Media in France

Historical Background

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Kiosque à journaux à Paris © Claude Stéfan / M.A.E

France’s media have a long and rich history. France was home to one of the world’s first periodicals, La Gazette, founded by Théophraste Renaudot in 1631. France was also home to the first news agency founded by Charles Louis Havas in 1835 and the first mass circulation paper, Le Petit Journal, founded by Moïse Millaud in 1863. The paper was printed on a rotary press developed by the engineer Marinoni, who gave his name to a whole generation of presses that came to symbolize mass circulation.

In France, the media are also more closely involved in political history than in other countries, with the emergence of hundreds of daily newspapers in Paris during the French Revolution. The Parisian papers published calls for insurrection in the days before the July Revolution of 1830 and there were many interconnections between the careers of political leaders and leading journalists, from Georges Clemenceau to Jean Jaurès and Aristide Briand. Perhaps the original position that the State occupies in the French media is the result of this legacy. The government frequently drafts and updates media laws and regulations. It backs the printed press and Agence France Presse, along with non-profit radio stations. It is a shareholder in public radio and television stations and it has provided the impetus for the development of certain innovations, through such programmes as the National Telematics Plan (minitel) and the National Cable Plan in the nineteen-eighties.

The French media have also played a central role in political, social and cultural debates, such as the discussion about freedom of speech by the philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment, which led to the Freedom of the Press Act of 29 July 1881, or the move to counter “brainwashing” and censorship after the First World War, when the new National Journalists’ Union adopted the Charter of 1918, which was the first code of ethics for journalists. More recently, there has been a discussion on false reporting, following, for example, the events in Timisoara or the Gulf War and the responsibility of the media, particularly during the 2002 presidential election in France.

The role and influence of the media

At the dawn of the third millennium, the media are a major industry, with sales of more than 11 billion euros for the printed press, 5.5 billion euros for television and not less than one billion euros for radio.

The media employ more than 30,000 journalists, representing a twofold increase over the last two decades. The French media are also the preserve of large communications groups, such as Hachette-Lagardère, the world’s leading magazine group or TF1, the leading over-the-air mass audience television station in Europe. Many French communications groups have started doing business elsewhere in Europe and others have activities all over the world. The strength of the French market for print and broadcast media has attracted such major world groups as AOL Time Warner, Bertelsmann, Pearson and Emap.

The media play a key and steadily growing role in the life of the French, who spend more than 3 hours and 15 minutes watching television or listening to the radio each day. Time spent reading daily newspapers, however, averages only half an hour a day, whereas time spent on the Internet has increased steadily to reach 6 hours and 47 minutes per week. Nearly all of the French watch television and read magazines and 80% listen to the radio, but the percentage who read a daily newspaper regularly has declined to only 36%. It is an encouraging sign or perhaps the token of the ruthless competition daily newspapers face, but the French are amongst the biggest magazine readers in the world, reading an average of 7 titles each. French women read an average of 8.2 magazines each, and the figure for women aged 18 to 20 stands at 8.3.

Situation of the various media

- Agence France Presse

The supply of all news, particularly international news, comes from the worldwide news agencies, represented in France by Agence France Presse (AFP) and dozens of specialised agencies, including photo agencies, such as Gamma and Sigma. AFP, which was formed out of Agence Havas, enjoys a special status set out in the Act of 10 January 1957, which is aimed at ensuring the agency’s independence. It is neither a government agency nor a private company. Its board of directors protects it from outside pressure and includes representatives from the main newsbuying media, from the government and from the Agency’s own staff. On the other hand, lack of capital has hampered its growth compared to its major English-language rivals, Reuters and Associated Press (AP).

With two thousand journalists and technical staff, and a budget of 253 million euros (40% which comes from government customers), AFP has the most comprehensive and densest coverage network, with some 110 bureaus and more than 50 local correspondents in 165 countries working out of five main regional centres: Paris, Washington, Montevideo, Hong Kong and Nicosia. Over the last decade, the Agency has greatly expanded its photo business, its radio service and its online news services. On the other hand, it has a much smaller television presence that Reuters or AP.

