The channel that's spiced up French TV

By Hugh Schofield
BBC News, Paris

  • Published
BFMTV camera and microphoneImage source, AFP

For years the French media was notoriously set in its ways - but a newcomer on the scene has spiced things up. BFMTV has, in a short space of time, managed to steal a large chunk of the audience. So what's the secret of its success?

In a kebab shop on Rue Glaciere in a working-class area of southern Paris, they keep the television permanently plugged to BFMTV. In a brasserie off the Champs-Elysees that caters for bankers and the foreign rich, they do the same.

In hotels and airports, BFMTV is the channel of choice. It's the same in political party headquarters - even the Elysee Palace.

So how, in a few years, has a small independent news channel come to be one of the most influential voices in French media and politics? And what does its popularity say about the changing face of France?

When it was founded in 2005 - a time of fast expansion in French broadcasting - BFMTV was a little-regarded newcomer.

But by plumping for a reactive, live format - and dumping the French habit of endless pre-recorded talk - it quickly caught on.

Today with 10 million viewers every day, BFMTV boasts a market share in France that is greater than any equivalent news channel around the world.

"Television in France was consensus-based and institutional. No-one dared cross the line. No-one dared to be spicy. But because we started from scratch we were able to invent our own genre," says managing director Guillaume Dubois.

BFMTV has a policy - priorite au direct - of where possible always going live to an outside feed. Technology allows them to broadcast quickly and cheaply from where it counts.

In the studio they have anchors and a team of respected commentators on politics, business, crime and foreign affairs. Ministers enjoy being interviewed because of the audience figures.

The journalists are young, and they pride themselves on doing things differently.

"For too long in France we have had elites who looked on ordinary people with condescension, not to say contempt," says 34-year-old Apolline de Malherbe who provides political commentary on BFMTV.

"Journalists were very much part of those elites. People felt they were being talked down to by the media, or just totally ignored. It's part of the reason Marine Le Pen and the Front National (FN) have done so well.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Marine Le Pen

"Here at BFMTV the spirit is that we are not here to judge. We talk to everyone."

That may sound self-serving as a rationale, but there is substance to the view that over the years establishment journalism in France has talked itself out of an audience.

"The French political elite is a self-enclosed club and journalists are part of it. They live with politicians and they intermarry with politicians. But BFMTV changed the rules," says Jean-Sebastien Ferjou, editor of the right-wing news website Atlantico.

"It came as a breath of fresh air."

There are criticisms of BFMTV. One is the standard attack on rolling news channels that they accelerate reality, and create pressure for instant solutions.

The other is that in the pursuit of audiences they confuse popular and populist. Hence the insinuation - which causes fury in the BFMTV newsroom - that they help the cause of FN leader Marine Le Pen.

Recently a well-known satirist poked fun at BFMTV's star interviewer Jean-Jacques Bourdin (he also appears on BFMTV's sister radio station RMC-Info) for supposedly rejoicing at the prospect of a President Le Pen.

Bourdin - no shrinking violet - went live the next day threatening to have it out with the satirist mano a mano.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Jean-Jacques Bourdin

For Daniel Schneidermann, who writes on the media for the left-wing newspaper Liberation, BFMTV may not set out to be right-wing but it ends up that way de facto.

"They want their ratings. They know that Marine Le Pen always gets a good audience so they over-cover her.

"Likewise they know that spectacular crime stories get in viewers, so they give far more space to security issues than they do to social ones," he says.

But perhaps the most glaring fact about BFMTV is one which for the most part its left-wing critics have failed to target. This is that the station's economic line is clearly pro-business, pro-reform, and anti the old consensus.

"Business is hardwired into BFMTV," says Ferjou, who points out that the B in BFM originally stood for business.

Owned by the NextRadioTV group, the channel began as an offshoot of BFM Radio, which dealt exclusively with business and the economy. And today BFMTV has a sister television channel BFM Business which does the same.

Commentators from BFM Business appear regularly on BFMTV, delivering their brand of market-led economic analysis.

This may not sound exceptional. But in France economic coverage tends to come from the opposite perspective - the state sector and workers taking precedence over private enterprise.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Air France pilots grounded more than half of the company's fleet when they went on strike in September

The question arises: given this underlying pro-business message, does BFMTV's popularity reflect a changing view among the French - a growing appreciation perhaps of economic reality?

"Yes I think it does," says Ferjou. "It's not that the French have become free marketeers. Far from it.

"But they are not stupid either. Common sense dictates that after the crisis of the last six years - and confronted by the total failure of governments to turn the situation around - people lose faith in the state.

"This is a big change in France because we are a country that was built by the state and in which the state plays a huge part in the collective mind. But people no longer think it can save them."

In the BFMTV newsroom Apolline de Malherbe says much the same.

"I am of a generation that has never known anything except high unemployment. And yet every government has repeated the mantra about how they will bring it down. The end result is that people like me have totally lost trust in our elites. We have been so completely let down.

"Today my generation is apolitical. We are realists. There is only one question: does it work? And if it does, we'll take it. That's how I see my job at BFMTV - finding out what is going to work to get France out of its mess."

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