, sports, music, cinema or children-friendly programs like international and French cartoons

French TV channels accessible online

As we have already mentioned, a range of French TV channels are accessible abroad if you’re happy to pay a subscription. Alternatively, several French channels offer some of their programs for free online. 

As its name suggests, TV5 Monde is aimed at audiences around the world. It takes most of its content from French-speaking channels. Most of the programs tend to have a cultural or informational purpose, such as documentaries, report shows and  debates. You can access them via the channel website or through Internet television services like TVPlayer in the United Kingdom.

If you’re interested in the news, then both France 24 and Euronews will keep you up to date with the latest events through their website, their YouTube channel, and on certain cable or satellite providers. 

Finally, the Franco-German culture channel Arte produces and broadcasts in-depth programs on a large variety of topics. You can access most of them on their website or as a free channel on smart televisions in some countries. 

Get the best of French TV channels

Be it through the standard terrestrial channels, via subscription or cable TV or simply online, there are many different ways to watch French TV channels, depending on where you’re located. Some channels are generalist, while others focus on a specific area of interest or type of shows, so you can be sure to find something to your liking.

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Anne-Lise is a translator and copywriter working for various industries, such as hospitality and travel, as well as health and well-being. Settled down in London since the end of her university years, she cannot get enough of the exceptional cultural life in the English capital city, starting with theater, be it to see a new West End show or to roll up her sleeves with her amateur drama group. She is also interested in photography, as her Instagram profile shows. She indulges her passion for languages in a translation blog she writes with other linguist friends. Go to her Linkedin page to know more about her background and her professional experience.

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