FRANCE: Life after Lescure - Anti-globalisation, dodgy politics, cultural snobbery and a generation gap. Television programming in France is highlighting the state of the nation, Mark Tungate discovers

Until the nail-biting presidential elections at the beginning of May (when the Far Right briefly benefited from voter apathy, only to be wiped out in the second round), the future of Canal + was a major subject of conversation in the cafes of Paris.

The pay-TV channel inspires an inordinate amount of affection among French thirtysomethings, as it shook up a conservative TV landscape when it launched in 1984. Youthful and subversive, its most iconic programme is Les Guignols de l'Info (The News Puppets), a Spitting Image-lookalike which rips into politicians, celebrities and media figures. Even Jean-Marie Messier, the president of Canal +'s parent, Vivendi Universal, does not escape the occasional disembowelling.

Some thought Messier might be getting his revenge when, at the end of April, he ousted the channel's chairman, Pierre Lescure. The move caused outrage as Lescure was seen as the guardian of the much-vaunted "Canal + spirit".

For a couple of days the French suspicion of globalisation, which Messier represents, found its outlet in news stories, analyses and even public demonstrations supporting Lescure.

Then the elections kicked in and the same French fear of external influence meant that the country narrowly escaped getting a fascist president.

Since then, the dust has settled. People have remembered that Canal + had been losing both money (Messier says 500 million euros in 2001) and subscribers (down 50,000 since last year) hand over fist for years. Something had to be done, and Lescure was the scapegoat.

Stephane Bodier, the managing director of Initiative Media Paris, observes: "In any other company, the shareholders would not have waited so long."

The Canal + situation says a great deal about the state of French television, which is split between catering for a mass of conservative middle-aged viewers and courting an increasingly influential core of young metropolitans.

In a recent poll conducted by Ipsos, 76 per cent of viewers said the cosy, largely state-funded France 3 was their preferred channel.

The slew of cable and satellite offerings accounts for only 10 per cent of the overall viewing figures. That leaves the commercial free-to-air services M6 and TF1 to battle against Canal + for younger viewers. M6 started out 15 years ago as a music channel and has since diversified.

More mature rival TF1 screens similar fare alongside glossy adult drama.

This makes a refreshing change from the eye-glazing selection of talkshows that still fill a vast proportion of the airwaves.

The result is that TF1 and M6 are raking in the adspend. According to Bodier: "Although TF1 only gets about 33 per cent of the overall audience, it takes around 53 per cent of total TV spend. He confirms that the channel has also lured viewers from public TV by investing in drama. "Now it has well-crafted shows like the crime series Julie Lescaut, as well as TV movies such as Les Miserables with Gerard Depardieu and John Malkovich."

This goes against claims from some quarters that French TV is becoming increasingly trashy. Eric de Rugy, the president and chief executive of Mediaedge:cia, says that it has merely become more youth-oriented.

"One of the big differences in the last ten years has been the switch from measuring the viewing habits of families to those of individuals. The result is that channels have 'discovered' young urban sophisticates, so cultural programmes have been pushed further down the schedules, in place of programmes for young adults."

Franck Pichot, the head of research at OMD France, has a similar view. "It depends what you consider trashy: among the most popular programmes are American shows such as ER, Ally McBeal and Sex and the City. Besides, regulations ensure that things don't get out of hand."

In fact, agencies agree that the medium is over-regulated, especially as far as advertising is concerned. At times it can seem as if the state is doing all it can to keep advertisers off the screen. The latest initiative has been to cut back the advertising volume on public TV by 40 per cent, slashing ad breaks from 12 to eight minutes per hour.

Philippe Santini, the director-general of France Television Publicite (the sales arm of the three public channels France 2, France 3 and La Cinquieme), says: "The move clearly benefited the private channels, and meant we had to think of new ways of selling."

These include putting up for auction a selection of primetime slots on the internet every Thursday, and offering packages which enable advertisers to target a particular type of viewer. Santini says: "We can take advantage of the fact that we have three channels. After all, viewers do not watch channels - they watch programmes."

Santini says that, while the public channels have tinkered with their offering over the past few years - slicker news broadcasts, costlier drama - there is no question of "dumbing down". "We have to speak to the public as a whole. TF1 and M6 only have to speak to those who bring them money."

Government regulation has not only given the TV channels greater power over the media agencies - "It's a case of you begging for a meeting with them, one buyer says - it has also dictated what kind of advertisers make it on to the air. For instance, supermarkets are banned from advertising on TV in a bid to protect small shopkeepers.

"This peculiarity means that sponsorship is very well advanced in France, Pichot comments. A typical example is the sponsorship of France 3's Thalassa - a popular programme about the sea - by the supermarket empire Leclerc.

At Mediaedge:cia, de Rugy expects more advertisers to begin making their own programmes. The DIY chain Leroy-Merlin's five-minute homes and interiors slot Du Cote de Chez Vous, screened every day just before the 8pm news on TF1, has been well-received.

Despite a lack of space, the price of slots has not soared. "In France rates tend to remain stable rather than fluctuating with demand, de Rugy says. TV adspend has been climbing slowly by between 5 to 8 per cent a year, although this is expected to slow to 3 per cent in 2002 thanks to 11 September.

At least nobody is complaining about the quality of the advertising, which has progressed in leaps and bounds over the past few years.

Meanwhile, digital terrestrial TV remains little more than a blip on the radar. Bodier comments: "It would solve the space shortage, and you could open it up to sectors that cannot advertise at present. But there is little public demand. And as digital doesn't seem to have worked anywhere else in Europe, why should it work here?"

Privatised in 1987, screens popular middle-market fare.

FRANCE 2 & 3
Mainstream public service channels, funded by state and advertising

Available to subscribers with set-top boxes. Screens sports events, the
latest movies and sharp comedy.

Public service programming from 6.30am to 7pm, then highbrow films and
documentaries until early hours.

Youth-oriented movies, music, US series and "reality" TV, notably Loft

Total adspend France 2001
14.1 billion euros
TV adspend France 2001
4.438 million euros
Cost of an average primetime slot
50,000 to 100,000 euros
Hours of TV watched by the French
per day 3.5

Source: Initiative Media Paris

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