- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 5, 2006

ISSY-LES-MOULINEAUX, France — President Jacques Chirac a year ago proclaimed his ambition for an all-news channel to broadcast France’s vision and values across the globe 24 hours a day.

Media executives and reporters have spent a hectic year filling out the details — namely, what exactly is the “French vision?”

Viewers will find out today, when France 24 goes on the air, first via Internet streaming and one day later by satellite. It has a tough challenge ahead. To prove it is more than just the government’s pet project, the state-funded France 24 must carve out a viewership in a crowded market that includes CNN International, BBC World and Al Jazeera’s new English-language channel.

France 24 will broadcast one channel in French and another mostly in English — a sign of new pragmatism in a country known for protecting and promoting its language.

In the “global battle of footage,” as Mr. Chirac has called it, message trumps language. An Arabic-language France 24 channel is expected in 2007, and the network expects to offer Spanish as well.

“There is the recognition that, if we want to spread French values through the world, we can’t do it just in French,” said Alain de Pouzilhac, France 24’s chief executive officer.

About $110.5 million in funding will come from the French government in 2007, the first full year of operation. France 24 hopes an additional $3.9 million will come from ads. The channel has 140 journalists from 27 countries, and it plans to hire about 30 more.

The idea for the channel, discussed for more than a decade, gained resonance during the run-up to the Iraq invasion, when Mr. Chirac tried to slow the U.S. drive to war — and some media in the United States and Britain mocked his efforts.

In the case of Iraq, it’s easy to understand what the French vision would mean — more distance from the U.S. military line. France has close ties to the Arab world, and many French viewers see U.S. news as not critical enough of Israel.

Mr. de Pouzilhac describes the “French vision” as a diversity of viewpoints, more debate, and an emphasis on culture and “l’art de vivre,” the art of living.

“This is a country where everything merits a debate,” he said. “And it’s a country that understands how much culture makes societies advance.”

Journalists say they feel no pressure to present a government point of view.

“We’re not going to bring out the French angle in every story,” said Mark Owen, a British anchorman and talk-show host. “That would be laborious and silly.”

In a recent practice newscast, the English-speaking anchor recorded on one side of the newsroom, the French-speaking anchor on the other. The headlines and stories were almost identical in both languages, and the lead piece was about an EU ministerial meeting.

At the outset, France 24 will broadcast in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Its only U.S. destinations are Washington and New York, though it expects to spread throughout the Americas and Asia. The Web is a focus, and the goal is to have more video content than other news sites.

Starting at 1:30 p.m. EST tomorrow, Washington-area Comcast cable subscribers can tune in to France 24 via MHz Networks on channel 186, according to a spokeswoman for MHz.

The channel is a joint venture by private TF1 and public France Televisions — an unusual partnership, as the two are fierce competitors. Images will come from France Televisions and TF1 reporters, from stringers, and from agencies such as Associated Press Television News.

Though it is publicly funded, the channel is privately held by TF1 and France Televisions and is for-profit, though it is not expected to make money in the short term.

Some analysts raise doubts about the pairing of TF1 and France Televisions, about delays in getting the project off the ground, and about whether global viewers need another channel, especially one promoted by a government.

“The market is largely saturated, and France is coming into it very late,” French media analyst Jean-Louis Missika said. “I asked myself, is it really reasonable to do a classic TV channel in the age of the Internet?”

France 24’s argument is that demand is growing, as viewers are increasingly skeptical and want more and different viewpoints. Objectivity, Mr. de Pouzilhac says, “does not exist,” and viewers know it.

“We are all tied to our nationalities and our cultures,” he said. “What does exist is honesty, people who honestly and transparently tell the facts of the news as they see it. We can only see through our own eyes.”

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