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Paris wants its “CNN, French-Style”

In a report submitted to the prime minister on 29 September, French deputy Bernard Brochand recommended that France's planned international news channel take the form of a joint venture between the private broadcasting group TF1 and the public television group France Televisions. According to the report, whose recommendations have been approved by the prime minister, the new news channel, which hopes to compete with CNN and BBC World, should be operational before the end of 2004.

The French government is at present considering launching an international television news channel that will compete with CNN, BBC World or Al Jazeera. This project, strongly backed by President Jacques Chirac, should materialize in 2004. It aims at making a "French voice" heard in the war of images in which international televisions are engaged. There is a large consensus of opinion in France in favor of the project and it is eagerly anticipated particularly in Africa and the Middle East. However, it is facing numerous administrative and financial obstacles.

The plan to launch an international French television service by satellite is not new. What is new is the French president's determination to make this plan succeed at whatever cost and without further delay. Speaking before the Higher Francophone Council in February 2002, Jacques Chirac asked, "Is it logical that year after year we continue to deplore the consistent insufficiency of francophone news and broadcasting production on the world scene? Everyone can see that we are far from having a full-scale international news channel in French, one that is capable of competing with BBC or CNN. The recent crises in Iraq have revealed the handicap suffered by a country-a cultural domain-that does not have sufficient weight in the battle of images and airwaves." During the electoral campaign in the spring of 2002, President Chirac, at the time running reelection, referred to this issue as an "ardent commitment." Once reelected, he gave very firm instructions that this project must not remain on paper. France would have its "CNN, French-style".

What has reinforced the French head of state's determination is no doubt the Iraqi crisis. France's special position against a military intervention in Iraq outside the framework of the United Nations, as opposed to Great Britain and the United States, made the absence of a French equivalent of CNN or BBC World stand out glaringly. This is more especially so as the spectacular breakthrough of Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV confirmed a contrario that it was possible to break the Anglo-Saxon channels' apparent monopoly of world TV pictures. The presidential resolve should not make us overlook the fact that the project in itself is relatively old. CNN's role all through the Kuwait crisis had already convinced the French authorities of the necessity of establishing a counterbalance. Several personalities were entrusted with the task of preparing reports on this subject but nothing was accomplished. In 1997, another report, ordered by Jacques Chirac and the Gaullist Prime Minister during that period Alain Juppe, detailed the modalities of such a project. However, the dissolution of the National Assembly by Jacques Chirac and the ensuing change in the ruling majority deferred its implementation to a later date.

A fragmented external broadcasting service:

The French situation is particularly complex. Contrary to Germany and Great Britain, the French public broadcasting service is split into several companies. This took place in 1974 when President Giscard d'Estaing decided to divide the then existing radio-television body into seven companies. Subsequently, each of these companies followed its own logic and developed an independent corporate culture. The same situation prevailed in the external broadcasting service, which is split between several radio stations - Radio France Internationale (RFI) and Radio Monte-Carlo Moyen-Orient (RMC-MO), as well as Radio-France's own independent external projects - and different television operators - the interstate francophone channel TV5, the image bank CFI, AITV RFO (television's overseas broadcasting pictures agency), etc.

This dispersal of strategies and budgets is very expensive and does not necessarily achieve the efficiency required, given the dispersal of effort and the bureaucratic and individual rivalries existing among companies and the leaders concerned. This is why French leaders, with a view to restricting the budget, have asked themselves whether it would not be feasible to create the new international channel out of the existing ones.

In a way, such channels already exist. TV5 was created in 1984 in partnership with the French, Belgian, and Swiss public television stations. Two years later they were joined by Canadian television stations. Programs became specialized and differentiated with the emergence of a regional coverage of Africa (1991), Asia (1996), America (1998), and Europe (1999). The constant improvement of the contents and coverage of TV5 did not however dissolve its "federal" structure, which has public operators from several countries as partners, and this complicates and slows down the decision-making process and often gives the broadcast product the allure of a "patchwork" of French, Canadian, Swiss, and Belgian newspapers, even though the news development specifically produced in TV5 and the increasing number of news bulletins today give a more homogenous character to the news content. Moreover, TV5's vocation as a francophone television is not to limit itself to news but to cover all areas of culture, including music and cinema. Although its headquarters is in Paris, TV5 is not and cannot be the French international news channel.

The same definitely applies to Euronews, a continuous European news channel created in 1993 by a consortium of European public channels that are members of the ERU (European Radio Union). Until spring 2003, 51% of the capital was owned by 20 public channels, and 49% by private operators, particularly British, such as ITN and Reuters, which have since withdrawn. Euronews is now owned 100% by 20 European public channels. Its continuous news programs are broadcast simultaneously in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Russian. At one time it also broadcast in Arabic; news broadcasting in Arabic is currently under consideration again. Euronews is based in Ecully, near Lyon in France. Some have considered that this could be a potential base for international French television, particularly since the withdrawal of the British. However, the simultaneous translation of all programs greatly reduces the channel's capacity to react. Moreover, nothing indicates that France's European partners would agree to make Euronews the envisaged international French channel!