- Daily newspapers

France’s great daily newspapers were once amongst the most powerful and prosperous in the world. Today, their situation is much more modest and troubled, in contrast to the vitality of the booming magazine market, which has become their main competition. France currently has 81 daily newspapers, including ten national papers covering politics and general news, ten specialised in business news, sports, etc., and just over sixty dailies covering a department or a region. The daily newspapers’ share of the 11-billion-euro printed press market has fallen to barely 40%.

The arrival of free newspapers, such as Métro, 20 Minutes and Marseille Plus, in early 2002 disrupted a market that had been fairly stable for the previous twenty years. In the space of a few months, the free papers were matching the circulation of national dailies. Métro prints 350,000 copies and 20 Minutes prints 450,000. These circulation figures testify to their popularity with readers, but they have yet to start showing a profit and they need to increase their advertising revenues. The launch of the free papers caused concern for the paid-circulation daily papers, but the impact on their sales has been minor.

Some online editions

National daily newspapers

- La Croix :
- La Tribune :
- Le Figaro :
- Le Monde :
- Les Échos :
- L’Humanité :
- Libération :

As a general rule, France’s daily papers are not profitable enough, with the exception of Les Échos (business news) and L’Équipe (sports news). Part of the problem is persistently high production costs, a tense industrial climate and insufficient advertising revenue, which accounts for about 40% of newspapers’ funding, not to mention stagnant or declining circulation.

Readership of daily papers is fairly small and the number of regular readers is declining steadily. This is particularly true of young woman in urban areas. The proportion of the population that buys newspapers stands at 149 per 1000 inhabitants, compared to 582 per 1000 in Norway and 376 per 1000 in Switzerland. The most vulnerable papers are at the popular end of the market, such as France-Soir, and opinion papers like La Croix and L’Humanité. Meanwhile, the quality papers - Le Monde, Le Figaro and Libération - have maintained their circulation figures and renewed their readership. For a long time, regional daily papers stood up to competition from magazines and the broadcast media much better. Le Parisien, which had been one of the great popular papers, successfully redeveloped its readership by becoming the regional daily paper for greater Paris. Nevertheless, the regional dailies have seen their circulation decline since the end of the nineteen-nineties too.

- Magazines

Mass-market magazines are a French specialty in a way. Several thousands of titles are on sale and several hundred new titles are brought out each year. In the early days, they were mainly weekly general-interest magazines with fairly wide coverage. Now, they are increasingly monthly magazines dealing with ever more specialised subjects. The circulation of “special interest” magazines rarely exceeds a few tens of thousands, but that of the major weekly television and women’s interest magazines can reach or exceed two million. Over the last twenty years, magazines overall sales have increased by 65%. The main market sectors are television magazines, women’s magazines, news magazines, business magazines, magazines for the young and the elderly, and special interest magazines dealing with such topics as leisure, travel, entertainment and hobbies.

Magazine publishing groups often enjoy high earnings, even though advertising revenues, once again, are not outstanding and represent only about 40% of their revenues. French press groups have often expanded into international markets, starting with Hachette Filipacchi Médias (HFM), which publishes its flagship title Elle in thirty countries in thirty different editions, and many major European groups have expanded their activities in France, including Bertelsmann, Emap and Bauer. In addition to mass-market magazines, there is also a thriving technical and trade press sector. This sector also enjoys high earnings and has expanded strongly into international markets. Most of the major publications are owned by European groups, such as Wolters Kuwer, or international pension funds.

