PARIS — France 24, the country’s much ballyhooed global TV news network set up to rival news services from CNN and the BBC, is finally due to launch Wednesday.
Giant screens have been erected around Paris’s Place de la Concorde to witness the channel’s first simultaneous French and English news broadcasts at 8.29 p.m. CET.
President Jacques Chirac, who has lobbied long and hard for what has been dubbed “CNN a la Francaise,” is to launch the channel’s Web site — offering content in French, English and Arabic — in a lavish ceremony in the Tuileries Gardens.
The TV news channel will kick off in French and English, but plans to add an Arabic channel next year and a Spanish channel before 2010. “Our mission is to cover worldwide news with French eyes,” said CEO Alain de Pouzilhac.
Fingers were firmly crossed in anticipation of major technical snafus for France 24, which has hailed itself as the world’s first fully computerized network. Even after three weeks of exhaustive dryruns, however, one high-placed staffer bemoaned senior management’s lack of internal communica-tions and an adequate launch plan.
France 24’s ultra-modern four-story headquarters on the southern outskirts of Paris houses more than 380 employees from 28 countries. Eyebrows have been raised by the relative youth of the 170 journalists on staff, with an average age of 31.
While the non-stop broadcast concept has been on and off the drawing board for more than a decade, the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 acted as a major catalyst, with Chirac reportedly angered by the way his opposition to military action was covered through the American prism of CNN and Blighty’s BBC.
State-funded France 24 was put together — not without difficulty — as a joint venture between the country’s biggest independent network, TF1, and state broadcaster France Televisions. This represents an unprecedented partnership between the rival organizations. Union protests and managerial spats have been frequent, with even the channel’s name often a bone of contention.
Programming on the separate French and English channels will be virtually identical, with 10-minute news bulletins every half-hour, and a selection of reports, talk shows and news magazines filling the gaps be-tween bulletins.
The network seems determined to make an impression from day one, although the original corporate motto of “Everything you are not supposed to know” has already been dropped in favor of “Beyond the news.” The former “sounded a little conspiratorial,” according to France 24 spokesman Damien Amadou.
“A cultural transnational study conducted for us indicated that the most common values associated with France are ‘debate’ and ‘culture,’ ” said Ama-dou. “There will be a lot of both, daily in the form of talk shows and magazines, in both French and English.” The network’s mission statement declares its commitment to “defense of multilateralism, secularism, solidarity, respect, freedom of expression, lifestyle, culture, fashion, gastronomy, etc.”
But there is no disputing that France 24 is entering an already crowded global news market, being the second new entry in as many months after Arab news satcaster Al-Jazeera’s November launch of its English-language service Al-Jazeera Intl.
While it will be able to draw on the resources of France’s two biggest webs, its government-backed operational budget for 2007 of around Euros 86 million ($110 million) is dwarfed by those of its main competitors, especially CNN.
Free-to-air satellite coverage and distribution agreements have been made in more than 90 countries, enabling France 24 to provide coverage to more than 80 million households, mainly in Europe and the Mideast.
In the U.S., the English version of the network will only be available initially through a local partner of the Comcast digital cable network and on a terrestrial frequency in the Washington, D.C. area, potentially reaching around 1.1 million households. France 24 will also broadcast directly to the UN, the World Bank, the IMF and the U.S. State Department.
But the wider U.S. market will surely be a much harder nut to crack, due to already comprehensive coast-to-coast coverage by U.S. and British-based broadcasters.