On Wednesday evening, Dec. 6, France's elite will fête the long-awaited launch of France 24, the world's first French-run, round-the-clock international TV news network. The début of this CNN à la française, available on Thursday via satellite in nearly 75 million households across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, will be a media event heavy with political overtones.
Outgoing President Jacques Chirac's government has said the new publicly funded network, which will initially broadcast in French and English, followed by Arabic in 2007, will help France compete in the "global battle of images" long dominated by British-U.S. heavyweights BBC and CNN (TWX), and more recently joined by the Arab world's Al Jazeera.
The 2002 Iraq war debate raised the issue with new urgency, when many in France felt the country's diplomatic voice was marginalized because the country lacked its own global media presence. Chirac and then-Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin (now prime minister) determined finally to give the nation's leaders an international soapbox.
The Kindness of Stringers
But observers close to France 24 doubt whether the station has the vision, resources, and revenue structure to match that ambition. With an annual budget of just $114 million (compared with CNN's $856 million) and only 180 journalists in charge of producing two 24-hour channels, the staff likely will be stretched thin.
France 24's Managing Editor Gregoire Deniau says it is "out of the question for [France 24] simply to be a channel that recycles news; we must also produce it." But the network has only 36 dedicated correspondents, and Deniau says he will rely on stringers and associates for two-thirds of the station's footage.
The network also will lose money from day one, a trend likely to last for years. Alain de Pouzilhac, the former CEO of advertising group Havas who is now France 24's president, says the station will book around $4 million in advertising revenue in 2007. (France 24 would not disclose the names of any of its initial advertisers.) Revenues should rise to $8 million or $9 million by fiscal year 2008, de Pouzilhac says, but that would still leave the station more than $100 million in the red annually.
As is often the case with grand French projects — think Concorde, or the new Quaero search engine research initiative — French taxpayers will get stuck with the bill. What’s more, the government’s backing for France 24 could weaken its journalistic integrity, making it more like Voice of America than CNN.
"We have to ask ourselves if [France 24] is truly going to be independent of the French government," says Renaud Montini, a French media lawyer who specializes in broadcast law. "Can we believe that France 24 will really be able to criticize the government the way the BBC has?"
"A Rebel Country"
Many observers doubt whether France 24—the original idea for which traces back more than two decades—can become a credible voice in world affairs. "When you compare it to other international channels on the market—BBC, Deutsche Welle, Al Jazeera, CNN, and others—it's clear, sadly, that [France 24's] means are insufficient for worldwide coverage," says Gérard Sebag, an assistant director at France Télévisions, the government-owned broadcasting group responsible for many of France's largest TV channels, who was involved in the early planning of France 24.
Sebag was an early advocate of launching France 24 exclusively to a French-speaking market, focusing on the 27 Francophone countries in West Africa, North Africa, and the Middle East, where advertising would be easier to sell. Launching a France 24 channel in English when the network lacks satellite coverage in the U.S. is "going for prestige" rather than commercial viability, Sebag says. (In the U.S., the network will be distributed initially only to U.N.
headquarters in New York and via Comcast (CMCSA) digital cable in Washington D.C.)
France 24's management stresses a more important goal than mere commercial success: providing a "third way" in today's polarized global news environment. "France is seen as a rebel country," says de Pouzilhac, who commissioned a 12-country study to determine how journalists, politicians, and business leaders worldwide perceived France.
More Crossover Competition
"We seek out contradictory opinions, and we know that the new opinion leaders have a great appetite for a different vision of the world," he says. On controversial stories such as Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he says, France 24 likely will carve out a middle ground between Al Jazeera and CNN.
In any case, the pressure for France 24 to offer a distinct vision just got greater. Al Jazeera and the BBC recently débuted channels in English and Arabic, respectively, weakening France 24's appeal as an outside alternative in the markets serving people who speak those languages (see BusinessWeek.com, 3/23/06, "Al Jazeera Meets American Resistance").
CNN also has a strong presence in the region, counting four bureaus in Africa and five in the Middle East, supported by an Arabic-language Web site (arabic.cnn.com).
Another Pair of Eyes
Together, CNN International, BBC World, and Al Jazeera reach more than a half-billion people worldwide, according to data from the networks. With so many options available to TV viewers, France 24 will have to offer viewers images and information they can't find anywhere else—not just a different take on the same news, experts say.
"If [France 24] succeeds, it will succeed on the merits of its journalism," says Jack Doppelt, a professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and a visiting professor this year at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris. "Maybe having another set of cameras and another set of journalists out there in the world will produce new images that can influence diplomats." That may be what France's leaders are hoping for, but their dream is a long way from becoming a viable business.