- Radio

Since the deregulation of the airwaves that started in the early nineteen-eighties, the French radio band has featured three major general interest stations (RTL, France Inter and Europe 1), as well as specialty networks, the majority of which broadcast music, but also news and community affairs, and local private-sector radio stations. There are also several hundred non-profit local radio stations. French radio broadcasting combines public sector stations, like Radio France, RFO (Réseau France outre-mer) and RFI (Radio France Internationale), which attract a quarter of the audience, and private sector broadcasters ranging from large communication groups, like Hachette-Lagardère and Bertelsmann, and national companies, like NRJ, to very small structures. Since the mid-nineteen-eighties, specialty radio stations and local stations have attracted more listeners that the general interest stations. France decided very early on to project a radio presence around the world through RFI.

- Television in all its forms

It took nearly a decade from 1985 to 1995 for a new television industry to emerge that now offers a diversity or programmes, operators in both the public and private sectors and a choice of broadcasting and access technologies. The 1986 Act brought the whole television and radio industry under the supervision of a regulator called the Higher Council for the Audiovisual Sector (CSA). The Council grants broadcasting licences to private sector operators. It ensures compliance with the requirements for licence holders, including public service obligations. It oversees compliance with laws and regulations dealing with pluralism in the news and the protection of youth. It also appoints the Chairmen of the public sector radio and television companies.

Today, France’s television industry is divided into two large camps, with the seven over-the-air broadcasters on one side and, on the other, the “packages” of cable and satellite channels. The latter will be joined by over-the-air digital broadcasters in the not too distant future. The over-the-air channels include private-sector (TF1 and M6) and public-sector (France 2 and France 3) mass-market channels, as well as specialty channels offering entertainment (Canal+), educational content (France 5) and cultural programmes (Arte, the French-German channel). Packages of channels are mainly supplied by two competing operators, Canal Satellite and TPS, whereas cable operators provide the same types of programmes in different combinations. Local over-the-air channels are rare and only found in a few large cities, such as Lyons, Toulouse, Clermont-Ferrand and Bordeaux. Such channels have still not proven themselves to be economically viable. M6 and, more especially, France 3, provide locally focused newscasts.

Television stations on the Internet

France 2
France 3
France 5
Canal +

The vast majority of over-the-air broadcasting (except Canal+) is accessible through payment of the licence fee, which goes to finance public-sector radio and television stations. Access to cable television, satellite television and Canal+ requires a paid subscription. Today, the over-the-air channels attract 75.9% of the viewers. Slightly more than ten million French households have subscriptions for various forms of pay television.

- Internet Multimedia

France’s situation with regard to the Internet and multimedia is paradoxical. On the one hand, France was at the forefront in the nineteen-eighties, with massive use of the minitel, which had no equivalent anywhere in the world. Many specialised information, messaging, electronic mail, transaction and databank applications were developed for the consumer and business markets using the minitel. On the other hand, France fell behind in home computers, the use of CD-ROM applications and, more importantly, Internet access. By the closing years of the nineteen-nineties, the gap between France and its European neighbours had widened considerably and the public authorities had to launch several initiatives to promote the “information society” and to help close the gap.

French operators were initially very cautious with regard to providing content and access. They later invested much greater resources in a wide variety of ventures, especially after 1998. The downturn in the business cycle hit before any of them had managed to turn a profit or even break even in this market. Several companies withdrew, with Vivendi making the most spectacular withdrawal. All of the publishers cut back their web activities and attempted to focus on sectors likely to attract advertisers or paying subscribers (Le Monde, Bayard Presse, etc.) France Telecom holds a strong position as an access provider with its subsidiary Wanadoo. It stands on somewhat on its own against the major worldwide providers, such as AOL. In France, as elsewhere, the way to make providing information over the Internet a profitable business has yet to be worked out, but the commercial applications of the Internet do seem to be taking off, as are the communications and dialogue applications, with “chatrooms” that often attract young webusers.

