French consider reviving prime time advertising on state TV

The French government is considering reversing a ban on prime time advertising across its publicly funded France Television public channels because of the economic crisis.

The ban was introduced controversially in January 2009 by the last government under Nicholas Sarkozy, as part of a media reform package designed to improve the quality of programming by reducing the need to produce popular content aimed at mass audiences. The idea was that this style would therefore attract top advertising rates.

But, Sarkozy’s government was defeated in the recent elections in April and May this year, giving the new regime under François Hollande an opportunity to overturn the advertising ban. Currently, funding for France Televisions comes partly from advertising during non-prime time between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m., and partly from the money raised by the state TV license fee (currently around €120). Concessions are in place for people over 60 and/or on low incomes. In the current climate, raising the licence fee is not politically feasible, and Rémy Pflimlin, president of France Télévisions, recently warned that funding from public sources would decline during 2013.

Against this background, a return to prime time advertising across France Televisions’ five principal channels looks like the only available option for raising more money quickly, but even this has a downside. It will not increase the total amount of revenue for France’s Free To Air channels as a whole, and any extra money earned by France Televisions is likely to be at the expense of commercial rivals such as the national TF1 channel.

The problem is that these channels are also suffering financially. In their cases, it is through a drop in advertising revenue. TF1’s advertising revenue fell for the first six months of 2012 to €713.2 million, down 5.9 percent over the same period a year earlier.

At the same time, the revenue lost to France Televisions as a result of the prime time advertising ban was highlighted during the recent Olympic Games. The broadcaster broke French audience records during the Games, and yet advertising revenue was only €6M ($7.4M), well down on the €16M during the 2004 Athens Games. The difference can be attributed partly to the economic downturn itself, but France Televisions’ marketing director Bruno Belliat has blamed the lack of prime time advertising as the biggest factor, given that the most popular events such as the 100m and 200m sprint finals took place after the 8 p.m. watershed.