French launch array of theme webs

Allo-Cine, Eurosport among new channels

PARIS – French TV is entering one of the most tumultuous periods in its history, with terrestrial broadcasting poised to switch over to digital in about 18 months, and satellite and cable channels mushrooming.

New channels to hit TV screens this fall range from Allo-Cine, dedicated exclusively to news and shows about the movies, to Eurosport News, round-the-clock sports news, to TV Breiz, a regional channel in the Breton language. In addition, a number of more mainstream channels are also in the pipeline.

But program makers shouldn’t imagine that all these developments will have French broadcasters queuing up for their product. While their revenue rocketed up 45% between 1997-98, French theme channels’ program budgets have expanded modestly.

Meanwhile, France’s digital terrestrial plans are in a bit of a tangle. When the switchover takes place in mid-2002, the number of channels broadcast terrestrially supposedly will leap from seven to 36. But while broadcasters are queuing up to fill those slots, a big obstacle to their ambitions remains.

Under French broadcasting law, no more than 49% of a terrestrial TV channel can be owned by a single shareholder. That effectively bars networks like TF1 from exploiting their range of existing theme channels, currently broadcast on cable and satellite — unless they are prepared to sell off a majority share and lose control of them.

Echoing many in the TV industry, TF1 chief Patrick Le Lay recently called the digital scheme a “gigantic mess,” and predicted: “No serious player will be able to take part.”

Program makers and distributors should take heart, however. With ad coin up in France, the networks will have money in their pockets when they come to Mipcom, even if they are loathe to part with it. Nor should French quotas discourage. Despite French broadcasting rules requiring channels to fill 40% of their schedules with homegrown programs, an additional 20% is dedicated to Euro-made programs — and that still leaves 40% for everyone else.

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