Television history: the French exception?

Article  by  Pascal ROZAT  •  Published 21.01.2011  •  Updated 17.02.2011
The history of French television is marked by several particular features that make it a unique case within the European audiovisual landscape.


Too often viewed in isolation, the history of French television is rarely set within its European context. Yet, from elements of comparison with key neighbours (the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy), several strong French features can be identified: first, a certain delay in the development of television; second, a stronger influence from the State than elsewhere; and finally, a relatively closed Hertzian media landscape in which cable and satellite failed to gain a real foothold. In this regard, the launch of DTT and the mutations of the television media in the digital age could paradoxically be standardization factors in belatedly bringing the French television scene into the era of an abundant television offering accessible to all.

The Long Prehistory of the Strange Window

Starting in the 1920s, television went through a long period of experimental development, far from public view. During this pioneer era, France lagged behind from the outset, compared to other major industrial powers. Revealingly, it was after a trip to England that Ernest Chamon, general manager of the Compagnie des compteurs, decided in 1928 to form within his company a laboratory dedicated to television and entrusted to engineer René Barthélémy.

While research was just beginning in France, Scotsman John Logie Baird demonstrated his "televisor" as early as 1926 to scientists from the Royal Institution. Two years later, he performed the first television link between London and New York by radio waves (the first TV prototypes used short-distance cable transmission). In Germany, works of Telefunken engineer August Karolus and Dénes von Mihály from Hungary were are also well advanced and interested Reichspost enough to launch experimental broadcasts in 1929, concurrently as the Baird-supported BBC. It is also in Germany that Manfred von Ardenne achieved a breakthrough in 1931 by introducing the first electronic television system with cathode ray tube.
In France, where the first experimental broadcasts were launched in December 1931, engineers were working hard to catch up and soon succeeded in greatly improving the definition of their devices. From 1933, the Compagnie des compteurs started working with the postal authorities, who set up a small studio on rue de Grenelle. Finally, in 1935, Georges Mandel, the new Minister of PTT (Posts and Telecommunications), provided a decisive boost by initiating French television's first official broadcast and having a new transmitter installed atop the Eiffel Tower. Yet, television use did not develop in the following years, due to the cost of equipment, lack of stable technical standards, and very low interest in the programs offered. Again, the contrast with European neighbours is striking: in 1939, the United Kingdom and Germany each had about 20,000 television sets, a figure France would reach only in the 1950s!
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From Fernsehsender Paris to the RTF

The outbreak of World War II brought an abrupt end to this first period of gestation: broadcasts ceased in September 1939 because of the war, and the Eiffel Tower transmitter was sabotaged just before the Wehrmacht entered Paris in June 1940. Unique in the history of occupied territories, it is precisely the Germans who took over the development of television in 1943 by setting up a new station, Fernsehsender Paris (“Paris Television”)[+] NoteSee Thierry Kubler & Emmanuel Lemieux, Cognacq Jay 1940: la télévision française sous l’occupation, Plume, 1990.X   [1]. Launched in collaboration with the Radiodiffusion nationale and the Compagnie des compteurs, Fernsehsender Paris was less a propaganda tool than a means to boost the morale of wounded German soldiers through receptors located in hospitals across Paris and the inner suburbs. Nevertheless, this was an ambitious project for its time, with financial and technical resources far superior to those of pre-war French television. The Germans installed a promising new studio in a building on rue Cognacq-Jay. It had a bright future, given that TF1 used it until 1992. Born of the Occupation, Fernsehsender Paris naturally disappeared with it: the station stopped broadcasting shortly before the liberation of Paris, but it left behind high-performance equipment and well-trained personnel.
After the war, the new start was slow and gradual. However, still sheltered from public view, television as a medium was beginning to take shape. While programs consisted mostly of variety shows shot in the studio, the first broadcasts of major live events finally appeared in 1948, with the arrival of the Tour de France at Parc des Princes or the midnight mass at Notre-Dame. Once again, France was late: the BBC had broadcast the coronation procession of George VI in 1937!

