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Is the French audiovisual sector following the lead of the BBC?
The French Council of Ministers passed the draft law on the reform of the audiovisual sector on 22nd October. This controversial law was inspired by the BBC’s model. Logical, since the “Beeb” is seen as the best model in the field of public television. However, there is still a long way to go for French television to reach a perfect similarity with the famous British Broadcasting Corporation…
A controversial announcement
“I will ban advertising from the public audiovisual sector”, said Nicolas Sarkozy in a press conference on 8th January. Surprise!!! Nobody saw that coming… Neither Christine Albanel, the Minister of Culture and communication, nor Patrick de Carolis, the president of France Television. The French President decided that on his own, without consulting anyone. And this announcement came as a bombshell.
The project was immediately criticised by the unions and the public audiovisual sector, which were afraid of an impoverishment of the public channels, followed by an unavoidable privatisation of its public service. In fact, advertising on public television and radio represents 30% of their receipts. The unions announced a loss of 800 million euros (£646 million) in the budget of the public groups.
And there was another bone of contention. Of course, this money would not just vanish. Just after Sarkozy’s announcement, private broadcasters were expected to grab most of the estimated 800 million euros in ad revenues draining away from public channels. The banning of advertisement was considered a “gift for private broadcasters” by its detractors, who did not forget to mention the friendship between Nicolas Sarkozy and Martin Bouygues, owner of the private channel TF1, and Vincent Bolloré, director of Direct 8, another commercial channel.
These critics came mostly from the left. This is quite amusing when one remembers that the idea of an advertising ban in the public audiovisual sector came from the socialist party in the 80s, in the aim to free the public audiovisual sector from commercial pressure. But the project was never brought to fruition, since the former government thought it was impossible to finance a complete advertising ban.
Ten months later, a reform is born
However, impossible is a word that does not exist for Nicolas Sarkozy. When he decides something, it has to be possible. So, he created a special commission, directed by Jean-François Copé, the president of the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) group in the French National Assembly, in charge of finding an alternative way to finance the public audiovisual sector. And ten months later, a baby was born. The draft law was passed by the Council of Ministers on the 22nd October, and will be reviewed by Parliament by the end of November.
The reform will ban advertising on all public channels after 8pm, starting 5th January, before a total ban is in place at the end of 2011. And the good news is that the estimated loss in ad revenue has come down sharply. The Copé Commission has pegged the ad revenue shortfall for public channels at 450 million euros (£343 million). This loss will be compensated by a 3% tax on the advertising revenues of private broadcasters, and a 0,9% tax on telecom companies, as well as a slight rise in the television licence fee, from 116 euros (£94.2) to 118 (£95.3). Private channels will also get compensated for the tax, since the new law will allow an additional commercial break each evening on private
networks. And the private channels will be allowed to broadcast 12 minutes of advertising per hour, instead of 9 now.
Yet, if the issue of the compensation of the loss for the public channels seems to be settled, there remains a very controversial point in the reform: the nomination of the president of France Television. He’s currently appointed by the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA), an institution supposed to be independent of the state. After the reform, the President of the Republic will appoint him; and the CSA and the National Assembly will have to give their consent. The President will also be able to dismiss the president of France Television, if the CSA gives its consent. According to François Bayrou, president of the centrist party Modem, this reform “is an attempt to the separation of powers”. The answer of Christine Albanel: “it’s just the consequence of the reform. […] It’s a way for the State to take its responsibilities and to give the French audiovisual sector a chance for excellence!”
Will the little French pupil be able to equal its British mentor?
Excellence… That’s the goal. In fact, the French president wanted his public audiovisual service to follow the BBC’s model. Nicolas Sarkozy and the Copé Commission portrayed the British Broadcasting Corporation as the model of public television without advertising. However, there are a lot of differences between the two services, that won’t simply change with this reform.
First, the famous “Beeb”, as the British nickname it, is better financed than the French public audiovisual service. The television licence in the UK costs £139.50 a year, while it costs 116 euros (£94.3) in France. And almost 100% of the British public pays it, against 60% of all French viewers. In addition, the BBC produces most of the programmes it broadcasts. And the Corporation is known for the quality of its documentaries and the creativity of its TV shows, as “Absolutely Fabulous”, “Little Britain”, or “The Office”. As a result, the BBC manages to sell its programmes abroad, and this is a significant source of income. In contrast, in France, the system of internal production has almost been completely dismantled. Today, only one French public channel, France 3, produces its own programmes.
But the biggest difference concerns the independence from the political power. The BBC is required by its charter to be free from both political and commercial influence and to answer only to its viewers and listeners. In fact, the Corporation is run by the BBC Trust, formerly Board of Governors. The twelve trustees are appointed by the Queen, and have to ensure “that the BBC provides high quality output and good value for all UK citizens and [to protect] the independence of the BBC” (BBC Trust). They also appoint the Director-General of the BBC. Consequently, the government has no influence on the editorial choices of the BBC. This independence allows the broadcasting of very critical programmes against the government, as the fictional satire of Tony Blair, “The Trial of Tony Blair”, first aired in January 2007. Will France Television be able to do such a thing on Nicolas Sarkozy after the reform? Nothing could be less sure…
So, the French public audiovisual sector has still a lot to do to fulfill its objective and to follow the lead of the BBC. Is it possible that it is being just a little too ambitious?