France begins digital divvy as some cry foul

Number of channels increases to 26

PARIS — Broadcasters held their breaths Tuesday as the French parliament began debating what slice of the action each may expect to get when France’s terrestrial TV goes digital in 2002.

The change from analog will swell the number of channels from six to 36, transforming French television. But so far, only the pubcasters have been guaranteed a big stake; the private networks fear they are going to be shortchanged.

Under the bill before parliament, France Television, the company that unites pubcasters France 2 and France 3, will be allotted 1-1/2 digital six-channel “multiplexes,” or blocks of frequencies, giving the public sector a total of nine channels. That’s too many, according to industry skeptics who believe the cash-strapped and audience-starved pubcasters won’t be able to pull it off.

Meanwhile, leading private network TF1, pay TV company Canal Plus and private net M6 are earmarked to get only two channels each. Under the proposed legislation, they will have to bid for the remaining four channels in their respective multiplexes if they wish to have them.

Euro Commission push

The stakes for the private networks are driven higher by the European Commission, which is pushing France to comply with European law and allow foreign investors to take up to 49% of a French TV company.

The private nets fear that could pave the way for the likes of Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB, Spain’s Telefonica, Bertelsmann or Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset to gain a major foothold in French broadcasting.

The current debate is the final stage of a two-year effort by Culture Minister Catherine Trautmann to reform France’s TV sector. The principal element of the broadcasting bill that has already been voted involves the setting up of a super holding company, France Television, to oversee France 2 and France 3.

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