It would be difficult to claim that French television is the best in the world, but its viewers are conscious of its relative lack of advertising clutter and express relief that "it's not like the US".
In fact, a law passed in 2000 restricted advertising time on the public channels France 2 and 3 (which fall under the umbrella organisation France Television) to eight minutes per hour. The privately owned TF1 and M6 are allowed to screen 12 minutes per hour, because they do not receive a contribution from the licence fee.
But the situation could change, with the French government now considering increasing ad minutage on France Television to 12 minutes. Not only that, but it may allow the channels to introduce breaks in the middle of programmes for the first time.
TF1 and M6 could also be given permission to break films twice, rather than just once, and to increase advertising time to 15 minutes per hour.
So what has provoked this change of heart? Partly, it is because France Television does not make enough money from the licence fee - which costs 116 euros a year and which nobody pays - to cover rising production costs. A government spokesman points out that advertising revenue from TV and radio in France stands at about 3.5 billion euros a year, as opposed to more than 5.7 billion in Germany. If things go on as they are, French viewers can expect more debates, quiz shows and reality TV, and less quality drama.
The second reason is Europe. With the European Commission gradually harmonising legislation across the continent, sectors that were previously banned from advertising on French television are now being welcomed. The press will be allowed to run ads from next year, and the big retail chains are expected to arrive by 2005. Media buyers say the latter is the real cause for concern.
"The press has very little money to spend on TV advertising, but retail is another story," Isabelle Grima, the head of TV at Initiative Media in Paris, says. "Brussels is determined to align things, so there is no doubt that the retail sector will arrive on TV screens within the next few years. That means an explosion of demand for space."
France Television is expected to put pressure on the government to make a decision as soon as possible, for fear of missing out on the bonanza.
"The timing is crucial," Grima says. "If the government pushes this change through just as the retailers arrive, it will be of great benefit to the public channels. But if they linger, TF1 and M6 will jump in with annual contracts, and the opportunity will be lost."
She adds that France Television needs to invest in its output. "TF1 and M6 are providing increasingly popular programming. Audience figures were up last year, thanks in part to the World Cup and the (French) presidential elections - but this year the public channels have suffered."
The government says the possibility of changing the law is just "a project" and must be properly debated in parliament before any decisions are made. But Claude Porthault, the TV manager at Mediaedge:cia, believes change is "inevitable". "We are in a recession, and yet there is a shortage of advertising space on TV. When the new sectors emerge, there will be a drastic shortage. I believe the decision will be made within six months to a year."
Whatever the government decides, TV advertising rates are not likely to go down. "That which is rare is expensive, and even with a change in the law it will still be an inflationary market," Grima says. "The only thing that will keep rates stable is the gradual drift of the audience away from the main channels. Around 25 per cent of households in France now have access to cable or satellite."
TF1 and M6 are uneasy about the move, claiming that the licence fee already gives France Television an unfair financial advantage - although the possibility of introducing more breaks has appeased them somewhat. Needless to say, big potential advertisers such as the supermarket chain Carrefour have welcomed the news. Other groups are also involved in the debate, notably the newspaper unions, who fear the measure will help TV steal revenue from the press.
There is also a strong anti-ad-vertising movement in France (activists recently managed to daub every single poster site on the Metro with black crosses). Vincent Cheynet, a spokesman for Casseurs de Pub (Ad Busters), says: "France Television has an educational, public service role to play. The fact that everyone blithely accepts an increase in advertising time shows how apathetic they have become in the face of the marketing juggernaut."
One group that is entirely positive about the move is the French cinema industry, which by law receives financial support from the TV channels.
A spokeswoman from the Union des Producteurs Francais comments: "The channels are obliged to give 3.5 per cent of their revenues to French cinema, so naturally we welcome these measures. Additionally, increasing the number of ad breaks in films will encourage the private channels to screen more of them."
Media agencies find the situation ironic. Grima says: "When the government introduced the restriction in 2000, it was pushed through very forcefully. Now, it looks as if the rules will relax even more than before, when 12 minutes was the norm."
Plus ca change ...
A GUIDE TO FRENCH TV
TF1: Mass entertainment, quiz shows, reality TV, sports
France: Entertainment, quality drama, nationally focused
France 3: As above, but with local emphasis
Arte: Public cultural channel in partnership with the German government.
Only screens after 6pm (see below)
France 5: Educational and information programming. Only screens during
daytime as it shares channel with Arte
M6: Imported US drama series and films, sitcoms, debate shows and
Canal+: Largely encrypted cable channel that shows limited promotional
COST OF PRIMETIME SLOTS
CHANNEL COST (euros)
France 2 25,346
France 3 11,758
France 5 No advertising
Arte No advertising
Canal + 7,439
Channel Audience share (%)
France 2 20.9
France 3 16.5
France 5 2.9
Canal + 3.5
Viewing hours per person 3 hrs 8 mins
Source: Initiative Media, Paris.