Adieu? Non! Topper hangs on

Tessier hustles for new term at Gaul's powerful pubcaster

PARIS — It’s one of the meatier Gallic media jobs going — chairmanship of a group with 8,600 employees and revenue of more than $3 billion last year.

TF1 or Canal Plus looking for a new topper?

Mais non — we’re talking about pubcaster France Televisions.

Eighteen years after the privatization of leading commercial broadcaster TF1, the state-owned TV group is still a dominant force in Gallic broadcasting, with a handful of channels boasting a total audience share of 38.7%.

License fees rake in E1.6 billion ($1.9 billion) annually, while advertisers and sponsors ponied up $949.2 million in 2004, up 6.8% — that’s 21.8% of the total TV ad spend in France.

Current chairman Marc Tessier’s five-year mandate comes to an end this August.

But Tessier, one-time Canal Plus topper and a former head of the Centre National de la Cinematographie, the body that oversees France’s film and TV industries, is not anxious to vacate the post.

Last week, Tessier, 59, submitted his name for another go-round, along with 16 other hopefuls.

The Conseil Superieur de l’Audiovisuel, France’s broadcasting authority, made quick work of eliminating the more fringe candidates, including a postman and a member of the anti-capitalist pressure group ATTAC, before settling on five names.

The CSA will interview candidates July 4-6.

As well as Tessier, the finalists for the job are TV producer Patrick de Carolis, presenter of popular current affairs show “Des racines et des ailes”; José Freches, formerly editor of regional newspaper group Midi Libre; Norbert Balit, former deputy general manager of Canal Plus’ all-news web i-Television; and producer Simone Halberstadt Harari, CEO of Tele Images and head of the powerful TV producers’ body USPA.

Jean-Pierre Cottet, former head of successful pubcaster France 5, now in charge of Lagardere’s TV division, and Patrice Duhamel, deputy managing director of daily paper Le Figaro, are heavyweights who confounded Gallic media watchers by not entering the race.

There are aspects to the job that would put off many a suitable candidate.

The $24,000-a-month gross salary is modest by private-sector standards.

Also, the brief is almost impossible to satisfy — providing high-quality programs that have cultural value and yet draw big enough audiences to satisfy advertisers, across an array of competing channels.

France 2 is Gaul’s second most watched TV channel with a 20.5% audience share; France 3 has a 15.2% share and France 5 around 3%. The pubcaster also is in charge of overseas broadcaster RFO and new digital terrestrial TV channel France 4, as well as a handful of niche channels.

Whereas other TV bosses have only the audience figures for one channel to take into account, at any given moment there is almost always some part of the public service that isn’t doing well. This means the head of France Televisions is perpetually under pressure.

While all Gallic broadcasters are at the mercy of heavily interventionist regulations, the state-funded pubcaster also is uniquely exposed to the winds of political change. Tessier suffered a humiliating blow, for instance, when his budget to finance ambitious plans for new digital terrestrial TV channels was slashed following a change of government.

But the appointment holds prestige and power — and never more so than now. Whoever heads France Televisions will wield enormous media clout in the crucial two-year lead-up to France’s presidential elections in 2007.

What are Tessier’s chances of another mandate?

A graduate of France’s prestigious Ecole National d’Administration — the school that trained new French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and former Viv U topper Jean-Marie Messier — Tessier has one thing his rivals lack: on-the-job experience.

He is credited with restructuring the group and trimming running costs at a saving of $60 million a year since 2001.

In 2004 profits were up 79% to $30.7 million, an achievement that helped earn Tessier the title of manager of the year from magazine Le Nouvel Observateur.

His determination, too, is in no doubt.

The incumbent has been schmoozing with movers and shakers in the political and TV spheres for months, reportedly lunching with all nine members of the CSA during the recent French Open tennis championship.

Tessier’s biggest problem is political. A left-wing government nominated him, but now the government — and the head of the CSA — are on the right.

Detractors also complain Tessier’s not much of a content man, and that he has been unable to impose a strong editorial identity on the group’s different webs.

That could be crucial at a time when France’s traditional six terrestrial webs now have to compete with an array of recently launched DTT channels.

These and other issues will be weighed up by the CSA over the next couple of weeks.

The winning candidate must have the backing of at least five CSA members. If they can’t agree, the process could start all over again with a fresh round of submissions, or even efforts to headhunt someone.

It’s a scenario that can’t be ruled out.

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