France Considers Relaxing Its Archaic Broadcasting Rules

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- France has long been known for having some heavy-handed regulations, whether requiring many stores to stay closed on Sunday or allowing judges to veto children’s names. But some of the most arcane have involved the nation’s television business. National broadcasters such as TF1 and M6 aren’t allowed to show movies on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday during prime time and can’t run ads for books, movies, or sales at retailers. And unlike broadcasters in all other European markets, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch, they aren’t even allowed to tailor ads to the location or demographics of their viewers, a routine practice in the digital age.

Some rules were designed in part to protect French cinema and keep people going to movie theaters. The country—host of the Cannes Film Festival, known for its highbrow auteur movies—prides itself on its exception culturelle. Other restrictions were to buttress the nation’s regional media operators.

Now the government of President Emmanuel Macron soon will consider overhauling the rules, which date to the late 1980s, when France had only six TV channels—at least three of them state-owned. The regulations are less relevant now that French broadcasters are competing with Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Netflix Inc., and other digital interlopers, which aren’t covered by the restrictions and have made significant inroads. Netflix has garnered more than 5 million subscribers less than five years after it was introduced in France. “These archaic rules had the goal to protect some of our industries, like French cinema,” says Isabelle Vignon, who runs marketing and communications at SNPTV, a union for TV advertising. “But it makes no sense nowadays. Consumer habits have changed.”

Broadcasters could see an annual windfall of as much as €200 million ($224 million) in extra TV ad revenue should targeted advertising be allowed, according to a study commissioned by SNPTV. If movie and promotional retail ads were authorized, an additional €160 million a year would come in, says Publicis Media. That could boost overall revenue for the industry, which took in €3.43 billion last year, by 11%. “Traditional broadcasters consider it’s a necessary modernization and would level the playing field with U.S. web giants, since these digital players can do targeted advertising,” says Philippe Nouchi, media and advertising analyst at Publicis Media.

Media executives have thrown their weight behind loosening the rules. It “represents an economic opportunity,” Alain Weill, chief executive officer of Altice Europe NV and founder of the BFM TV channel, wrote in a white paper in June. “If carried out in the right way,” the reform will allow broadcasters to better defend themselves in a “market that’s been totally upended.”

The measure is scheduled to be discussed by the French cabinet starting in October and then in Parliament early next year. Final passage could happen by the end of 2020. “This reform has the potential to be a big bang for the sector,” says Bank of America Merrill Lynch analyst Adrien de Saint Hilaire. “But it all depends on whether it does happen and, if it does, on how far it goes.” Talks about such reforms have been going on for at least a decade, he says.

Macron first announced his intentions to shake up the TV industry in 2017, his first year in office, but the yellow vest social and economic movement, which began last fall, pushed parliamentary consideration of the reforms to the back burner.

Because his party dominates Parliament, strong opposition is unlikely. But lawmakers may have to take into account opposition from regional newspapers and radio stations, which fear allowing national broadcasters to do targeted advertising would eat into their business. “We are opposed to this deregulation,” says Bruno Hocquart de Turtot, executive director for Alliance de la Presse d’Information Générale, the union representing national and regional press. “This liberalization is meant to be helping free-to-air broadcasters against U.S. web giants, but it can’t be done against the interest of the press.” —With Helene Fouquet

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Ellis at jellis27@bloomberg.net, Eric GelmanAnne Swardson

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