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Michel Euler/AP
An employee of France’s public television networks sets up a banner outside the French
Senate to protest the ban of advertising on public channels.

After Banning Prime-Time Ads, Sarkozy Accused of TV Power Grab

January 07, 2009 01:58 PM
by Christopher Coats
Threats of strikes and charges of increased state control of the airwaves plague French President Nicolas Sarkozy as he scraps ads from state television.

Prime-Time Ads Removed From French TV

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After taking the first step toward banning advertising from all public television channels by 2011, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is being accused of centralizing government power, as well as shifting millions in advertising revenue to personal friends and political allies.

Initiated this week with the elimination of all advertising during prime time—beginning at 8:00 p.m.—and through the night until 6:00 a.m., Sarkozy’s plans were introduced early last year in a wave of public communication reforms introduced by the president.

“We want to liberate public television from the dictatorship of real-time audience ratings,” Sarkozy said at a press conference in June, according to The Wall Street Journal.

A related bill currently in the French parliament would also allow Sarkozy to appoint the head of state television, rather than leaving the responsibility to a media watchdog group.

Mirroring a number of European countries, the French government publicly funds four television channels. The channels depend on advertisers for almost 30 percent of their annual operating budget, the rest being covered by a household tax.

When fully implemented, Sarkozy’s ad-free plan would result in system more closely aligned with Britain’s BBC series of channels.

Reactions: Sarkozy’s reforms met with criticism

Although Sarkozy argues that the resulting funding deficit would be made up for by a new tax on mobile phone and internet service providers, and would produce higher quality programming, his efforts have earned him few political or market supporters.

In the final month before passing, the new rules were saddled with a wave of amendments by members of the rival liberal party, while television unions have suggested the plan would unquestionably result in a loss of jobs in the public television sector.

Several stations and unions have promised immediate strikes in response to the new rules.

Critics have also accused Sarkozy of turning the stations into potential government propaganda tools without the accountability of public advertisers to balance state influence.

“It's a huge step backward," Jean-François Téaldi, a spokesman for the CGT labor union at France Télévisions, told The Wall Street Journal. "Public TV will become a propaganda tool of the government."

Further, opponents of the plan have also pointed to the increase in ad revenue to be inherited by private stations not subject to the new rules. According to a French media agency in 2008, the private stations stand to receive as much as 50 percent of the ad revenue earned by public stations.

Sarkozy’s involvement has clouded the issue: Martin Bouygues, the owner of TFI, one of the largest private stations, is also a close personal friend of Sarkozy and godfather to his son.

French journalist Thomas Hubert reported that Sarkozy’s current plan closely mirrors a lobbying white paper submitted by TFI in 2007; the white paper suggested that public television get rid of advertisers.

Related Topic: Comparisons with Berlusconi; restructuring EU public media funding

Those critical of Sarkozy’s plan to recast French public television as media outlets free of advertiser influence have been quick to draw parallels with Silvio Berlusconi and Italy’s television system.

The Italian media mogul and current president has often been criticized for using state stations for political means, though most criticism has surrounded his use of his own stations during elections.

The shift in French programming comes amid a wave of restructuring occurring across Europe as countries attempt to merge existing and new media services.

The European Union is currently mulling new state-funding rules for public media. According to EurActiv.com, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) has supported a mixed funding system composed of both public and private funding.
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