In many ways, 1949 seems to have heralded a new beginning: while Pierre Sabbagh launched the first televised newscast and Jacqueline Joubert was recruited as the first announcer, the Act of July 30 established a levy on television sets, modelled on the radio tax invented in 1933. As for Radiodiffusion française, it changed its name to RTF (Radiodiffusion-télévision française). But television had yet to gain the public’s favour.
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Conquering Homes

In 1950, there were still only 3,794 television sets on French soil, while the UK was closing in on the one million mark. However, that number would soon increase dramatically. Pieces were falling into place: in November 1948, François Mitterrand, then the Secretary of State for Information, set the definition for French broadcasts to 819 horizontal lines. This choice isolated France from other European countries that had opted for the 625-line standard recommended by the CCIR (International Radio Consultative Committee), but it nevertheless set a stable technical standard that would facilitate the development of the new media. Also, following the appointment of former Mitterand collaborator Jean d'Arcy as the program director in 1952, the programming offer expanded considerably, making television more attractive.
Still, the small screen did not become a must-have overnight. Firstly, broadcasts were initially received only in and around Paris, due to the limited range of the Eiffel Tower transmitter. A network of regional transmitters was required to reach the province. The first of these transmitters was built in Lille and started broadcasting in April 1950. After that, work progressed slowly. When, on June 2, 1953, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was retransmitted live from London in five European countries, in France the broadcast only reached Paris and Lille, while Germany already had four working transmitters in Hamburg, Berlin, Frankfurt, and Wuppertal. Many disappointed Alsatians decided to buy a German set in order to receive broadcasts from Germany. The political response was swift, and a major development plan for television was voted on the following December 31. Despite these efforts, coverage of the whole country was only truly completed in the 1960s.
The number of television sets in France reached one million in 1958 (still ten times less than in the UK). For the new Gaullist government, television had become a tool worth using.
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The Monopoly Issue

The De Gaulle years were marked by an unprecedented growth of television, with the number of TV sets increasing by nearly one million a year. This growth happened under the sign of the State monopoly on the airwaves established in 1945: only public television had the right to broadcast, and the handful of peripheral private stations launched in the 1950s (Télé-Luxembourg, Télé Monte Carlo) did not manage to breach this domination, given the insufficient range of their transmitters. In principle, the monopoly was there to keep television from the "powers of money," but it also raises the issue of the media’s dependence on political powers – an issue especially important under the presidency of a General who quickly revealed himself to be a formidable TV orator. In this respect, France’s case is quite similar to Italy’s, where the RAI, also a monopoly, was ruled by the Christian Democrats for two decades. However, the situation differs in the UK, where the BBC coexisted in a kind of duopoly with the private station ITV launched in 1955, and in Germany where the national public television is run by the individual states, not by the federal government.
Governance of French radio and television was one of the recurring political issues of the 1960s: successive reforms and frequent strikes by the staff where sectional claims are mixed with political motives and demands for greater independence. At least in appearance, the government sought to give television proof of autonomy: in February 1959, the RTF, then a simple government organization working for the Department of Information, was finally given a status and became a public industrial and commercial institution; five years later, the Act of June 27, 1964, initiated by Alain Peyrefitte, transformed the RTF into the ORTF (Office of French Radio and Television), with its own board of directors and lighter financial supervision requirements. Actually, though, the government retained its control over information.
These contradictions came to light in May 1968: following direct censorship on their news magazines [+] NoteOn May 10, 1968, the broadcast of a “Panorama” report on the events, with interviews of students, faculty, rector Roche, and prefect Grimaud, was prohibited at the last minute.X [2], the journalists and producers of “Cinq colonnes à la Une” and “Panorama” released a statement on May 12 protesting against the "scandalous lack of public information" about the student revolts. This was the beginning of a long strike by all categories of staff, up to the newscast’s editorial staff, then known for its submission to the government. The programs were granted more freedom after that statement, but this emancipation didn’t last: in June, political powers regained their footing, fired the ORTF’s management, and terminated around sixty journalists. Later, the presidency of Georges Pompidou (who saw the ORTF as "the voice of France") did not change course, despite hopes briefly aroused by Prime Minister Chaban-Delmas.
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PAL vs. SECAM: An Industrial and Diplomatic Battle

Technology-wise, the De Gaulle/Pompidou years were mostly marked by the arrival of a second channel in 1964 (broadcasting in 625 lines), then a third with a regional focus in 1972, as well as the advent of colour television in 1967, initially limited to the second channel. Far from trivial, the transition to colour TV became a major diplomatic and industrial issue. [+] NoteSee Olivier Chantriaux, De Gaulle et la diplomatie par l’image, Ina éditions, 2010.X [3]

