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From Public TV to 'Dallasty' | The Nation

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From Public TV to 'Dallasty'

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Paris
 
The battle over French television is now being joined in earnest. Last spring the government surveyed the terrain of existing channels, radically redeployed its forces and accomplished the unheard of: the world's first transfer into private hands of a big and successful public television network. There followed a general scramble for stars, serials and exclusive sports events, with huge sums commanded from the zealous and newly placed competitors. Now all this has to be translated into what matters: ratings as a measure of advertising revenue. Not all the participants in this battle--two public networks, three commercial ones and a channel of pay TV--will survive, and so the mood in the industry is a strange mixture of soap opera and skin game. But the situation in France is both part and illustration of a much more crucial struggle. With powerful satellites sent into orbit and cables spreading throughout the Continent, television, like radio, will soon know no frontiers. What is at stake 1s Europe's cultural future. Will it follow the American pattern? If it does, the fact that such utter commercialization might be carried out by native masters of the media will be small consolation.

About the Author

Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

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It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

France is both the laggard and the leader in this movement to privatize. Three years ago its television was still entirely public. This makes a contrast with the public/quasi-commercial mix that has long characterized TV elsewhere in Europe. In Italy commercial television has been slowly invading the little screen for the past fifteen years. In Britain public and commercial have coexisted for decades, with Aunt Beeb, the BBC, so far holding its own and commercial channels subject to strict regulation. In West Germany, whose television system was set up by the British after the war, advertisers are not yet the full masters. France has, however, shown no interest in such cautious transition. The newcomer has become the trend setter, and the trend 1s unmistakable. The commercial tide is sweeping over Europe, public television is everywhere on the defensive, and the greedy tycoons are beginning to calculate their costs, and future profits, in international terms.

Paradoxically, it was the Socialists who put an end to public television's monopoly. When they took over, in 1981, France had three TV channels. The first, TF 1, drew not quite half the total audience of around 35 million; Antenne 2 accounted for well over a third; and FR 3, the smallest but with regional stations, took care of the rest. All three were financed partly by a license fee charged to each TV owner and partly by advertising, whose proportion to programming was fixed by the government. The Socialists made the first breach in 1984, when they set up Canal Plus, a national channel of pay television--much like subscription TV in the States--which can be received only with the aid of an unscrambling device. Its mixture of sports features and recent films, including occasional hard porn in the late hours, has finally proved a financial success, attracting some 2 million customers.

The Socialists, however, had bigger ambitions. Expecting the right to win the parliamentary elections of 1986 and then to hand both public and private television to its friends, François Mitterrand thought it clever to beat the right at its own game by creating a totally commercial channel, and placing it in hands friendly to himself. For funds he looked to the Schlumberger family--to Jerôme Seydoux, the heir in this instance--and for expertise as well as funds, beyond the Alps, to Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, the supremo of spaghetti television, a combination of American serials, sports and silly game shows. The fifth channel, La Cinq, was thus born just before the general election. (A sixth, Canal Six, was established at the same time, as a kind of MTV.) La Cinq's charter, by which the state nominally regulates its programming, was effectively a license to show American-made serials and films untroubled by considerations of educational value, minority opinion or quality. French viewers could add Star Trek to their weekly diet of Starsky and Hutch, and the Socialists could claim that they brought to their country the Western fashion of treating films and plays like sausages, which can be sliced and interspersed at will with advertising.

It was one of those cases where you dirty your hands for no purpose. The right, having won the election that March, proceeded to alter altogether what 1s known, if you wish to be trendy, as the PAF, or French audiovisual landscape. The new government set up a National Commission for Communications and Liberty, or C.N.C.L., to use again the French abbreviation. This "independent" supervising body at once appointed two political friends of Jacques Chirac, the new Prime Minister, as presidents of Antenne 2 and FR 3, which for the time being remain in public hands. Canal Plus was allowed to continue its own way, but a new deal had to be reached over the fifth channel, which the right had stymied upon taking office by revoking its license to show films. Berlusconi, the Italian, knew the modern meaning of the old Roman saying pecunia non olet--"money has no odor," except that of success. The right victorious, it had the prerogative to reshuffle the deck: Berlusconi was asked to share La Cinq not with Seydoux but with Robert Hersant, France's reactionary press lord, a man who, in addition to the virtues of a Hearst or a Murdoch, has the past of an active Nazi collaborator. The C.N.C.L. also turned the sixth channel, which was supposed to be purely musical, into an all-round network, thus further increasing the competition for advertising revenue.

