Commentary: Young and blonde all the rage in France

French television getting a face-life

PARIS -- French television is getting a face-lift as older news anchors and executives get the boot only to be replaced by younger, prettier faces as part of a nationwide, government-initiated makeover of the country's news industry.

Things have been shaken up at TF1, where veteran primetime anchor Patrick Poivre d'Arvor, widely known as "PPDA" in Gaul, recently was unceremoniously fired after two decades in the high-profile hot seat. He was immediately replaced by a glamorous blond bombshell named Laurence Ferrari.

The French media had a field day with the switch, plastering Poivre d'Arvor's face everywhere and speculating endlessly as to what his future would hold. Gallic newspaper Liberation had more fun, opining on its front page: "PPDA run over by a Ferrari." French president -- and fan of beautiful women -- Nicolas Sarkozy is said to have been behind the coup to replace the veteran anchor with longtime friend Ferrari.

To some extent, the changeover in France mirrors the shake-up at CBS three years ago when longtime anchor Dan Rather was forced out and eventually replaced by Katie Couric. The Eye's primetime news ratings have continued to slide, just as they have at TF1, with Ferrari attracting 1.5 million fewer viewers per night than Poivre d'Arvor.

Meanwhile, PPDA has been making the rounds as a guest on France's main TV talk shows and newsmagazines, criticizing Ferrari's relative lack of experience and her ratings. He went so far as to label Ferrari's appointment as a way to "please the president."

PPDA might be heading to the Arte cable channel to do a series of interviews with cultural figures and a weekly show about the environment -- a move not unlike Rather's segue to HDNet.

And it's not just top-rated TF1 that is getting the nip/tuck. All of the major terrestrial channels are looking to inject doses of Ferrari-like Botox into their programs.

Virginie Efira, host of "La Nouvelle Star" ("American Idol" with a French twist), has become a huge sensation; M6 is putting the young Estelle Denis in its primetime news slot; and Canal Plus weathergirl Louise Bourgoin has become a movie star practically overnight.

Why are they doing this? Sarkozy is pushing for ad-free broadcasting in primetime on pubcaster France Television come January, and as a result, private commercial stations including TF1 and Canal Plus are becoming increasingly hungry for those extra ad spots. Clearly, they believe Couric-like cuties will do the ratings trick.

There also are changes behind the camera and the executive desks.

TF1 has hired a new head of news programming, Jean-Claude Dassier, who plans to merge the terrestrial network with 24-hour news channel LCI and create a news Web site that he hopes will become the nation's leading online information source.

And heads have been rolling at international news channel France 24. Editorial director Gregoire Deniau and editor in chief Bertrand Coq recently were dismissed.

In this case, too, the government may be behind the move: Sarkozy would like to see France 24 more closely aligned with national radio group RFI and news organization TV5 Monde to create a Gallic-powered single source for information to rival CNN or Al Jazeera.
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