In 1953, the United States had launched a colour TV process named NTSC (National Television System Committee), but it was considered to offer a relatively poor quality. In response to the American standard, engineer Henri de France developed his own system, SECAM (Sequentiel Couleur à Mémoire, or “sequential colour with memory”), which was adopted by the ORTF. Gaullist diplomacy would make the export of this French technology one of its main concerns. Its efforts failed in Western Europe, where the German company Telefunken’s PAL (Phase Alternating Line) technology won, but succeeded beyond the Iron Curtain and in the former colonial territories. SECAM was thus implemented in the USSR, in most West African countries, and in Madagascar. As was the case with the launch of the 819-line system, France remained isolated within the EEC, as one of the only countries using that standard. However, signal conversion processes between different standards soon broke that isolation.
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The Ambiguities of Giscardian liberalization

Faced with a new strike movement following his election, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing decided to come to terms with the ORTF, by then seen as sprawling and ungovernable. The Act of August 7, 1974 was an earthquake. It deleted the ORTF in favour of seven new public companies, including three television channels: TF1, Antenne 2, FR3, Radio France, TDF, SFP, and Ina. For the new government, this dismemberment mainly presented an opportunity to weaken corporatism and union powers, while making cuts in staff. But it was also an attempt to renovate the actual operation of public television.
While maintaining the monopoly, the new system of 1974 actually put the three public channels in competition with each other. During this period arose the famous "battle for ratings” that would only increase with the privatization of the 1980s. In fact, each channel had a direct financial interest in attracting more viewers than its neighbours. Introduced late in October 1968, advertising represented about a quarter of the revenues of TF1 and Antenne 2, and now the law provided that the distribution of fee proceeds would be related in part to audience ratings, still measured by surveys (the "people meter" system that we know would be introduced only in 1981). The channels quickly start trying to steal one another’s most popular hosts, such as Jacques Martin, who left TF1 in 1977 for Antenne 2, which offered him a contract whose terms remained undisclosed.
On the information independence front, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing loudly proclaimed his willingness to end past practices. However, the 1974 reform did not change a thing to the structure: appointments to key positions remained in the hands of the government, who soon returned to their bad habits: in 1979, Claude Sérillon is fired from Antenne 2’s editorial staff for wanting to talk about the “Diamonds Affair.” It was not until the Socialists came to power that an independent body was created to at least partially cut the umbilical cord between the government and television.
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A Highly Political Privatization

While Giscardian liberalism had chosen to maintain a public monopoly, it would be, paradoxically, the new socialist government who opted to open up television to private interests. Article 1 of the Act of July 29, 1982 proclaimed that "audiovisual communication is free." Canal+ began broadcasting two years later, on November 4, 1984, soon followed by La Cinq and TV6 in 1986. Jacques Chirac's cohabitation government completed the work in 1987 by privatizing TF1 and replacing TV6 (owned by Publicis/NRJ) with M6 (CLT/Lyonnaise des eaux). At the time, the retreat from public television monopolies and the emergence of new private networks were deep-running trends in all major European countries. Still, the French case had its unique characteristics.
First, let us point out the heavy role of the government in French-style privatization. The new networks were not the result of an all-out liberalization process, since their creation came from a political decision at the highest level. François Mitterand himself announced the creation of the fourth channel in June 1982 and the launch of two more channels in January 1985. Each time, the public service licenses under the Act were assigned to investors close to the President, on whom he knew he could count: Canal+ was awarded to Havas, a firm owned by his former chief of staff André Rousselet, while La Cinq went to another close collaborator, Jean Riboud at Schlumberger, an associate of Jérôme Seydoux and Silvio Berlusconi (after Riboud’s death, his son Christopher took over). Far from laissez-faire, the Chirac government also considered privatization as an act of deliberate policy, to the point of handing out the first national channel TF1, a truly unique case in the history of European television.
As a logical consequence of the State’s key role, strict regulations have always accompanied privatization. The Act of 1982 repealing the monopoly also created the Haute Autorité de la communication audiovisuelle (“high authority in audiovisual communication”), an independent regulatory body and "father" of the CSA. Also, licenses granted to private broadcasters come with a very precise book of specifications stipulating numerous obligations to fulfil (advertisement restrictions, film financing, youth protection, etc.). This is far from the situation in Italy, where private television grew erratically in the 1970s due to a legal vacuum, before being retrospectively endorsed by the law in the 1980s.
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A New, Relatively Closed Airwaves Landscape

