With viewership dropping, France pulls the plug on state monopoly over TV

THE revolutionary announcement was scheduled to be transmitted live, direct from the Elys'ee Palace, and at the appointed hour Franois Mitterrand appeared. In the near future, he announced, private, commercial television stations would be allowed to compete with the state channels. Why the change to private broadcasting? Before the President had a chance to explain, his image on the screen flickered, then slowly disappeared.

No words could have provided a better answer than that incident last month. Since its inception, French television has been burdened by state control. The government permitted a second network only in 1964 and a third in 1973, many years later than in Britain and West Germany. All three French networks remained government-owned.

The ostensible reason for the public monopoly was to provide public service untainted by commercial pressures. But the tradition of a strong, centralized state played an even more important role. Minister of Culture Andr'e Malraux asked a stunned John F. Kennedy in 1961, ``How on earth do you run a country if you don't control television?''

This political tutelage means bureaucrats fill the most important broadcasting posts. News coverage, no longer so overtly controlled as in Malraux's time, nevertheless remains biased in favor of the government.

Often, the news programs as well as entertainment shows reek of amateurism. With strict limits on advertising, financial worries force the stations to import about half their material, much of it American soap operas such as the much-maligned but very popular ``Dallas.''

As a public service, serious films are shown without interruption and long hours are devoted to the arts and history. Some of the high-tone programs provide genuine cultural uplift. Most, though, prove boring, being riddled with clich'es and sloppy in editing.

Christian Dutoit, deputy director of Antenne 2, the second state channel, himself derided the process as ``cottage-industry television,'' and Antenne 2's programming director, Pierre Wiehl, said that until this year, no polls were taken to find out what viewers wished to see.

``Under the monopoly, French television was merely the state's little child,'' Mr. Wiehl admitted. ``We realize now we must change.''

The statistics show why. Traditionally, the French watch only about two hours of television a day, one-fourth of the American average. In the last three years, viewership has dropped a further 10 percent. Sales of cinema tickets and video recorders have boomed.

At the same time, technology threatens to make state direction obsolete. The government has launched an ambitious program to cable the country. Satellite television may soon beam foreign broadcasting into French homes.

Even before Mitterrand's recent announcement, more than 60 private companies had filed proposals to take advantage of these new opportunities. Two ``pirate'' television channels have even begun transmitting.

Politics forced the government's hand. During his 1981 election campaign, then-opposition leader Mit-terrand denounced the partisan use of the airwaves, which had limited his television appearances. He promised to make the networks independent. That promise was not kept.

His administration did form a broadcasting authority to administer television, but it insisted on retaining the power to appoint a majority of the authority's members.

Blatantly partisan decisions resulted. A well-known friend of the President, Jean-Claude H'eberl'e, was named chief executive at Antenne 2 last October.

The first state channel, TF1, was already in the hands of H'erve Bourges, former chief spokesman for UNESCO and a supporter of the``new world information order.'' Mr. Bourges added to the controversy surrounding Mr. H'eberl'e's appointment by inviting Prime Minister Laurent Fabius to appear regularly on his station to explain government policy.

The situation threatened to become a political debacle for Mitterrand. As it had done in the bitter battles last year over free schools, the conservative opposition succeeded in portraying the Socialist President as a destroyer of liberties. The conservatives quickly forgot that they had jealously guarded tight control over broadcasting when they were in power.

By freeing the airwaves, Mitterrand has preempted these critics. But he hedged the freedom. The public stations would remain public, he said, adding that before licenses would be granted, a committee must study how to proceed with the establishment of private television.

The President explained that he wanted to avoid a situation like that in Italy, where some 500 independent stations have sprouted. While he estimated that about 80 local and regional independent channels eventually would be licensed, he suggested there will be no room for such right-wingers as press magnate Robert Hersant, who has ambitious plans to set up a private television company.

``The French government probably can learn from an American law which limits the capacity of the written press to possess television and radio stations,'' the President said. ``We must avoid anarchy.''

More than legal barriers, artistic obstacles may prevent a true improvement in French television. Talented people have stayed away from the small screen. The reasons are partly financial, partly for snobbish preferences.

``Television is considered second-class,'' complained Luc Meranda, who said he earns much less working in TV than in films.

French authors also prove too individualistic to work for TV. The best French talent refuses to work in it.

Some worry that private TV could compound these problems. Low-quality imports might flood the market, as they have in Italy. Critics say local productions will not find funding because the many stations will fragment resources.

``Privatization will mean less French television production,'' warned Jacques Derourt, vice-president of T'el'ecit, the largest French television production group. ``We will just have more pianists playing pianos with missing keys.''

But pressure to change outweighs such complaints. A growing number of Frenchmen view their television as a national disgrace. Some even say Mitterrand is too nice to state networks, especially considering the breakdown during his announcement about private stations. -- 30 -- {et

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