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PARIS — Streaming platforms and broadcasters won’t be on an equal footing until TV channels too are only one click away, according to France Télévisions President Delphine Ernotte Cunci.
“There is a Netflix button on remote controls. There must be a France Télévisions button in the same way,” she told POLITICO in an interview.
“General interest content,” which also includes other national media such as TF1, should feature prominently on connected TVs’ home screens as well, the public broadcaster boss added, “because if not, the risk is that we will disappear.”
Ernotte’s comments come amid intense competition in Europe between traditional broadcasters and foreign streaming giants, mostly from the United States, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+. The European launch of HBO Max in 2022 is expected to further crowd the American-dominated audiovisual market.
In France, a country with a strong audiovisual industry, dealing with U.S. streaming platforms has become a political matter of “cultural sovereignty.” The relations between France Télévisions and Netflix are especially frosty: Ernotte recently accused the streaming giant of “taking ownership of the success” of the Emmy-award winning TV show Call My Agent — financed by the public broadcaster but distributed globally by the U.S. platform.
In December, Netflix, Disney, Amazon and Apple signed investment agreements with the audiovisual regulator Arcom and committed to spend between €250 and 300 million in French and European content in 2022. The deal derives from the EU’s audiovisual reform, which was designed to level the playing field between traditional broadcasters and streaming platforms. (France Télévisions pours about €420 million a year into content creation.)
But according to Ernotte, there is still one missing link to ensure fair competition. “Resolving the issues of whether we appear on the screen of TV X or Y when it’s turned on and the one of remote control is essential,” she said.
To feature on remote controls, U.S. platforms enter into commercial agreements, which are usually not exclusive, with device manufacturers such as Samsung. And Ernotte fears that national companies won’t be able to bid against the deep-pocketed tech giants.
“What we’re saying is that we won’t always be able to afford to bid higher, if it comes to that. We have to be protected because we are a national media — we will never have the [financial] means of a global one,” she said.
Current legislation — namely the audiovisual reform adopted in Brussels under the previous Commission — allows public broadcasters to be visible and easily accessible, according to Ernotte, who’s also the president of the European Broadcasting Union.
“There is already a sentence in the audiovisual media services directive that says that countries may take measures to ensure general interest content is appropriately put forward. This sentence is then interpreted by the different regulators of the different countries,” she said.
French regulator Arcom is already looking into it, and Ernotte’s hope is that the authority will arm-twist device manufacturers into featuring France Télévisions and other local actors more prominently.
“In the U.K., [the regulator] Ofcom said that content of general interest is the BBC, Channel 4, ITV,” Ernotte added, noting that, in her opinion, “it’s not only about public media, but really about the big national players.”
The visibility of traditional TV channels on remote controls and connected TVs’ home screens is an issue that has also reached the French National Assembly. MPs are currently working on a fast-tracked fact-finding mission that is expected to wrap up in February.
Yes to TV tie-up
In France, leading private broadcasters TF1 and M6 argue that merging is the only way to counteract Google and Facebook’s firepower on the advertising market, and Netflix, Apple and Amazon’s competition on the production side. (France Télévisions, TF1 and M6 have created together Salto, a French streaming platform meant to rival American competitors.)
Ernotte has long said that she won’t seek to oppose the high-profile deal, which was recently criticized by advertisers and is currently under assessment by the country’s competition authority.
“I understand very well why in my field, that is to say television, companies are concentrating to compete with global media,” the public broadcaster’s president said. “As soon as Netflix or Disney takes a certain market share, a form of talent war starts and costs go up. There’s real competitive pressure,” she added.
Ernotte does have conditions however — namely when it comes to sports rights.
If the tie-up does see the light of day, the French top executive wishes that the new entity does not engage in “predatory” behavior to snatch up broadcastings rights to competitions attractive to a wide audience, such as the Olympic Games.
“We have been supporting the Olympics since we have existed. So I would not appreciate that, all of a sudden, [the new organization] put a crazy amount of money that prevents the public broadcaster from competing,” Ernotte explained.
Asked whether Amazon wasn’t a bigger threat to the public broadcaster’s market share on sports, the president of France Télévisions argued that, although the tech giant does own the rights to Roland Garros’ tennis evening games as well as the Ligue 1 football competition, her company isn’t “totally excluded from the game.”
“Sports unions are beginning to tell themselves they also need to be careful about ensuring good exposure [for their games],” Ernotte said.
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