The World: Adland cries foul as Sarkozy hits the off button

President Sarkozy wants public service TV in France to drop primetime ads. The industry is outraged, Maria Esposito says.

Nicolas Sarkozy is on a one-man mission to bring "a cultural revolution" to public service TV. Never one to shy away from controversy in the pursuit of a grand plan, the French president has decreed that the broadcaster France Televisions must drop all ads from its primetime window from 1 January 2009.

In Sarkozy's view, the move will help FTV gain the same high standards and international reputation as that held by the BBC. Few others in the television industry share his opinion. Although commercial broadcasters could stand to gain from public TV's loss, the country's union of advertisers is predicting there will be difficult and expensive times ahead.

FTV estimates that it will cost the group around EUR70 million to plug the gap left by the absence of ads with new programming. At present, the group's four main channels, France 2, France 3, France 4 and France 5, show a total of 120 minutes of ads after 8pm each night.

Without the buffer of frequent ad breaks, FTV is having to rethink its entire primetime window. This not only requires France 2 to shorten its flagship evening news show, but it also requires the country's top commercial broadcasters TF1 and M6 to fall into line with the new regime.

At present, France's main TV channels all respect an 8pm to 10pm primetime window to keep competition at a manageable level. Come 1 January, this will be different.

"All the other channels will have to change," Dominique Guerin, the deputy managing director of Mediaedge:cia France, says. "If FTV channels don't have advertising after 8pm, the other channels will have to change their schedule to stop people switching over to avoid their ads."

Media agencies, advertisers and broadcasters can only hope that audiences will take to the new routine, but there are no guarantees. "Moving programming forward does not mean that all TV viewers will change their habits," Maria-Laure Sauty de Chalon, the president of Aegis Media France, says. "They might perhaps be tempted to devote their time to other hobbies or media like the internet."

As a result, Aegis Media estimates that the EUR650 million net revenue public TV currently earns from advertising may well be spread between radio, outdoor and print ads in future.

Gerard Noel, the vice-president of the union of French advertisers, has other more pressing concerns. He believes the industry is not being given enough time to prepare for this huge step change.

"It is impossible for advertisers, their agencies and media buyers to stick to the 1 January deadline," he says. "The debate on this reform will not be concluded in parliament before November. In September, which is negotiating season in France, advertisers will not know which medium to bank on."

All this uncertainty has left media agencies in a tricky position. "We've never seen anything like this before," Guerin says. "It has been much more difficult to do our job this year. Inflation is much higher than we expected it to be. TF1 and M6 have already increased the prices and will only sell on condition that you buy ahead for next year. They will probably increase the prices again in September."

Guerin believes that the only way to improve all this is for the government to allow more ad slots on commercial channels. "We are in a market where there are many more advertisers than there are spaces available," she explains. "If we go with the new European Union directive next year, we would get four more minutes an hour, but Sarkozy has yet to decide on this."

Helene Delpont, the chief executive of MindShare Paris, is not sure that adopting EU-wide policies on TV advertising would be enough to stabilise the French market. "Even if the supply at private channels increases, we all worry about an impact drop and the need to change all the TV media planning rules," she says.

Delpont does, however, see one sector of the TV market benefiting from all these sudden and not necessarily welcome changes. "In the long term, this could represent an opportunity for the new digital channels, which will need advertising resources to increase their 'quality' programming and gain a share of the audiences," she says.

With analogue switch-off due in 2011and audiences potentially giving the new terrestrial primetime slots the cold shoulder next year, digital channels stand to make considerable gains.

Amid the ongoing controversy and heated price negotiations, it is proving hard for France's media market to recognise any positives in Sarkozy's decision.

FTV, though, may find commissioning and scheduling easier in the future, despite losing its advertising revenue. "For some time now, FTV has been caught between its obligation to provide quality, cultural programmes and to generate broad audience to attract advertisers and create revenues to finance its channels," Isabelle Grima, the head of TV department at Magna Global France, says.

"It's been quite a challenge for them to mix both goals without losing their soul. Now if FTV wants to broadcast dramas about Sartre and Beauvoir, they won't have to worry about their audience versus TF1or M6 and its consequences on advertising revenues."

Although Sarkozy is planning to tax the country's private stations to fund state television, FTV is still struggling to cope without primetime ads.

The ad industry is also holding its breath for more declarations from the Elysee Palace. "Sarkozy has a certain way of managing the media," Guerin diplomatically says. "He decides alone and we have no input. He might make more decisions in the summer while we are all away." The revolution, it seems, may not be over quite yet.