French TV puts on fresh face for fall

PARIS — With their Michelin Guides and beach umbrellas tucked away for another year, government ministers and network presidents went on a media offensive in late August, outlining some ambitious plans for the French television sector.

In a whirlwind series of press conferences, public statements and newspaper interviews:

Prime Minister Edouard Balladur announced a new state-owned educational network will be launched in autumn 1994.

TF1 topper Patrick Le Lay confirmed that his web will launch a satellite-delivered French news service in spring 1994 and set up a film rights acquisition company in September.

Le Lay’s No. 2, Etienne Mougeotte, said the Bouygues group will probably up its share in TF1 if the government pushes through legislation removing the current 25% maximum stake that one shareholder can have in a national network.

With the humiliating bankruptcy of La Cinq a fading memory, all the indications are that the French are now in an expansionist mood. In his traditional post-vacation press conference, Balladur set the ball rolling by announcing the new education channel.

Balladur said the new channel will occupy the daytime hours of the former La Cinq frequencies and will be financed primarily by public funds. Estimates are that the service could cost in the region of 500 million francs ($ 86 million) a year.

The prime minister’s commitment to the new project has been widely welcomed, especially by those who feared the new conservative government might bounce Arte off the frequencies to make way for another national, ad-driven network.

However, the decision is likely to further fuel the ire of Euronews prez Massimo Fichera.

That fledgling all-news operation, backed by 11 European pubcasters, is facing a tough financial struggle.

Fichera claims that when bids to play host nation to Euronews were made, the French government and the Lyon authorities made commitments that have not been kept.

Ironically, the Euronews experience appears not to have daunted TF1, where top management is prepping its own satellite-delivered news channel.

The TF1 service will start broadcasting in the first half of 1994, according to webhead Patrick Le Lay. Initial operating costs are estimated to be in the region of $ 17 millionper year.

TF1’s news service is one project in what promises to be an increasingly diversified development policy. Upcoming government legislation is widely expected to allow an individual shareholder to take a maximum 49% share in a national television network, instead of the current 25% limit.

TF1 execs have repeatedly called for this change arguing that it is unfair for the network’s main backer, the Bouygues group, to take 100% of the responsibility for TF1 while only holding 25% of the capital. Patrick Le Lay and Etienne Mougeotte have both indicated that Bouygues will acquire a 49% share of TF1 if the law goes through and hinted that such a move would encourage the web’s controller to invest in expansion.

With this in mind, Le Lay announced last week that TF1 will set up a new film rights acquisitions company in September. The new outfit is expected to buy European rights or co-produce between 10 and 15 films (mainly American) per year.

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