In no other country in Europe have the audio-visual media been a greater stake in political struggle than in France, despite the fact that television, in particular, was very late in getting started and slow to develop. This lag may be attributed to both French anxiety about image-based culture, and to uncertainty about new technology. Within the public service tradition administered by a Jacobin state, television was tightly controlled and part of electoral spoils. Its informational and educational programmes achieved a high standard before deregulation in the 1980s, while popular programming languished in the shadow of American imports and the low cultural esteem in which they were held on the "audiovisual landscape". Television, unlike the cinema, was never considered part of the national culture, and so French program makers contributed little to the international circulation of programs, nor did intellectuals make much contribution to media theory.

French television's origins were not propitious. A few experiments in the 1930s culminated in the first regular programming in 1939, transmiited from the Eiffel Tower to a limited number of sets in Paris only. During the Occupation, the Germans used the medium to entertain their soldiers, thereby tainting the medium from the start. The post-war government revoked the Vichy law conceding broadcasting to the private sector, and the resulting state monopoly would remain unchallenged for four decades. In 1948, the then Secretary for Information, François Mitterrand, set a 819-line technical standard in deference to the electronic industry's ambitions, but the results were expensive sets and a service long confined to the Paris region. Heavy regulation and a centralized bureaucracy explain the slow development of a network compared with the United Kingdom or Germany. Studios were built in a suburb of Paris, and for many years the "Buttes-Chaumont" label connoted a heavily dramatic style, then scorned by the young cinéphiles in the sway of the Nouvelle Vague. Television was perceived as the refuge of classical academicism and the untalented; it was not until the 1980s that the pioneer "réalisateurs de télévision" began to receive their critical due. There were still only 3.5 million sets by 1963, but the figure was increasing dramatically each year of the "30 Glorieuses" in the Gaullist period, often stimulated by international broadcast events (Eurovision in 1954, World Cup football). The evening news at 20:00 became a national ritual, "la grande messe".

Under the Fifth Republic, television legislation mutated every four to five years on average, as governments pondered how best to govern what its intellectuals considered a monster in the living room, undermining literate culture and opening the way to commercial influences from abroad. But the government and the opposition distrusted TV--each believing it favored the other. Under the control of Ministers for Information, then for Culture, and occasionally for Communication itself, there was no accountability, little audience research, and, scarcely any cultural legitimacy. Employees of state broadcasting had the status of civil servants, which made their right to free expression precarious. During the Algerian War, President Charles DeGaulle became the first head of state to use TV to justify his policy, but the government openly interfered with the news coverage of the conflict and many journalists quit or were dismissed. Legislation in 1959 transformed Radio-Télévision de France into a body (ORTF) with industrial and commercial objectives, but rejected both private TV and any protection against the threat of censorship.

A new breed of professionals came to the medium in the mid-1960s, when French television experienced something of a golden age under the ethos that the medium could make culture accessible to the people. The television diet leaned toward turgid studio productions of classic plays and novels (the spicy history serial Les Rois Maudits is remembered as refreshing in this context), and pedagogic series of "initiation" (Lectures pour Tous, Le Camera Explore le Temps). In the way of entertainment, there were variety shows, often associated with the popular crooner Guy Lux, and slapstick games shows like the French-originated Jeux sans Frontières, but little middlebrow fare, except for Inspecteur Maigret mysteries. A brief period of liberalization occurred after 1964 when a second channel (A2) was created, despite the fear of where competition might lead. (The new 615-line technical system was non-compatible with the rest of Europe, but was propagated to the Soviet bloc.) A third channel (FR3) was created in 1973 with a regional structure. An ORTF strike coincided with the events of May 1968, and 200 staff were fired. Less noticed that year was the first authorization of advertising, which would lead to a slowly creeping increase in the number of advertising minutes per hour, to the collection of ratings, and in turn to the break-up of ORTF and eventually what came to be called the "dictatorship of the Audimat".

In 1973, President Georges Pompidou was able to proclaim that television was the "voice of France" at home and abroad. She was the only country with three public service channels, none of which was autonomous from the government or in competition with each other for viewers. It was considered axiomatic that getting rid of the monopoly would lead to mediocrity. Neither the political left nor right was committed to freedom of communication, each for its own reasons. By 1974 there were 14 million sets receiving 7,400 program hours a year produced by 12,000 staff at ORTF. 1974 was the year the decision was finally taken to break up the "monster ORTF", whose functions were divided among seven autonomous bodies, but the government still drew the line on private broadcasting and maintained its right to appoint broadcast executives. In fact, the production wing would still get 90% of program commissions; there was very little independent production; and executives were still chosen for their political docility. Experimentation was hived off to INA, the Institut National de l'Audiovisuel, which also managed the archives and professional training. (Jean-Christophe Averty is usually singled out as the first producer to forge a specifically televisual style, one relying heavily on chromakey effects.) Programs remained much as before, and studio programs seemed even more boring and didactic. Imports from Britain (The Forsyte Saga) and the United States (Roots, Holocaust) merely raised the alarm among cultural elites about the public taste for serial fiction and about a marked decline in domestic quality programming. Television investment had become a major factor in film production.

