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by Claude Baudry

By order of the Prince.

Translated Friday 11 July 2008, by Maud Gillet

The plan to remove advertising on French state-run television will go ahead. For public broadcasters, this means a severe loss of revenue and reduced creative power. Sarkozy’s plan to have the government appoint the president of the public broadcasting corporation theatens the independence of public television even further.

Speaking from the Elysée presidential palace, Mr Sarkozy revealed that he is “all for having powerful private broadcasters”. Unarguably, this is good news for Sarkozy’s close friends in the world of private broadcasting, Martin Bouygues, the biggest shareholder of the popular channel TF1, Nicolas de Tavernost, the Managing Director of M6 and Vincent Bolloré, the owner of Direct 8, which is part of the new French Digital Terrestrial Television Network (TNT). The worrying plan to scrap advertising on public television (announced on 8 January) will now be rolled out, courtesy of President Sarkozy.

The Elysée host was heard asking “Can you care for state-owned broadcasters without neglecting private broadcasters?” Answer: as a result of scrapping advertising, public broadcasters are now under pressure to meet restrictive commercial targets with a smaller budget: the president’s neglect of state-owned television couldn’t be more blatant. Four months ago, the head office of France Télévisions, the French public broadcasting corporation, estimated the total loss caused by removing advertising at 850 million euros. The cost of creating programmes to fill in the gaps left by missing advertising makes this figure jump up to 1.2 billion.

The total annual loss of 450 million euros forecast by the Copé Commission (responsible for modernizing the French network of public channels) is an underestimate: it is the sign that the frantic lobbying of private broadcasters has been successful in cutting the figures down. On Monday 23 June, private broadcasters were yet again filling the office of the Minister for Culture and Communication, Christine Albanel. They claimed that their profits would total only 215 million euros (for M6) and 250 million euros (for Canal Plus), as if they did not know about the law of communicating vessels which will make them benefit from state-owned television’s lost advertising contracts next year and in 2012, when public channels are to become totally advert-free.

The head of M6’s governing body, who relentlessly complains that there are too many French public channels and too much regulation, has asserted that he will gain only 30 million euros. However, according to most financial experts the money falling into M6’s pockets will amount to between 96 and 130 million euros. Although TF1 may recently have been shaken by falling audience rates (under 30%), still, year on year, the channel has been snapping up 50% of television advertising, and this major private broadcaster has been courting advertisers for months, casting beady eyes on the prospect of shiny new euros.

The early decision of certain advertisers to pull out of public channels has already caused a loss of 26% of their advertising revenue, a development used by private broadcasters to minimize their projected share of the revenue. Just as the rest of private broadcasters, TF1’s demands have been listened to, and the channel’s profits should go beyond 300 million euros. According to a survey undertaken by the trade union CGT at France Television and taking into account the Copé Commission’s report, the same amount represents by how much the public broadcasting network is under-funded.

One concludes from this plan — to progressively drain French state-run channels of vital resources — that the cruel purpose is to weaken them whilst keeping up the pretence that strong and independent public broadcasters greatly matter. This discourse is one of shameless hypocrisy, which the concrete measures of Sarkozy’s media policy make all too clear.

It is as if Sarkozy were seeking revenge for what he probably considers as being granted too few slots of television time and asked too many cheeky questions. After giving his friends in private broadcasting reasons to rejoice, Sarkozy has one more blow to deliver to the beaten-down public channels: he is determined to give the executive branch of the government (i.e.: himself) the authority to appoint the president of the French public broadcasting corporation, France Télévisions.

This is one more example showing that Sarkozy rules “by princely fiat”. Privatising one of the public channels appears to be out of the question at the moment, but when one of his media-baron friends, say Bolloré or Lagardère, or even the “business guru” Alain Minc - another good friend - suggests he should think about it, will Sarkozy not consider privatisation a possibility?

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