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French Public Broadcaster to Keep Daytime Advertising After Political Reversal

The most controversial result of a parliamentary vote is that some of the country's pay TV channels could be transformed into free-to-air networks.

PARIS – French public broadcaster France Televisions will get to continue selling daytime advertising after 2015, following a Senate vote on a reform bill here Wednesday.

Daytime commercials had been slated to be phased out after former president Nicolas Sarkozy announced plans to remove private advertising from the public airwaves beginning in 2008.

Advertising after 8 p.m. has been off the air since Jan. 2010, a move that has sharply squeezed the already beleaguered public channels’ coffers. With the government unable to fill the revenue gap and the channels facing cutbacks and layoffs, the broadcaster can't afford to lose the additional $475 million (€350 million) of annual ad money.

The plan to remove the remaining ads has been on hold since January 2011. The Assembly, the lower chamber of the French parliament, had voted to keep the ads back in July, and with the Senate passage, the planned ad cut is now on track to be canceled. 

The Supreme Audiovisual Council (CSA), the quasi-governmental body that oversees public broadcasting in France, will now be given more independence and new powers as well, overseeing the appointment of the presidents of France Televisions, Radio France and France World Media. The move is designed to make the appointments less political, taking the positions out of the purview of the country’s president. The CSA also will be trimmed from nine members to seven.

In what is the most controversial part of the bill, the CSA will now have the power to move some pay channels to free-to-air. TF1 is seeking to switch its all-news LCI pay TV channel and make it a broadcast network, a moved strongly opposed by rivals, such as Vivendi's Canal Plus, which wants to protect its iTele channel, and NextRadioTV, the parent company of all-news channel BFM-TV.

The CSA will carry out a study on the potential impact of such a switch, a move that Canal Plus claims would “jeopardize” the two existing free-to-air news channels, and eventually kill off all three. However, the move already has the support of the government, with culture minister Aurelie Filippetti coming out in favor.

The CSA also will be given regulatory powers over VOD and SVOD channels. However, Hadopi, the government's controversial anti-piracy arm, will remain independent. An amendment to move its authority under the scope of the CSA failed.

The bill will now go into a mixed Assembly and Senate session, where it is widely expected to pass, and changes will start to be enacted as early as November.