Here is another unique, rarely emphasized aspect of the French situation: while abroad the development of cable and satellite TV offer the perfect playground for new private broadcasters, in France, privatization took place primarily on the Hertzian network, with number of channels doubling between 1984 and 1986. However, in the field of new broadcasting methods, the country accumulated delays, as evidenced by the successive failures of Pierre Mauroy’s "cable plan" and the broadcasting satellite TDF1. In 1992, there were still less than a million French homes connected to cable television, ten times less than in Germany! And in most countries, cable and satellite are precisely where the private audiovisual industry is incubating. In Italy, the first private broadcasters emerged on local cable: Telemilanocavo (ancestor of Canale Cinque) created in 1974 was originally a channel aimed exclusively at the new town of Milano 2 built by Silvio Berlusconi. Similarly, in Germany, private channels first appeared on cable network pilot projects launched in 1984 in Ludwigshafen, and then in Munich, Dortmund, and Berlin. There is one exception: RTL (first called RTL plus), which started to broadcast as a Hertzian station from Luxembourg that year, before moving to Cologne in 1988 and securing a local terrestrial frequency. In both countries, private stations grew slowly and wisely, increasing their broadcast area, audiences, and revenues only gradually. In Germany, RTL broke even only in 1992 – eight years after its launch – followed by ProSieben in 1995.
On the contrary, in France, new private stakeholders are aspiring to be readily accessible to all viewers across the entire territory, endorsing the role of a national Hertzian network overnight. Depending on circumstances, this brutal transition would lead to sudden brilliant success or high-profile disaster. Canal+ took off quickly thanks to a unique positioning and a decidedly new financial model for its time, but La Cinq was a victim of its own overambition. Seeking to become a major popular general entertainment channel upon its launch – with all the investments this represents – the station suffered from an incomplete Hertzian network. When it came on the air, it could only reach 43% of the population and obtained highly disappointing ratings. Several recovery attempts were fruitless and La Cinq, burdened by heavy debt, was forced into bankruptcy in 1992 and stopped broadcasting. The wise M6 had bet on strict management and a slow gradual growth, and fared much better. For the Bouygues group, the situation is of course quite different: by acquiring TF1, France’s most accessible and watched channel, Bouygues became overnight the leader of French television, with 44% of the market in 1988 – an overwhelming dominance that has no equivalent elsewhere for a private channel.
After ten years of turmoil, the launch of Arte in 1992 and La Cinquième in 1994 marked the end of a cycle. Following the sinking of La Cinq, the goal was to create a space where the educational and cultural vocation of public service could be reaffirmed, which had been somewhat neglected by the older channels. For a decade (1995-2005), the French media landscape would stabilize around six Hertzian channels, three public and three private. The persistent weakness of cable and satellite TV (4% of total audience in 1997) makes this landscape a concentrated and relatively closed one where the strength of each player relies primarily on one key channel (three for France Télévisions, which would hold France 2, France 3, and France 5 starting in 2000, thus moving against the decentralization process initiated with the fragmentation of the ORTF). And apart from Canal+’s special case, France did not have large multi-channel broadcasting groups like Italy’s Mediaset or Germany’s Kirch and Bertelsmann.
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The French Media Landscape Overtaken By the Digital Revolution

