Topper intends to stay on as chairman

After nearly two decades at the helm of France’s leading commercial broadcaster, Patrick Le Lay will step down as chief exec of TF1, the company announced Tuesday as it posted net profits of e452.5 million ($594.5 million).

The topper, who will turn 65 in June, intends to stay on as chairman but will hand the operational reins to Bouygues Telecom CEO Nonce Paolini in May.

Paolini, 57, was the net’s deputy director of human resources from 1993-2001 before joining parent company Bouygues’ telco division. He spent 15 years of his early career with French utilities company EDG-GDF.

Tuesday’s news ended weeks of speculation that Le Lay would ankle after France’s presidential elections, which kick off April 22. 

It also heralds a new era for the country’s most influential network, as it tries to adapt to Gaul’s rapidly evolving TV biz.

TF1’s stunning profit — up 91% vs. 2005 — was due mostly to a $333.2 million windfall from the recent absorption of its pay TV platform TPS by bigger rival Canal Plus. Absent that, revenues from continuing activities fell 9.9% to $261 million.

The company is planning to issue a $1.12 per-share dividend to stockholders, pending a vote at its next annual general meeting in April.

Revenues last year stood at $3.5 billion, up 5.8%, while ad coin rose 3.7% to $2.2 billion.

Over the years Le Lay and his team have maintained TF1’s dominant position in French free-to-air television. Although the web’s audience share has eroded slightly, to around 32%, its advertising market share grew by nearly a percentage point last year to 54%.

But the rapid rollout of digital terrestrial TV in France and the emergence of telcos and other newcomers in content delivery are altering the Gallic TV biz fast. It’s no accident that a telco topper is stepping into Le Lay’s shoes. 

France’s upcoming presidential elections have increased the pressure on the web. TF1 recently came under attack for focusing too much on candidates Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal while neglecting the others.

Known for his often surprising but unfailingly frank remarks (he once said TF1’s job was to help Coca-Cola sell its products), Le Lay hit back by asserting that TF1 Group was a “medium-sized company that the political class in France ought to encourage and protect.”

“We are a modest-sized company compared with Google, Orange and the giants that gravitate around the world of telecoms,” Le Lay complained last week.

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