But the C.N.C.L.'s main task was to sell TF 1, the prosperous government-owned network. The commission completed the sale this past April and even managed to recover its mantle of independence in the process. Everybody expected the channel to be taken over by France's publishing octopus, Hachette. It was instead sold to Francis Bouygues, France's international lord of construction and public works, whose annual business exceeds $8 billion. The consortium headed by Bouygues paid roughly $450 million for half the shares of TF 1, the other half being offered mostly to the general public, with 10 percent to the station's employees. Bouygues himself holds half the consortium's shares--that is to say a quarter of the total, and a controlling interest. His main Junior partner, controlling 12.5 percent of the total, is, significantly, Robert Maxwell, the British press magnate. The C.N.C.L., incidentally, can now parade its putative independence without any risk. The new master of TF 1 is far from being an enemy of the establishment or of its current rulers.

However, the expert in construction must have assumed that in buying the building he was inheriting the staff as well as the furniture. It was not so simple. The newcomer Hersant thought that La Cinq, which cannot yet be seen throughout the whole of France, must rapidly gain a substantial share of the audience to be credible for advertisers and that this could best be achieved by poaching the most successful shows from his competitors. Comedians and compères were wooed with fat contracts. By the time he realized what was happening, Bouygues found himself with only one major competitive advantage. He set about building an expensive, star-studded news team, which includes, it is worth noting, a trio of women near the very top (Christine Ockrent, for years the main newscaster on Antenne 2; Michele Cotta, an old-timer in press, radio and TV; and Anne Sinclair, co-host of a popular talk show). In the news area alone the income of star performers is approaching the middle six figures in dollars, which may not be in Dan Rather's class but, allowing for the gap between average French and American salaries, makes announcers here the equivalent of Barbara Walters. The revelation of such exorbitant incomes has, judging by opinion polls, stunned the French public.

The French, it appears, know little about the hefty salaries of their businessmen and care little about the big incomes of film stars or of such international sports figures as Michel Platini, the soccer sorcerer, or Alain Prost, the auto racing ace. They do not have the same indulgence for TV personalities, who are not so distant. These personalities, after all, visit with them every evening at dinnertime. That such veritable cousins, however distinguished, should be getting fifty times their income, often for reading a Teleprompter, came as a shock to French viewers. Admittedly, at the very time when the boost in salaries was causing a scandal here, a snippet in the papers disclosed that the top earners on Wall Street were drawing more than $50 million a year; by those standards even Dan Rather is a poor relation.

In its egalitarianism, the French reaction was interesting, but it missed the most dangerous aspects of the shake-up, which each day become more obvious. Last spring, when they were bidding for channels, the tycoons could talk only of freedom, art and culture. In the fall they are back to profits, which for most remain elusive. The altogether reasonable thought is that France may not have enough advertising to support so much private TV. The expensive stars not having carried with them a captive audience, La Cinq is in real financial trouble. But everyone in this game is a gambler, and they all know that whoever wins in the end will win big. For now, the tycoons are united in their aim to deprive the public sector of its relatively meager advertising and, since the government will not increase the license fee, virtually of funds. They also want public television to increase its obligations while they shirk their own. Now when they hear the word "culture," they reach for their computer.

While painting the future black, one should not idealize the past. France's public television was no model. Its main defect was its bald subservience to the government in office. De Gaulle and his successors treated it as "his master's voice." Direct government control over content has loosened in recent years, and the condition of television news cannot get any worse with competition. The second point to keep in mind 1s that the commercial invasion did not begin only yesterday. With public channels competing for advertising, ratings were already the holy writ and Dallas and Dynasty the sacred models. The coming change is quantitative rather than qualitative.

