Digital web is Gaul's first homegrown financial, political channel

PARIS — Look out CNBC and Bloomberg.

For now France’s government-backed 24-hour news channel, hyped as a Gallic CNN, remains stuck on the starting blocks due to political inertia.

But by the end of this year Gaul will have its first home-grown business news channel.

Kicking off with a modest e20 million ($24.4 million) budget in its first year and a team of 40 journalists, BFM TV will go out as a free-to-air, digital terrestrial TV channel.

Airing a mix of financial, political and international news, it leverages off the popularity of the well established BFM radio station.

“We want to be more broad ranging than CNBC or Bloomberg,” says topper Alain Weill, boss of French radio group Nextradio, which is behind the new channel. “The cable and satellite audience is much more segmented but as we will be on DTT we want to reach a wider population, not just businessmen.”

It’s early days for DTT, which bowed here in March. But expectations are high that it will be a success in a country where just two-thirds of homes are able to receive the standard six terrestrial channels.

So far, some 400,000 takers have bought a set-top box enabling them to receive 17 free channels, with more pay TV channels to come. The industry is expecting that figure to rise to 1 million by the end of the year.

Like other newcomers recently granted DTT licenses, Weill sees himself as one of television’s democratizes.

“DTT will do for TV what FM did for radio. I think it is going to have a very big impact on the French TV landscape,” he asserts.

Weill knows all about FM. The former boss of French radio group NRJ ankled five years ago to set up his own company. Nextradio promptly acquired and transformed the ailing South of France station RMC into the successful news and sports oriented RMC Info, with an audience share of 4.2% — or 2.5 million listeners daily. The web is now national and some of its strongest growth is in the Paris region.

Three years ago Nextradio saved BFM, France’s only business radio station, from the brink of bankruptcy.

These successes earned Weill the industry credibility that undoubtedly swayed the Conseil Superieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA) to grant him one of the over-subscribed DTT licenses. Some 35 contenders competed recently in a bidding round for eight licenses.

If BFM TV resembles Weill’s radio stations it will definitely have the populist touch. Weill is known for throwing together unlikely mixes, for instance, scheduling a sex show on RMC Info.

Weill cites commercial broadcaster M6’s flagship show “Capital,” which packages economic stories in a bright, tabloid style, as the kind of program he would like on BFM TV

“We must broaden the idea of economic news to make it more appealing, more entertaining,” he says. “When France switches over completely to digital we’ll be capable of reaching as many homes as TF1 and the other general interest channels.”

But do Weill and the other digital TV novices stand a chance against the dominant heavyweights?

Commercial broadcaster TF1 has more than 50% of the TV advertising market and its audience share is more than 32%.

“It’s not easy to make one’s mark but the opportunity is there,” asserts Weill, who has set BFM TV a five-year break even target.

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