President Giscard d'Estaing's government also launched France into telecommunications research and development in 1979, with a DBS satellite agreement with Germany, one of the first efforts to counter United States' and Japanese hegemony in this field. The D2MAC format, an intermediate step toward high definition, would prove an expensive mistake ten years later, another unfortunate consequence of the technocratic hold over the media.


Mattelart, Armand, and Michèle Mattelart. Re-Thinking Media Theory. Minneapolis, Minnesota:University of Minnesota Press, 1991.

Miege, Bernard. "France: A Mixed System. Renovation of An Old Concept." Media, Culture & Society (London), January 1989.

Rigby, Brian. Popular Culture in Modern France: A Study of Cultural Discourse. London: Routledge, 1991.

See also Standards; Television Technology

Paradoxically, in the light of the Socialists' historical opposition to private ownership of the airwaves, it was under Socialist President François Mitterrand that deregulation finally occurred. In 1981 the Moinot Commission, charged with examining the state of affairs since the break-up of ORTF in 1974, found that decentralization and competition between the three channels were illusory and not promoting creative programming; serious programs were being pushed to the edges of the schedules, in favor of a high quotient of popular imports, a trend for which Dallas became the inflammatory label. A 1982 law abolished the state monopoly and "freed" communications: the prime channel, TF1, was sold outright and licenses for two more were granted, including the pay channel Canal Plus, which quickly became a major player in the audio-visual industries, spinning off its own feature film production company. Meanwhile, a belated attempt to cable the major cities got under way. Political controversy dogged the attribution of these private channels (Italian media mogul Silvio Berlusconi won one franchise) as well as the appointment of directors of the increasingly beleaguered state channels. The composition and powers of a relatively feeble regulatory agency changed with almost every government. The private TF1 quickly became the channel of reference, with almost half the general audience, while the revenues and audience share of France 2 and France 3 (as the state channels were re-named in 1994) gradually shrank.

At the international level, France had become the leading exponent of protectionist quotas for film and television, as well as of the view that the audiovisual market could be a way of creating--or defending--a common European cultural identity. France eschewed both cost-sharing initiatives with foreign partners and involvement in experiments in pan-European television, although she was increasingly worried about satellite penetration. Instead she chose the path of Francophony with the TV5 satellite channel in partnership with French-speaking countries, and conducted a lobbying effort within the European parliament to endorse a European channel.

Surrounded by bitterness among socialist supporters that the government had surrendered the media to private interests, Culture Minister Jack Lang exploited both a lingering anti-Americanism and a revived Europeanism in order to launch a new public service channel with the habitual mission of exploiting new technologies and a cultural remit. La Sept, intially a wholly French channel lodged on the frequency of a bankrupt private channel, became ARTE when Germany became an equal partner in 1991.

The French view that cultural and political identity are necessarily linked predominated in European audiovisual policy; the debates on "world image battles" led to the European Community White Paper Television without Frontiers, which tackled the problem of English-language domination of the world image market by enjoining its member states to ensure, by all necessary means, that at least half the content of their television channels was of European origin. France's own quota was higher--60%--but the irony is that whatever its status as proponent of the European public cultural space, its domestic broadcasting policy has run in the direction of deregulation, to such an extent that the national regulatory body (Conseil Supérieur Audiovisuel) has been unable to enforce these quotas or to inhibit French investors from putting up money for English language films, ranging from The Piano to Under Seige. In fact, certain aspects of American production--like the use of multiple scriptwriters--are gradually being adopted in France. Nevertheless, the various governments under President François Mitterrand, even the conservative ones, have consistently proclaimed the importance of national and high cultural goals. France continued to argue for protectionism, as in the GATT discussions in 1993, when a lobby of intellectuals helped to secure the exclusion of film and TV from the treaty.

The state of French television in the mid-1990s is a mixed but unbalanced system, with the private TF1 and Canal Plus becoming major players in the international media market. The audiences for FR2 and FR3 shrink slightly each year, as the redevance (license fee) does not keep pace with rising program costs, and is widely flouted by viewers turning to the growing cable sector. The Franco-German cultural channel ARTE shares a wavelength with a daytime educational channel, which seems to perpetuate the same intellectual values that have always characterized French TV: didactic and avant-garde offerings, especially "authored" documentaries and "personal" films, made by the elites for the masses.

- Susan Emmanuel


Crane, Rhonda J. The Politics of International Standards: France and the Color TV War. Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex,1979.

Emanuel, Susan. "Culture in Space: The European Cultural Channel." Media, Culture & Society (London), April 1992.

Mattelart, Armand, and Michele Mattelart. Re-Thinking Media Theory. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.

Miege, Bernard. "France: A Mixed System. Renovation of An Old Concept." Media, Culture and Society (London), January 1989.

Rigby, Brian. Popular Culture in Modern France: A Study of Cultural Discourse. London: Routledge, 1991.


See also Standards; Television Technology