France 24 celebrates first birthday

French CNN was brainchild of Chirac

PARIS Execs at France 24, the long-awaited Gallic answer to international news webs such as CNN and the BBC, had much to celebrate as they marked the channel’s first birthday last week.

The political baby of former French President Jacque Chirac took three years to get off the ground, but it has emerged as a credible alternative to its bigger and richer western rivals, providing a decidedly Gallic slant to the news on TV and online in French, English and Arabic.

It has gained a high profile in much of the French-speaking developing world and is the most-watched international network in the former French colonies of Algeria, Senegal and the Ivory Coast.

While the non-stop broadcast concept had been on and off the drawing board in Gaul 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 was covered through the American prism of CNN and Blighty’s BBC.

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A 50-50 joint venture between state-owned France Televisions and the TF1 Group, owners of France’s largest commercial channel, France 24’s annual budget of E86 million ($126 million) is the smallest of the international all-news channels — indeed, it’s about a fifth that of CNN.

Because of that the network relies on freelancers, as well as partnerships with the likes of Agence France Presse and EuroNews.

It has also launched observers.france24.com, which will allow anyone to report on events around the globe. France 24’s journalists will select video, text or photo content generated by Internet users to appear on the site.

At a Dec. 5 press conference at France 24’s headquarters near Paris, board chairman Alain de Pouzilhac quoted Nielsen Net Ratings, saying, “84% of the nearly 4.3 million visitors to our site in September were from outside of France.”

Although Al-Jazeera is still the leader, France 24 has made inroads. Execs said in Senegal, France 24 has 51% of the market, CNN 25%, Al-Jazeera 20% and BBC World 4%. In Algeria, France 24 has 25% share compared to Al-Jazeera’s 50%, CNN’s 15% and BCC World’s 10%.

De Pouzilhac said thanks to the network’s “acceptance of, and eagerness to report diverse viewpoints” its reporters often are granted exclusive access, including recently in war-torn Somalia, in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and to a group of imprisoned French aid workers in Chad.

Gerard Saint-Paul, managing director of news and programming, says France 24 is “becoming more and more recognized around the world for the originality of our format” including an emphasis on cultural programs.

“In an international culture where breaking news is given such prominence, this represents a real departure from the conventional content” offered by other networks, he says

Meanwhile, France 24 will increase its daily Arabic programming from eight to 12 hours in January, and marked its first birthday with a full day of Arabic programs on Dec. 7.