Monday, January 26, 2009

libertad t.v., oui!

SUSAN SACHS
From Saturday's Globe and Mail
January 23, 2009 at 3:44 PM EST
Paris — For decades in France, an evening in front of the television began with the news followed by a solid 15-minute dose of commercials before the entertainment shows started at 9 p.m. But urged by the government to break free from “the tyranny of audience ratings,” the five national public broadcasting channels took the singular step last week of eliminating all advertising after 8 p.m. By 2011, French public TV is supposed to go entirely commercial-free.
Still, at a time when more media are scrambling for ever fewer advertising dollars, the ad-free revolution is not one anyone else, including the CBC, seems in a hurry to join.
If anything, the CBC is looking for ways to bring in more ad dollars by increasing its audience share in the competition with all the American and private stations available. “If we were to drop advertising, it creates an enormous financial problem,” said Richard Stursberg, vice-president of English services. “And my general sense is there's very little appetite in Canada to increase money to the CBC from government sources.”
The French makeover was spurred, in part, by the widespread complaint that prime-time public TV looked too much like commercial TV because it had to bid for the same shows, the same audience and the same advertisers. The removal of ads was welcomed by many as a strike against consumer culture. As Pascal Thomas, a former head of the Film Directors Society told Le Monde newspaper, ads have “a perverse effect” on creativity. Now, instead of chasing advertisers who want big audiences, broadcasters can theoretically risk showing more cultural fare and fewer blockbuster movies.
The CBC's challenge, Stursberg said, is a more existential one. The issue is not whether reliance on ads lowers the quality of programming, he said, but whether an audience can be found for Canadian programming.
“The difference between English Canada and France is that the French prefer French shows, and here historically they prefer foreign shows and entertainment programs,” he said.
France Télévisions, the French public broadcaster which runs the five channels, has to meet other requirements.
Under existing law, at least 70 per cent of its programs must be European and 50 per cent of those must be of French origin. A government-sponsored reform bill working its way through parliament would require the bulk of those European shows to be broadcast in prime time rather than lumped together in the middle of the afternoon or late at night after most people have gone to bed.
The theme of the reform is that public television should aim for the high-brow and not “the lowest common denominator,” as a government audiovisual commission put it last year.
Audience appeal should be an ambition, it said, not an obsession. To drive the point home, the Minister of Culture said last week that reality TV shows, presumably those like the CBC's top-rated Dragons' Den, would be expressly forbidden. “Look at the BBC. They don't have commercials. But at the same time, they run shows that would have no place on our stations,” said Alain Belais, director of international relations at the French broadcaster. “Not having advertising doesn't necessarily mean we won't be paying attention to programming that attracts an audience,” he added. Finding the balance between quality and audience, and between nationally produced programs and foreign blockbusters, is the test for all public broadcasters.
For the CBC, Stursberg said, success is bringing Canadian content to a broad cross-section of Canadian viewers. The bigger the audience share it draws – and he points out some Canadian shows are beating American shows in prime time – the happier he is.
Public television's mass appeal has also been more important, at least in the abstract, in Britain than in France.
“The French debate is conducted in the language of ‘culture' and ‘creation' rather than in terms of the audience, where in Britain it's seen as important that the BBC offers something that appeals to everyone,” said David Levy, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University in London and the only non-French member of the commission that proposed the France Télévisions reform.
With advertising, the French public channels drew their biggest audiences with a somewhat different programming mix from that of the CBC's and many other public broadcasters.
The top-drawing programs last year on France 2, the main national public station, were a French movie comedy called Camping, the American crime show Without a Trace, a TV movie based on a Maupassant story and the French-British rugby match.
But on a week-to-week basis, the differences from commercial television tend to blur. On Monday, for example, France 2 offered three back-to-back (dubbed) episodes of Without a Trace. The biggest private channel, TF1, showed a French film followed by another American police series, Criminal Minds.
On Tuesday, France 2 started with historical fiction on the assassination of King Henri IV and followed with a reconstruction of a 1987 criminal trial. TF1 had a reality show called Koh-Lanta, a French takeoff on Survivor.
Without advertising, the public channels could sharpen the distinction. “Now they have the chance to set themselves apart [from private channels] in prime time and not just late at night and in the middle of the afternoon,” said Bruno Patino, a former editor of Le Monde's website and now the director of the public radio station France Culture.
For now, the public channels are just moving up their lineup, starting at 8:35 p.m., after the national news, to fill in the time that used to be given over to commercials. Given the 18-month lead time for new shows, viewers probably won't see much of a change in programming for some time.
The financial consequences of going ad-free will similarly not be immediately felt.
About 30 per cent of the French broadcaster's budget, or about €450-million ($733-million), came from advertising revenues, with the rest coming from a €116 ($189) tax on television sets. The French parliament is still debating alternative revenue sources. The government has promised to cover the shortfall for the next few years. Unions have been opposed to the measure, with staff at France 3, one of the state channels, walking off the job to protest the changes. The reform has been criticized for possibly handing an advertising revenue boon to private broadcasters such as TF1, owned by Martin Bouygues, a friend of President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Sarkozy has said he wants to fund public broadcasting by taxing Internet providers and the expected windfall ad revenues of private TV stations. But the recession has put a damper on his plans. “I think advertisers are going to invest less overall,” said Rémi Babinet, the head of BETC, France's biggest ad agency. “So there won't be a transfer of the public television advertising spending to the private channels.”
CBC television is facing a similar problem but with fewer options. It has also seen a sharp drop in the economic turndown.
“I've been in the TV business for a long time and in my life I've never seen a fall as precipitous as this one,” said Stursberg. “We won't get more money [from the government] so we're trying to figure out a smart way through these challenges.”
At the same time, the CBC is looking at fiercer competition for ad dollars very soon as limits on all television advertising will be lifted in September. That is not necessarily good news for the CBC. “In a flat or shrinking ad market, ad dollars will go to American shows, which already come with a built-in 14 minutes of commercials,” said Stursberg. “If more commercial time is opened up, the money will go to those at the expense of Canadian productions.”With files from Agence France-Presse
Special to The Globe and Mail

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