Channel provides market with Gallic spin


PARIS -- At 8:30 p.m. French time on Dec. 6, the newest voice in the international news arena will begin speaking to the world from Paris. And for most of the audience, it won't be speaking French.

This is only one paradox of France 24, the second global English-language news channel to bow in as many months, after Al Jazeera English (AJE) went live mid-November.

France 24 is the offspring of a political wish to have the country's voice heard on the world stage. As far back as 1987, French president Jacques Chirac -- then prime minister -- was talking about a Gallic international news channel. The project took on greater urgency when France felt its opposing views on the 2003 invasion of Iraq went unheard or unexplained in parts of the world.

After numerous reports and feasibility studies, the government settled on a plan to form an unlikely partnership between leading commercial network TF1 and Gaul's main public broadcast group, Francetelevisions, who between them will run France 24.

The political motivation behind the channel throws up a second paradox. Top brass have bent over backward to insist it is not "the voice of France," yet its stated mission is to "convey French values." "France 24 won't be the voice of France, but a French regard on international events," says channel chairman Alain de Pouzilhac, former head of advertising giant Havas.

So what is a "French regard?" Channel executives have come up with three notions to define this: diversity of points of view; the spirit of debate; and culture in its widest sense. "We're not saying we'll be better than CNN, BBC World or Al Jazeera. We simply say we'll be different," says Jean-Yves Bonsergent, France 24's director of technology and distribution. "Opinion leaders will watch CNN International, AJE and France 24 and they'll have an idea about world events seen through an American eye, a Middle Eastern eye and a view from continental Europe."

Quite how alternative France 24's coverage will be remains to be seen. The channel already has toned down its slogan from the conspiratorial "Everything you are not supposed to know" to the more prosaic "Behind the news." And advance footage of how the channel will look, available on YouTube, suggests its appearance will be less than mold-breaking.

In a symbolic move to mark out its difference, France 24 will initially bow exclusively on the Internet before rolling out on cable and satellite across much of Europe, the Middle East and Africa a day later. France 24 will start with a potential audience of about 190 million. U.S. distribution will initially be limited to a feed in the U.N. building in New York, but the channel is finalizing negotiations with Comcast's cable network in the Washington D.C. area.

In fact, France 24 will be two distinct channels, one in French, the other mainly in English, plus some Arabic programming. "Eighty-five% of people who can receive the channel don't understand French," Bonsergent says.

The Gallic newcomer is launching into an ever more crowded market. Besides AJE and more niche English-language channels such as Germany's Deutsche Welle and Russia Today, others are set to join the fray. Iran recently announced it is launching a 24-hour English news channel called Press, and Italy also is understood to be mulling an international channel.

"These launches are throwing the spotlight on the international news sector. We quite like it, actually," says Richard Porter, head of news at BBC World, pointing out that the corporation's international news network is the most-watched of any of the BBC channels, with a reach of 65 million viewers per week. "There is growth in this marketplace, not just in terms of broadcasters but in terms of people watching, so there must be more space. But how the new channels find their position in that space remains to be seen."

France 24 anticipates up to $4 million in ad revenue for the first year but is hoping for $10 million-plus once up and running. In the meantime, French taxpayers are funding it to the tune of some $100 million a year.

The upstart channel is banking on the world's decisionmakers seeking it out alongside its established rivals to gain a balanced take on current events. But there is no guarantee the target audience wants a kaleidoscope of views. "What we know about our audiences is that they're cash rich, time poor -- so they don't have time to channel-hop and are not necessarily looking for a different perspective," says one exec at a leading international news channel.

Others are more dismissive of France 24's chances for success. "The launch of Al Jazeera in English was something people in the business were seriously worried about because they've thrown a lot of resources at it to go head-to-head. France 24 is not worrying us like that," one news organization insider says.

So how does France 24 hope to have its voice heard above the noise? "Unfortunately we don't have the kind of budget to run a marketing campaign like that which would accompany the launch of a new car. So we'll have to rely on buzz marketing and make a big splash with our coverage so people realize something's going on," Bonsergent says.