Major Trends

- Concentration

The French media market was traditionally divided up between a multitude of companies, but it has seen a wave of takeovers, mergers and growth, as have the markets in most of the other European countries. A handful of groups are now active in several media at once, including television, radio, daily papers and magazines, and these groups often have a wide international reach: Hachette-Lagardère (magazines, radio, satellite television, etc.), Bertelsmann (magazines, radio and television), Bouygues (satellite and over-the-air television), Vivendi Universal (over-the-air, satellite and cable television), Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux (over-the-air and cable television), Socpresse (daily papers and magazines). They share the market with national groups specialising in one medium, such as NRJ in radio broadcasting, or very dynamic medium-sized groups, such as Bayard Presse (magazines for young and elderly readers), Le Monde (which is now linked to the La Vie and Le Nouvel Observateur groups), Ouest-France, etc.

Yet few French groups have grown large enough to rank amongst the leaders in the communications market. Hachette-Lagardère alone has achieved this status, following the cutbacks and asset disposals at Vivendi Universal Publishing (now named Editis).

- Market segmentation and specialisation

The new media, such as the Internet, and the existing media that have been restructured and greatly expanded over the last two decades, such as radio, television and magazines, have all followed the same pattern of targeting narrower and narrower audiences. They are now aimed at a specific age group, gender or occupational category, or else enthusiasts in a specific field. The pattern is one of market segmentation. It started with magazines, with some titles aimed at an audience of only a few tens of thousands of readers, and spread to the radio, with music stations aimed at jazz fans, classical fans and teenagers, and television, with “packages” for fans of series, suspense and film classics. Meanwhile, Internet sites increasingly tailor their content to specific target audiences.

The mass media, like the free daily newspapers that appeared in Paris and a few other large cities and attract a wide readership, now exist side by side with segmented and specialised media. Relations between the different media have struck a new balance, as was already the case for radio in France and the television market in the United States.

- Internationalisation

The general interest media must cater to national, and even local, tastes and characteristics as closely as possible, but this is no longer true for specialty media aimed at a specific target audience. With national variations, a strong wave of internationalisation is currently sweeping through the magazine market in particular, and can be seen in the concepts of specialty television channels (Planète, CNN, Eurosport, etc.) Even programme concepts for series, game shows and reality shows are being carried across borders, like Big Brother, which France’s M6 channel renamed Loft Story. The Internet has had an international dimension from the outset, which webusers greatly appreciate.

Communications groups did not wait for these developments to unfold before starting their own internationalisation movement. Groups from English-speaking countries have often made the most progress in this area. On the other hand, there is no doubt that internationalisation of programmes and content has helped to accelerate and amplify the movement and that it has been combined with a race to grow larger.

- The growth of subscriptions and advertising needs

The growth of radio and television, like the more recent emergence of the Internet, which vaunted its status as a free medium, made consumers think that news and access to certain forms of culture and entertainment media would be free of charge and paid for by advertising. Yet, another trend developed as magazines and daily newspapers offering home delivery promoted subscriptions with some success. The phenomenon extended beyond the print media, as cable television, Canal+ and satellite television were made available to paying subscribers. Many Internet sites, which started out free, are now trying to make users pay, since they have failed to generate sufficient advertising revenues. The users are not always willing, as they have already paid a subscription to their access provider and have to spend more money periodically to upgrade their hardware and software to run applications that demand ever increasing computing power.

The issue of advertising revenues has yet to be resolved. The French advertising market is softer than the markets in neighbouring European countries. It suffers from competition for “non-media” forms of advertising, such as flyers, direct mail and telemarketing, which have often squeezed out purchases of advertising space in the media. Without sufficient advertising revenues, the prices of periodicals in France are higher than elsewhere, making paying readers less loyal and more open to the attractions of free newspapers.

- Questions

Doubts about the reliability or treatment of news are starting to emerge. Periodic surveys show that the French have less trust in their media, with one in two people stating that “things did not happen” the way they were reported in the media. Does this mean that there is a risk of alienation or a crisis in relationships with news sources, as many intellectuals claim? Or is it simply that, in a modern democracy, citizens are liable to discuss journalists’ work and make reporting itself a subject of public debate? If the second assumption were true, this would mean that a forum for such a discussion would have to emerge, as has already happened, albeit on too modest a scale.

Dernière modification : 22/08/2007

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