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France Today: "Tv or not TV, Independents crash the airwaves"

September/october 2000

France Today

TV or not TV? Independents crash the airwaves

Until last June, only commercial networks and government-subsidized television could legally broadcast programs in France. After a hard-fought campaign mixing guerilla tactics and conventional lobbying, public-access télés libres may now apply for broadcasting licences to show their alternative programs. But the battle is not over yet.

By Isabelle Boucq France Today, September/October 2000 issue

Public-access television fought one of its most symbolic battles on October 2, 1999, outside the Rex Theater in the 2nd arrondissement of Paris. Inside, the French TV establishment had gathered for the Sept d’Or ceremony, the equivalent of the Grammy Awards for excellence in TV production. Outside, a few members of the Coordination Permanente des Medias Libres (CPML, Permanent Coordination of Free Media) climbed up on the roof and illegally set up their transmitters to broadcast their own programs and images. The activists were arrested and detained for a few hours in a nearby police station. But they had made their point. « We want to tell the stories that the commercial televisions don’t tell and show the work that commercial TV will not show », explains Rym Morgan, a founding member of the CPML. Before the privatisation of TF1 in the 1980s, all three French channels were government controlled. Now TF1 is privately-owned by the Bouygues conglomerate. France 2 (national) and France 3 (regional) survive on advertising, as TF1 does, but also receive a part of their budget from the government. The funds come from what is called the redevance audiovisuelle, a yearly tax of about $100 levied on everyone who owns a TV in France. Onto this highly regulated and restricted scene burst the télés libres, also called télés associatives ou télés citoyennes, unlicensed and illegal but determined to air documentaries and news with strong social and political messages. Under the dictates of the government regulatory body, the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA), independent TV associations had no right to broadcast on unused frequencies -so media activists didn’t wait for permission. « With our pirate transmitters, we used the same techniques that enabled free radios to get official recognition in the early ’80s. We also lobbied the deputies and senators to explain what we do », says Rym Morgan. The CPML came to life in May of 1999 in reaction to a proposed law on broadcast media which continued to refuse public-access TV associations the right to be granted licenses. Activists from different alternative media (newspapers, radios, Internet and TV) decided to work together to defend the future of public-access TV in France. Morgan says a new law, passed in June, « is a victory, because it at last gives us the right to apply for licenses on broadcast TV, cable and satellite. But we failed (to obtain) the subsidies that would allow noncommercial TV to survive ». The government claims that subsidizing the independents is not financially feasible; the associations charge that the government frowns on their message challenging the political and social order, and is being hypocritical in granting them the right, but not the means, to exist. In retaliation, the CPML has called for a boycott of the redevance audiovisuelle until its members are granted a share of the pie. "Public access" is not exactly the right term to describe the French brand of subversive social commentary that is the raison d’être of these underground associations. Most of them function with only a handful of dedicated members, often professionals who make a living working for commercial TV. One such case is Xavier Selva of Sans Canal Fixe (Channel-less) in Tours (Loire area). Selva produces 40-second news pieces for two national TV networks. « In commercial TV, we cover the images over with our own commentary. At Sans Canal Fixe, we let the images and the taped sound speak for themselves. » In a documentary called "20 seconds of Biking", Sans Canal Fixe eloquently demonstrated the fact that watching the Tour de France in the countryside really amounts to sitting through an hour of the advertising caravan before the bikers race by in 20 seconds. Definitely not a point that commercial media cared to make. Ondes Sans Frontières (Airwaves without Borders), based in the eastern part of Paris, is the only association in France that can be called "public access" in the American sense of the term. OSF opens its (pirated) airwaves to anyone who sends in a program or comes to tape a live show. « [Contributors] cover all kinds of topics, from unemployment to the situation in Palestine », says Corinne Domergue, a member of OSF. « We teach people how to use audiovisual tools and they are really hungry for this kind of outlet. » Until the new law was passed, there were two ways for these programs to reach audiences. Associations