French toast entry of 24-hour news network

Chirac celebrates launch of 'CNN a la Francaise'

PARIS — France 24, the country’s much ballyhooed global TV news network set up to rival news services from CNN and the BBC, has finally taken to the airwaves.

The first transmission — only available through Internet streaming — went off flawlessly at 8:29 p.m. Paris time on Dec. 6. President Jacques Chirac, who has lobbied long and hard for what has been dubbed “CNN a la Francaise,” hosted a lavish soiree for more than 1,000 invited guests in the Tuileries Gardens to celebrate.

The web’s first over-the-air simultaneous French and English news broadcasts kicked off 24 hours later.

Newsie plans to add an Arabic channel next year and a Spanish channel before 2010.

“Our mission is to cover worldwide news with French eyes,” says CEO Alain de Pouzilhac.

France 24 hails itself as the world’s first fully computerized network. Even after three weeks of exhaustive dry-runs, however, one high-placed staffer bemoans senior management’s lack of internal communications 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 as a joint venture between the country’s biggest independent network, TF1, and state broadcaster France Televisions — an unprecedented partnership between the rivals.

Union protests and managerial spats have been frequent, with even the channel’s name often a bone of contention. 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.

Programming on the French and English channels will be virtually identical, with 10-minute news bulletins every half-hour and reports, talkshows and newsmags filling the gaps.

“A cultural transnational study conducted for us indicated that the most common values associated with France are ‘debate’ and ‘culture,’ ” says Amadou. “There will be a lot of both.”

The network’s mission statement declares its commitment to “defense of multilateralism, secularism, solidarity, respect, freedom of expression, lifestyle, culture, fashion, gastronomy.”

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 e86 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 U.N., the World Bank, the IMF and the U.S. State Department.

But the wider U.S. market will be a much harder nut to crack, due to comprehensive coast-to-coast coverage by U.S. and Brit-based broadcasters.