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Profitable French b’casters brace for digital switch

New partnerships to help fend off aud erosion cost

PARIS — If French free-to-air network bosses appear to be stooping at Mip this year, it is probably all that money in their pockets.

TF1, the leading web, posted a 58% profit hike for 2000, making $232 million on revs of $2 billion — up 22% on the previous year.

M6, the No. 2 private network, posted profits of $93 million, up 34% year to year, on revs of $658 million, an increase of 18%.

But despite last year’s ad windfall, lower expectations for ad coin in 2001 and a new media slump have had a sobering effect on the French TV biz.

Maintaining audience share has gone back to being the top priority, although TV bosses would like to achieve that aim while keeping a tight hold on their pocketbooks.

At a recent press conference, TF1 topper Patrick Le Lay declared that he was resolutely optimistic about the network’s fortunes in 2001, but he stressed that its programming budget would increase no more than 3% this year.

Meanwhile, to spread the cost of its ambitious theme channel projects, part of a strategy to build “group market share” in the face of inevitable audience erosion, TF1 has struck up new partnerships.

Instead of going it alone in a general interest channel, it has launched TF6 jointly with traditional rival M6, while CNBC is teaming up with TF1 in financial news channel LCFI.

Gallic jitters over audience share are centered on the country’s forthcoming switch to digital terrestrial TV.

The Conseil Superieur de l’Audiovisuel, France’s broadcasting authority, will shortly invite bids from broadcasters for some 36 channels, with the changeover supposed to take place by the end of 2002. (France has six terrestrial channels.)

The race for slots is complicated by French legislation that forbids a single shareholder from owning more than 49% of a terrestrial broadcaster — thereby ruling out most of France’s existing theme channels. The private webs are hoping the French government will reform the law.

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