Millions of French TV viewers tuned in on Monday evening to watch their favorite prime-time shows uninterrupted by ad breaks as President Nicolas Sarkozy’s controversial media reform got under way.
The ban on advertising on France’s public TV network after 8pm has been described as a cultural revolution affecting nearly 25 million viewers.
In the 8pm news on state broadcaster France 2 presenter David Pujadas spoke of “the big bang of your station” and invited viewers “to stay with us to watch this first evening free of advertising.”
Advertising will be phased out gradually between now and 2011, with the period from 8pm to 6am affected first. General programming on France 2 and sister channel France 3 will now start immediately after the news at 8pm.
The board of directors of France Televisions voted last month to ban advertising as a government bill overhauling state broadcasting got bogged down in parliament.
The bill will come up for debate again in the Senate today and unions have called a strike for that day.
Staff at France 3 television, one of the four state channels, walked off the job on Monday to protest the changes and several midday newscasts were scrapped along with other programs.
Championed by Sarkozy, the legislation would give the president authority to directly name the head of France Televisions instead of the current procedure of appointment through an independent body.
The reform has been attacked as a power grab by Sarkozy and criticized for handing an advertising revenue boon to private broadcasters such as TF1, owned by Martin Bouygues, a friend of the president.
Sarkozy has said the ban on advertising is a major step to model French public television along the lines of the British Broadcasting Corporation.
Supporters of the measure argue that state television will no longer have to air shows with mass appeal to draw high audience ratings and advertising revenue.
But a number of critics say that the measure will deprive state broadcasting of badly-needed funds.
The ban will be offset by two new taxes, on Internet service providers and on the extra ad revenue channeled to private TV networks.
The 450 million euros (US$615 million) needed to plug the revenue gap have already been written into the French budget for this year.
“Let’s talk about it in a year’s time,” Culture Minister Christine Albanel said. “I predict the French will love this new television programming that is emerging.”