PARIS — For the longest time, Gallic broadcasters turned up their noses at digital terrestrial TV.
But with its launch due on March 31, attitudes could not be more startlingly different.
When France’s audiovisual authority recently invited last-minute bids for an additional eight frequencies to the 14 already allocated, there were 35 contenders.
TF1 topper Patrick Le Lay, once one of DTT’s most outspoken naysayers, was there with the rest, pitching for another frequency for his dominant commercial broadcaster’s theme channel TV Breiz.
Commercial broadcast rival M6 submitted claims for three free-to-air channels.
And in echoes of the U.K.’s recent rush for a single frequency on its digital platform Freeview, Viacom also put in bids for MTV Extra and Nickelodeon.
“A couple of years ago, DTT had a bad image,” says Olivier Gerolami, chief operating officer of the Groupement Television Numerique Pour Tous, (Digital TV for All), a joint venture between pubcaster France Televisions and a handful of cable and satellite operators that is Gaul’s answer to Freeview.
“But everyone’s impressed with DTT in the U.K., Italy and Germany, and they realize it is a very good idea,” he observes.
Adding to the buzz about DTT is the fact that 17 million TV households in France — 66% — only receive the bare minimum of six free-to-air terrestrial webs. A sizable number of them may be tempted by 14 extra channels for the one-off $130 cost of a set-top box.
“France is the poorest market in Europe in terms of free-to-air national channels, so it has the potential to be one of the biggest DTT markets,” Gerolami asserts.
The Conseil Superieur de L’audiovisuel (CSA), France’s broadcasting authority, has battled for several years to get the new technology onstream.
France is the last big European country to launch it, and the org can barely disguise its pleasure over DTT’s newfound attractiveness.
CSA topper Dominique Baudis recently boasted that France would probably end up with 15-20 free-to-air DTT channels, including a new youth-oriented pubcaster France 4.
As many as 15 pay webs could also launch on digital in a second phase later this year or early next. Although enthusiasm isn’t quite so high for pay DTT, both Canal Plus and rival pay TV operator TPS are bidding to market bouquets of channels.
The change of heart among France’s TV players came down to the realization that DTT was going to alter the TV scene whether they liked it or not.
With a more than 32% audience share and around 55% of the TV advertising market, TF1 has potentially the most to lose from market fragmentation.
“The huge advertising profits made by TF1 and M6 are directly linked to their duopoly over the terrestrial market. DTT could end that,” Gerolami says.
Le Lay recently told analysts that by 2010 he expected DTT to be in 5 million homes, TV via high-speed Internet in 3.5 million homes and cable in as many again. Independent surveys also forecast similar DTT penetration.
In view of the inevitable changes ahead, TF1’s strategy is to occupy as much of French broadcasting’s new terrain as possible by growing subscribers at its satellite platform TPS, by developing its own DTT and ADSL services and its array of thematic channels.
In a sign of how the group is evolving, noncore businesses accounted for 45% of revenues in 2004 and “it’ll soon be 50-50,” Le Lay predicted recently.
For France’s cable and satellite TV players, the advent of DTT poses another conundrum — whether or not to make the leap from pay to free TV.
Canal Plus put forward news web i-tele as a free-to-air channel, causing a furor at TF1 because its market-leading news web LCI is down to launch on DTT as a pay channel.
In another surprise move, AB Groupe has asked the CSA to grant it a free-to-air license for RTL9, French cable and satellite’s highest-rating general-interest channel.
But will the French as a whole go for DTT?
When Prime Minister Jean Pierre Raffarin symbolically flicks the switch March 31, only 35% of France will be ready to receive the technology. By the end of the year the figure should be up to 65%
Digital TV for All is banking on 700,000 to 1 million set-top boxes being sold in 2005.
“It is difficult to tell how quickly it will take off,” says Gerolami, “but we’re optimistic that it will revolutionize television in France.”