would simply set up their transmitters and broadcast a program (sometimes with a temporary authorisation, but most often illegally), or they would invite viewers to come and see their programs in bars and other public places. Primi Tivi in Marseille chose the first method. « We’ve done four shows in two years. Before a scheduled broadcast, we put up signs and we call a press conference locally », says Nicolas Burlaud. The communication campaign announces the channel and time, so that viewers -the few who are reached by the not very powerful transmitter- can tune in. Topics have ranged from local immigration to an upcoming show about life in prison. TV Pangée in Montpellier also uses this subversive method. « We have a portable transmitter and we go to different neighbourhoods and surrounding towns around Montpellier », says Boris Perrin. But showing programs in bars is also a popular option. This is how Sans Canal Fixe has been operating, showing up in several bars in the city of Tours every other month. It is also how Paris-based Télé Bocal became one of the most famous télés libres in France. « We show our programs in 35 bars in Paris. Our goal is to produce the kind of TV that brings people together, not the kind that turns them into vegetables », says Richard Sovied, the founder of Télé Bocal. « Our niche is to show what is happening in our neighbourhoods, like a demonstration against the opening of a new McDonald’s or the local fight against right-wing extremists. » Of course, the télés libres have turned to the Internet as a new venue to show their work. One site in particular, TeleWeb, has given them a forum. While members of alternative TV associations are happy about this new medium, they feel that their work belongs on regular TV to reach a larger audience. This is an exciting time to be an independent, alternative producer in France. Many associations have applications pending with the CSA, which regulates French broadcast media and grants licenses. But Morgan and a handful of fellow believers want to be sure the momentum won’t die down while they’re waiting. « We’re expecting the CSA to nit-pick our applications to death », he says. So they decided to create a national showcase for all the télés libres. ZALEA TV (the acronym stands for Action pour la Liberté d’Expression Audiovisuelle, plus a prefatory Z because "ALEA" was taken by another web site). « ZALEA TV will produce some of its own programs, but it will mostly show the work of independent producers and regional télés libres, things like documentaries, fiction, animated films and artistic video productions. Unlike public access in the States, we will refuse [not only] material that is clearly illegal in France, like racist propaganda, but also sexists or homophobic programs. However, we will show programs that will stir things up and may land us in court », warns Morgan. Among ZALEA’s controversial offerings was a TV commercial made by Amnesty International about human rights violations in US prisons which was apparently refused by commercial channels in France. Another documentary included a striking interview with the owner of an extreme-right bookstore (La Licorne Bleu in Paris’ 11th arrondissement), who exposes his youthful links to the Front National but denies selling certain books -while the camera zooms in on those very titles on the shelves. Its founders claim that ZALEA TV can function on an annual budget of 5 million francs ($700,000) -the daily budget of public network France 2, as they point out. If the governement subsidies never come, the association will have to survive on lots of volunteer work, donations and in-kind contributions like office-space and equipment. But one thing ZALEA TV has vowed never to do is sell its programs to commercial networks. « Once you get into that, there is a subtle form of self-censorship. You produce images that have more chances to be accepted on commercial networks. We also don’t want the commercial media to feel they have done their investigative job by showing a few minutes of our work », says Morgan. The 29-old alternative print and radio journalist claims that the media establishment is so scared of the emergence of this new organization that its founders are currently getting job offers from commercial networks as a way to buy them off. If the CSA decides to dig in its heels, the CPML has already threatened to call for new pirate broadcasting campaigns next year. With municipal elections scheduled in 2001, the association feels that it would be able to ressurect an interest in both the political world and the public by staging a few more symbolic hijackings of the airwaves.

By Isabelle Boucq, France Today September/October 2000 issue Isabelle Boucq writes for the computer magazine L’Ordinateur Individuel and for Le Figaro. She is the San Francisco Chronicle correspondent in Paris.

Some Web sites ZALEA TV: Coordination Permanente des Médias Libres: Télé Bocal: TeleWeb: France Today The Journal of French Travel and Culture :

Auteur(s) : Presse