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.
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.