The last great revolution to date, the launch of digital terrestrial television (DTT) in March 2005 may paradoxically be the beginning of the “standardization” of the French media landscape. Digital television has tripled the number of channels available on Hertzian airwaves, and succeeded where cable and satellite television had mostly failed. A step behind its neighbours, France has entered the era of abundant television offer, in the process, putting an end to the stability of a TV landscape that had not changed much during the previous decade. This landscape is now invested by new players (NRJ with NRJ 12, NextRadio with BFM TV, Bolloré with Direct 8 and Direct Star), while Lagardère has actively strengthened its position in niche television with Gulli. And historical players, some like TF1 taken totally by surprise, have no other choice but to also embrace DTT, creating or acquiring new channels: France Télévisions with France 4, Canal+ with I-Télé, M6 with W9, TF1 with NT1 and TCM, etc. The French television scene nevertheless retains some of its features, albeit in a milder form. Thus, despite a sharp erosion of its audience, TF1 maintains a domination unmatched by any of its European counterparts.
The development of Internet video and the Internet tremors currently shaking up television point to new changes, the effects of which are difficult to predict. A milestone can nevertheless already be identified: as Free CEO Xavier Niel likes to emphasize, the Hexagon is by far the world's leader in IPTV, something that could almost become a French exception. Only time will tell whether France is a pioneer or whether, as in the adoption of the 819-line standard in 1948, the country stands alone in adopting a technology with no future.
Traduit du français par François Couture.
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1928: The Compagnie des compteurs sets up a research laboratory headed by engineer René Barthélémy
April 14, 1931: Barthélémy makes the first public demonstration of a radio transmission of television pictures in France
April 26, 1935: First official television broadcast by the station Paris-PTT Vision
November 1935: Installation of a television transmitter on top of the Eiffel Tower
September 1939: Termination of broadcasts due to the war
May 7, 1943 - August 16, 1944: The German station Fernsehsender Paris broadcasts over the Paris area
October 1944: With the Liberation, broadcasts resume
November 20, 1948: Decree setting the definition of the French network at 819 lines
February 4, 1949: Radiodiffusion française (RDF) becomes Radiodiffusion-Télévision française (RTF)
June 29, 1949: First television newscast
July 30, 1949: Act establishing a levee on television sets
April 10, 1950: Commissioning of the first regional transmitter in Lille
June 2, 1953: The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II is broadcast live in five European countries, including France
February 1959: On government orders, the RTF is endowed with a statute making it a public industrial and commercial institution
April 8, 1964: Inauguration of the second channel, which broadcasts in 625 lines
June 27, 1964: Act transforming the RTF into the ORTF (Office of French Radio and Television)
October 1, 1967: First colour broadcast, on the second channel
May 13-June 23, 1968: Major strike at the ORTF
October 1, 1968: Introduction of brand advertising on the first channel
December 31, 1972: Inauguration of the third channel
August 7, 1974: Act abolishing the ORTF, replaced by seven independent public companies, including TF1, Antenne 2 and FR3, which start broadcasting on January 1, 1975
July 29, 1982: Bill on audiovisual communication repealing the State monopoly on the airwaves and creating the Haute Autorité de la communication audiovisuelle
November 3, 1982: Launch of the "cable plan"
July 19, 1983: Last broadcast in 819 lines, which coexisted with the 625-line definition since 1964. The 819-line network was converted to 625 lines and licensed to Canal+
November 4, 1984: Inauguration of Canal+, the first French private channel
February-March 1986: Inauguration of La Cinq and TV6
September 30, 1986: The Act on freedom of communication replaces the Haute Autorité by the CNCL (Commission nationale de la communication et des libertés) and provides for the privatization of TF1
February 23, 1987: The CNCL reallocates TV6’s licence (Publicis/NRJ) - previously cancelled by decree - to M6 (CLT/Lyonnaise des eaux).
April 4, 1987: TF1 is licensed to the Bouygues group
October 28, 1988: Launch of the broadcast satellite TDF1
January 17, 1989: Bill to replace the CNCL with the CSA (Conseil supérieur de l'audiovisuel)
August 1989: Bill binding Antenne 2 and FR3 in a joint presidency, which takes the name of France-Télévision in 1992
April 12, 1992: La Cinq stops broadcasting.
September 28, 1992: Arte starts broadcasting on the fifth channel
December 1994: Launch of La Cinquième on the fifth channel, which it shares with Arte
April 27, 1996: Commercial launch of digital service Canal Satellite
August 1, 2000: Bill creating the holding company France Télévisions, which includes France 2, France 3 and La Cinquième, renamed France 5
March 31, 2005: Launch of digital terrestrial television (DTT).

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Christian BROCHAND, Histoire générale de la radio et de la télévision en France, 3 volumes, Documentation française, 1994-2006.
Jérôme BOURDON, Agnès CHAUVEAU, Francis DENEL, Laurent GERVEREAU & Cécile MÉADEL (eds.), La Grande aventure du Petit écran, la télévision française 1935-1975, BDIC/Ina, 1997.
Emmanuel HOOG, La Télé, une histoire en direct, Découvertes Gallimard, 2010.
Jean-Noël JEANNENEY (dir.), L'écho du siècle. Dictionnaire historique de la radio et de la télévision en France, Hachette, 2001.
Website of the Comité d’histoire de la télévision:
“Télé notre histoire” interviews on Ina’s website:
For European comparative studies:
Michel HILMES (ed.), The Television History Book, British Film Institute, 2003.
Knut HICKETHIER, Geschichte des deutschen Fernsehens, J. B. Metzler, 1998.
Pierre MUSSO & Guy PINEAU, L’Italie et sa télévision, Ina/Champvallon, 1990.

Crédit photo :

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  • 1. See Thierry Kubler & Emmanuel Lemieux, Cognacq Jay 1940: la télévision française sous l’occupation, Plume, 1990.
  • 2. On May 10, 1968, the broadcast of a “Panorama” report on the events, with interviews of students, faculty, rector Roche, and prefect Grimaud, was prohibited at the last minute.
  • 3. See Olivier Chantriaux, De Gaulle et la diplomatie par l’image, Ina éditions, 2010.
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