Did French TV not produce good shows, plays or documentaries? It obviously did and will. Anymore than with newspapers, books or radio, the problem is not to produce occasional quality wares for the happy few. As a wealthy man once used to keep a ballerina, Britain's commercial TV now keeps a fourth channel with some space for innovation, and the French are already experimenting with a seventh channel, European and cultural. What is at stake is the rule, not the exception. The average person in France spends three and a half hours a day watching the little screen. It is the main source of news and entertainment, the main provider of food for thought. It could be an extraordinary instrument of democracy. The public service preserves, in principle, this potential for education, for enlightenment, for a genuine search for different forms of mass culture. A television geared to the marketplace cannot be bothered by such impediments.

The U.S. pattern of TV must prevail, it is objected, because the Americans are better practitioners. They are. They can put out better soap operas and serials. They have the skilled writers, the slick producers and the huge domestic market. They can, therefore, offer their European customers a more marketable product at a cheaper price. If that were the question, the answer for Europe would lie in a consolidation of resources. But it 1s not. Nevertheless, consolidation does proceed apace on both sides of the ocean. Scribblers may praise the virtues of small private enterprise, but their bosses are busy amalgamating. Newspapers are being merged, publishers taken over, and finance capital is getting increasingly involved in the media. National giants are looking beyond their frontiers. Berlusconi, after France, is investing in Spanish television. Maxwell is putting money into the French press but also into cables and satellites. So is Rupert Murdoch. Belgium, where you can see several British, French, German and Dutch channels, is a portent of the near future.

In fairness, it must be said that Europeans are also invading the American media. To note but a few recent examples: Bertelsmann, the big German publisher, took over Doubleday; Collins from Britain now, thanks to Murdoch, owns half of Harper & Row; and though Maxwell failed in his bid for Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, that was not the end of his American ambitions. The nationality of the streamliners 1s not really so relevant. As Byron put it, in another context, it matters little whether it is "the Jew Rothschild or his fellow Christian Baring." It is, however, symbolic that Rupert Murdoch, the Australian who transited through London, chose to become an American citizen. As they extend their field of operations, the media magnates may tend to move to the heart of the Western empire. In any case, if the Europeans want to resist the dominion of Dallasty, they will not do it through pale imitation.

But, comes the second objection, people get the television they like and deserve. Those who argue this way also call the majority silent when it would be more accurately described as silenced. I am not suggesting that the international masters of the media meet regularly on an island to plot how to turn us all into morons. We must simply acknowledge that commercialism, with its emphasis on the lowest common denominator, tends to bring intellectual preoccupations down to the level of the latest "romance" of Joan Collins or--a question of generation--the color of Madonna's underwear. And this from the Pacific to the Elbe, though not yet to the Urals.

The third objection is more valid. A television, it insists, reflects a social system, and Europe will not be able to escape its American future unless it forges a radically different society. A recent French example confirms this point. Five years ago, after they got into office, the Socialists proclaimed the freedom of the airwaves, abolishing the state's radio monopoly. Optimists assumed that a new era was to begin In broadcasting. Hopes did not last long. The small stations, though numerous, did not dominate without a grass-roots movement. The bigger ones had the backing of established financial interests. A basic principle was reasserted almost at once. In our world, when the distasteful dictatorship of the state is lifted, it is only to be replaced by the naked tyranny of money. God, as usual, was on the side of the big and wealthy battalions. French broadcasting is now dominated by corporations. The FM wavelength in Paris sounds more and more like the one in New York--a bit of freedom and a lot of commercial schmaltz.

Come to think of it , the lesson is not peculiar to Europe. It applies on both sides of the ocean. Here and there, we shall not have a radically different television, or radio or press, unless we do something about society as a whole. This should not prevent us from trying to influence the media, even if we have few illusions about the imminence of the transformation. Meanwhile, dear reader, without illusions but also without complexes, we must find the most convenient position within the cracks in the system, which are far from negligible. Only occasionally, in optimistic mood, can we dream of the day when the chinks and crevices grow big enough to bring the whole system down. J.R. and his universe will be buried in the ruins.

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