How we consume audiovisual products, especially TV series and films, is changing, and the trend is towards original version. This situation was exemplified last year with the signing of an agreement between Canal+ and the Generalitat's culture department for the pay channel to provide half of its televised drama programmes – considered premium content – with the option of Catalan subtitles. Now, top TV series, such as Fargo or The Knick, can be seen on Canal+ in their original English, with viewers having the option to watch the shows with subtitles in Catalan.
With this measure, the pay channel is attempting to fill the gap left by the large TV networks in Spain, such as Mediaset (Tele 5) and Atresmedia (Antena 3), the two largest, which in the past decade have shown little interest in expanding linguistic diversity in Spain. Previous TV offerings in Catalan by the major channels have become few and far between.
In the mid-90s, Tele 5 had a lunchtime news programme in Catalan, while Antena 3 broadcast the popular cartoon series The Simpsons in Catalan in 1997. More recently, the Catalan series, Polseres vermelles, was made available in its original version through the dual stereo system. In fact, the existence of the dual system, which allows TV viewers to switch the audio of the programme so that they can watch in original version, has been widely underused.
For its part, Canal+ has evaluated these few months of broadcasting in VOSC (versió original subtitulada en català) as “very satisfactory”: “Our aim has always been to improve our offer and widen the possibilities for our customers when it comes to choice,” says Canal+ director, Álex Martínez Roig, who adds that the service is not looking for “a rise in subscribers but rather to deepen the loyalty of existing clients”.
While, Martínez Roig says that no figures exist to provide a clear picture of how many Canal+ subscribers have taken advantage of the subtitle service, the company's aim is very much focused on “all Catalan speaking citizens in Spain”.
This amounts to almost half a million subscribers resident in Catalonia, the Balearic Islands and Valencia, and that is without taking into consideration Catalan residents living outside the Països Catalans.
In the whole of Spain, Catalonia is the place where Canal+ has the most subscribers and for the first time ever a television channel, albeit a private one, has put Catalan on a similar level of importance to Spanish. Yet, the channel insists that this measure has nothing to do with the current political climate, but is merely the culmination of a long-term effort to provide such a service. In fact, the idea was first attempted back in the 1990s: “Our platform, which at that time went under the name Canal Satélite Digital, broadcast cinema dubbed into Catalan on the range of Cinemania channels,” says Martínez Roig, who also points out that the political situation was very different at that time. However, the project did not take off due to the lack of films dubbed into Catalan: “False expectations were created that held the project back; Catalan speaking subscribers expected much more than we could offer,” he says, explaining that “the most sensible thing was to cancel it.”
Yet, over a year ago, in spring 2014, Canal+ took the initiative and began broadcasting feature films with Catalan subtitles. The initiative was limited in scope, as it included only a third of new films. Yet, the same thing happened with this effort as had happened in the '90s: “It was a limited offer that only generated confusion; subscribers looking for feature films in original version but with Catalan subtitles did not understand why it was available with some films and not others,” says Martínez Roig. This was when conversations took place with the Generalitat to come to an agreement that suddenly made everything “tremendously simple”.
The technical investment needed to make the project work did not rely on passing the cost on to the subscriber, as the expenses incurred by the project, such as the translation of scripts and their adaptation, are shared with the administration. While Canal+ reserves the right to be the first to screen the subtitled films, the finished work remains the property of the Generalitat, which can go on to distribute the products on other platforms if it so wishes.
Every year around the world, between 25,000 and 30,000 films are produced. Canal+ shows some 200 of these films, of which some 50 are originally in Catalan or Spanish and therefore do not need the subtitle service: “Looking at these figures, it seems as if Canal+ is a mere drop in the ocean,” says Martínez Roig. “The reality, however, is that these 200 films have previously taken 90% of annual box office sales in Catalonia's cinemas. They are the films that, for one reason or another have dominate distribution.”
As for TV series, not only are they the genre of the moment, but they attract special interest among young people. Since the original agreement, Canal+ has finally managed to ensure that all new series shown since April 1 also have subtitles in Catalan. To the original list of 11 series (Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Silicon Valley, Orange is the New Black, True Blood, Masters of Sex, The Newsroom, The Leftovers, Ray Donovan, Utopia and Boardwalk Empire), have since been added new series, such as Fargo (which premiered on October 12), The Knick (starring Clive Owen and directed by Steven Soderbergh), Gotham (from Warner since September 23), Olive Kiterridge (an HBO four-part miniseries from November 3) and the eight-episode autumn premiere of The Honourable Woman (by the BBC).