The same could be said of Arte, a French-German cultural channel founded in Strasbourg in 1990. Other than the fact that its objective was never to become a news channel, it was established in accordance with a French-German treaty and the Germans are not in the least interested in such a project, which according to them is not in keeping with Arte's essential mission.

A lot more promising is CFI (Canal France International), which cannot properly be called a television channel and does not have its own production structure. It is rather an image bank that, since its establishment in 1989, has transmitted magazines and broadcasts produced by French operators, mainly to Africa, but also to other regions. However, over the years, hotels and individuals in Africa have taken the habit of tuning in to CFI as though it were in fact a full-fledged TV channel. However, CFI was conceived from the very beginning as a T.V. "tube" channel for broadcasters. It could possibly be envisaged as a direct broadcaster but in no way a producer of programmes.

In the private sector, a news channel transmitted by satellite and by cable, has existed since 1994, namely LCI, which belongs to the TF1-Bouygues group. Another channel, >i-television, with more restricted distribution, was created a few years ago and belongs to the Canal + group.

With regard to radio, RFI (Radio France Internationale), which broadcasts news around the clock in twenty languages and boasts of a significant network of correspondents abroad, has indisputable know-how in the field of international news. But RFI lacks experience in television. Agence France Presse (AFP), the only world news agency that is capable of competing with Anglo-Saxon agencies, has an important network of offices abroad and very good in-field knowledge of the five continents. However, the AFP statute is a special one. It is neither a private company like Reuters or AP, nor a state public service; in addition, its broadcasting experience is very limited.

Decisive budgetary constraints:

A more simple approach would certainly be to envisage a new news channel ex nihilo. However, taking into consideration budgetary difficulties and the resolve expressed many times by the government to cut back on external broadcasting expenses, this is simply not possible. Total estimates to date show that the costs of operating such a channel would be between 80 and 120 million euros annually. By way of comparison, BBC News 24 operates with a private budget of 50 million sterling pounds annually, to which should be added all the technical and editorial contributions provided by the rest of the BBC group; Deutsche Welle-TVoperates with a private annual budget of 83 million euros, but a real budget of 121 million euros if we include the services of the Deutsche Welle group; Euronews operates with an independent annual budget of 30 million euros, but its pictures are put at its disposal free of charge by its European share-holder channels.

The ideal "blank page" solution being excluded for budgetary reasons, the only way left to proceed with this project is to resort to existing facilities. As we have noted in the above-mentioned synopsis, none of the companies likely to be interested in the project can take it on alone. Hence, various operators must be encouraged to cooperate, overcoming their differences of corporate culture and placing at the disposal of all synergies without which the project will never see the day. At this stage of reflection, several contrasting approaches are being considered by the government.

Some believe that the state can not allow itself to spend more than it already does for external broadcasting production, and that in any case, a private news channel, LCI, already exists. It would therefore be sufficient to provide this channel with additional and relatively modest financing, to allow it to fulfill the objectives assigned by the president of the republic to an international channel.

This approach has come up against the mistrust of those who, whether in the majority party or the opposition, believe that it is dangerous to entrust such a mission-a "mission affecting sovereignty"-to the main private broadcasting group, which is also number one in the world for building and public works (Bouygues). This attitude has prevailed in particular at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This project, supported by the head of state, has also brought to the forefront the silent rivalries existing among influential circles opposing the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, each believing that they should be the department to pilot the project. Those who support this approach recommend that this international television obtain support from the public broadcasting sector, particularly France Television and RFI. In April 2003, the Prime Minister's office offered an invitation to tender to the operators. Three proposals were submitted: two originating from the two private television channels LCI and >i-television, the other submitted jointly by France Television and RFI. The government took some time to consider these proposals before announcing its choice while entrusting yet one more mission to Deputy Bernard Brochand, who submitted his report on September 29, arguing for a fifty-fifty partnership between the private television group TF1 and the public-owned France-Televisions, with the purpose of putting the new channel in operation before the end of 2004.

Towards private-public sector collaboration:

In the event, the government has decided to request the various operators, both private and public, to merge their projects, which is also what the Parliamentary Commission working on the file, recommended. In its interim report published in March, the Commission recommended that public and private operators put together their resources in a new structure of a cooperative character that will be split in two: on the one side there will be the image bank which could be CFI, and on the other side there will be the broadcaster who will take the name of CFI-24. The Deputies evaluate the operation costs of this structure at 80 to 100 million euros in addition to the contributions of the channel's shareholding operators. Even though no definite decision has yet been reached, broadcasting professionals express a certain skepticism regarding the capacity of many operators, of such varying backgrounds and corporate cultures, to overcome these difficulties and be able to run a well-oiled machine. The problem is that that there is no economically viable alternative and no one has any doubts regarding President Chirac's resolve to see this project materialize without further delay.

