As the countdown to one of the most remarkable French presidential elections enters its final phase, TF1’s news coverage of the contest is certain to come under intense scrutiny.
The election, with votes being cast on April 23 and another round on May 7 should no candidate win a majority, may deliver a surprise result. After Brexit in the U.K. and the win by rank outsider Donald J. Trump in the U.S., could the French far-right candidate Marine Le Pen mark another victory for populism?
In both the U.K. and the U.S., the so-called “mainstream media” was accused of failing to reflect the growth of anti-establishment sentiment outside the big metropolises during the EU referendum and last year’s fight between Trump and Hillary Clinton. How is TF1’s news division to avoid the same trap as it tracks the complex five-way contest among Le Pen, François Fillon, Emmanuel Macron, Benoît Hamon, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon?
“We have to constantly question what we do and what we think,” says Catherine Nayl, the station’s executive VP, news. “For a channel like TF1, which makes a virtue of its proximity, it’s essential for us to reflect the country and its people.
“One of our distinctive features is that our bulletins include substantial regional and local news coverage. Every day, we work alongside the people who watch us. We don’t just go out every five years when a presidential election comes round. We hope that this familiarity with the public acts as a daily reality check, to prevent the risk of getting out of touch.”
TF1’s in-house news division employs around 580 journalists. They supply two daily bulletins, broadcast on the main channel, and the all-news channel LCI — relaunched a year ago as a free-to-air service following a threat to shutter it — and other outlets.
TF1 says its two daily newscasts are the most-watched in Europe. The flagship evening bulletin, shown at 8 p.m., attracts a 25% audience share, according to Nayl. This is a remarkable achievement when many people get their news online and shun traditional TV news.
France, however, is in many ways a conservative country in terms of how its people use media. And there is no doubt that TF1’s news programs remain firmly at the center of political debate in France despite the growth of online rivals.
On March 20, for the first time in France, TF1 hosted a TV debate ahead of the first round of voting featuring all five candidates.
“The key challenge for this campaign is to cement our legitimacy and status, and to reflect the reality of what is happening in the country,” says Nayl. “We took the decision to get the public debate rolling early, because we figured out fairly quickly that this would be an unusual and indeed unprecedented campaign.”
It seems that Nayl and her colleagues are throwing everything they can at a contest that is provoking a lot of controversy. Last June TF1 bowed a 50-minute live Sunday public affairs show “Vie Politique,” with a Facebook Live spin-off.
She adds: “We covered the primaries of both right and left candidates on TF1 and LCI, giving our coverage event TV status. Of course our evening news bulletin is at the heart of the coverage. It’s the go-to program for any politician who has something to announce.”
Persuading young people to watch news is a challenge for all legacy news organizations. How is TFI wrestling with this problem?
“News in general, and politics in particular, are of interest to everyone, whatever their age,” insists Nayl. “That said, how people use news content differs widely by age bracket. On TV, there’s a very large audience, but with an older profile. Young people who consume content on the web and social networks are looking for different formats: shorter, and with different messages and styles.
“That’s why our digital strategy goes beyond just making our TV programs available — live or in catch-up — on our MYTF1 digital platform or on our social network accounts.”And TF1 has introduced “digital native” initiatives in an effort to reach younger demos. “On LCI, we have launched two new video streams: ‘Presidential Live,’ streamed on Facebook Live, but also screened on the LCI channel, and the ‘Hugo Explains’ videos, produced in collaboration with a YouTuber and shown as part of the weekend morning show,” Nayl says. “We are [also] working with MinuteBuzz, a pioneer of viral video in France, to develop news content that will appeal to millennials.”
Whoever wins this unpredictable election, one thing is certain: To maintain its preeminent position in French news, TF1 will need to keep meeting the changing demands of its audience.