The most important factor remains: what will be the content of the transmission and at whom will it be targeted? Over and above ministerial declarations, the articles and conditions published in the invitation to tender in April gives valuable indications concerning this subject:

The State wishes to promote the development of an international news channel. Broadcast mainly in the French language, this service's function will be to ensure a more important and more visible French presence in the world battle of images and to contribute to the pluralism of international news by offering TV viewers the choice of a different outlook on news, marked by the particular viewpoint of our country regarding world affairs, by its culture, and its individual spirit, and casting a favorable light on its special historic and geographic ties. The international news channel should also contribute towards a durable strategy of assuring French influence in the world.

- The transmission zone will at first mainly target the Arab world, Africa, and Europe.
- The gradual extension to North America, the Far East (particularly China and Japan), and Central and South America should be envisaged in the proposals, the specific costs of each being set out separately. 
- The international news channel will be broadcast primarily in the French language.
- The transmission of English, Arabic, and Spanish versions should be envisaged while specifying clearly the consequences for the editorial content and the cost of the project. 
- The channel's format shall be that of news channels comprising the handling of daily international news, while reserving an important place for short magazines related to cultural and economic news. 
- The targeted audience should be as large as possible while at the same time priority should be given to the political, economic, and cultural decision-makers of the above-mentioned transmission zones. Young adults should also be given particular attention as a target. 
- The international news channel should blend into the broadcasting landscape, particularly with regard to external broadcasting production. 
- Possible synergies with societies belonging to public broadcasting sectors and the existing private news channels should be carefully studied. 
- Partnerships could be envisaged with foreign television operators.
- The project may benefit from public support, as far as its start-up investment and operation are concerned.
- The project should be able to develop according to a schedule that takes into consideration the available resources. It should have a step-by-step, modular character. 
- The actual launching of the channel must be possible during 2004.

Thus drawn up, the invitation to tender presents an ambitious project capable of a very modest start-up.

What editorial policy should be adopted for "CNN French-Style"?

In the course of their work, the deputies devoted a good part of their time to debating the editorial policy of the new channel. This policy must certainly permit the introduction of a French vision into the battle of images that international news channels are engaged in. The Deputies note that for the moment the world image market is overwhelmingly dominated by Anglo-Saxon productions such as CNN, BBC, and Reuters. Therefore, it is very important that the future channel be equipped with an autonomous production capacity usable by other television channels. The international news channel should also make France's diplomatic positions known. How can this be done without the channel appearing as a simple governmental propaganda organ? In an op-ed article in the newspaper Liberation, European Representative for External Affairs Chris Patten wrote on May 22, 2003 of the extent to which, in his opinion, it was essential that a French voice express itself: "World pluralism needs more voices to make itself heard, and one of these voices should be French." But Patten also warns the French government against the temptation of wanting to exercise a political tutelage over this channel: "Some plead for a public management of this French world channel to avoid any embarrassing divergences from government policy; this would be a kind of natural compensation for the public subsidies that this service will need to survive My reply for what it is worth is clear: if this is your objective, it is useless to envisage the launching of a competitor to CNN."

Obviously perplexed by this dilemma, the deputies finally reached the same conclusion:

The purpose of the future channel should be to broadcast to the world a French vision of world affairs and also to contribute to information pluralism on the international scene. The necessity of such a channel for our country is justified by the two following observations: communications have become an established component of power in the contemporary world, and a country that concentrates all its assets of power (economic, military, cultural, and media) will be tempted to adopt a unilateral approach towards problems arising on the international scene. CFI-24 should, therefore, bring a different view to that of existing international news channels. It should also reflect the diversity of opinions existing in the world and favor a multilateral approach to resolving international crises.

Furthermore, this channel should not be conceived as an instrument serving exclusively French diplomacy. Nothing would be more open to criticism than the creation of an ORTF with a planetary mandate, as, such a channel, conceived of as the "voice of France" would in all likelihood go purely and simply unheard. Members of the Joint Commission consider that the independence and professionalism of CFI-24 are two essential conditions for its success. Its objective is in effect to be viewed throughout the whole world by a large public, but also by professionals in the media field. A too official or unbalanced handling of news by this channel will undeniably deprive it very quickly of all credibility, especially given that our country has the reputation, and in part justifiably so, of being interventionist in all sectors, including media sectors.

For CFI-24 to become one of the international reference channels its independence from the State is thus indispensable, and this should be guaranteed - as we have said - by its statute.

In a few months time, CNN, BBC World, Al Jazeera and others will without doubt be joined on satellite by a little French sister. The "French difference" that Paris is clamoring for, particularly in its independent diplomatic line and cultural policy, should therefore be able to find its voice on the world's air waves. For this to happen, the State's political will (another very French characteristic) should be able to triumph over that other much less glorious French peculiarity-the technocratic vision of France's higher bureaucracy, which, more often than not, prevails over a strictly professional vision where broadcasting is concerned. 

About Olivier Da Lage

Olivier Da Lage is a journalist at Radio France Internationale (RFI) and editor-in-chief of the RFI website. A graduate of the Institut d'etudes politiques de Paris (1978) and the Centre de journalisme de Paris (1979), he worked as a Bahrain-based free-lance correspondent for French media in the Gulf (1979-1982) before joining RFI in 1983. He has written several books on the Middle East.

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