PARIS — For years, French intellectuals belittling France's government-controlled television had one consolation: It wasn't as bad as television in Italy.
Now, France is about to enter a new era of television in which private commercial channels will compete with government channels, and critics fear that French television may not only fail to improve but may sink as low as its Italian counterpart.
The fears arise from a decision--widely believed to have been made by President Francois Mitterrand alone--to award the first license for a commercial channel to a French company in which Italian television magnate Silvio Berlusconi has a 40% interest. The decision has provoked a tempest of political anger in France.
The French press derides Berlusconi, a 49-year-old Milan businessman, as "the pope of tele-pizzeria." Berlusconi runs a commercial television empire in Italy that thrives on offering viewers a diet of American serials and soap operas, a procession of quiz shows, lots of sports and old movies interrupted by frequent commercials. His three commercial networks overwhelm the three Italian government networks in popularity.
The award of a television license by a Socialist government to a company that includes Berlusconi has astounded French artists.
"It's an enormous political error," film director Bernard Tavernier said. "The government, which has been supported by creative artists, is stabbing them."
Most outsiders thought that a group of three stations--Radio-Television Luxembourg, Radio Monte Carlo and Europe 1--would be awarded the license. Perhaps troubled by the association of these three stations with Rupert Murdoch, the politically conservative owner of many newspapers in the United States, Australia and Britain, Mitterrand chose instead a company headed by Berlusconi and Jerome Seydoux, a wealthy, 51-year-old French executive regarded as a friend of the president.
It has been pointed out that Berlusconi is a friend of Italy's Socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, and that the Seydoux family has long been allied to the Socialist Party of France. This seems to ensure that the first private television channel in France will be in pro-Socialist hands.
Further, France's first private channel will presumably have a big advantage over any others that may come along. The right-wing opposition has made it clear that if it comes to power after the legislative elections scheduled for March, it will sell off one or perhaps two government channels. But any "conservative" private channels would have difficulty competing for scarce advertising revenue with the older "Socialist" channel.
In the French Senate there is talk of an investigation. The press has been scathing in its criticism. The three-station group that lost the license plans a lawsuit.
Even Jack Lang, minister of culture, who is usually in the spotlight whenever the government makes a cultural decision or finances a cultural project, has been conspicuously silent this time.
If all goes according to plan, the new outlet, designated Channel 5, will begin telecasts by Feb. 20 at the latest. This means that the longstanding Socialist promise to break the government monopoly on television will be fulfilled at least a few weeks before the March 16 parliamentary elections.
At the end of 1986, France plans to launch a satellite, known as TDF1, that will provide five channels for telecasting throughout Europe, a potential audience of 200 million. Channel 5 will use one of the satellite channels; Robert Maxwell, owner of the London Daily Mirror, has been granted another. Contenders for the others include Radio-Television Luxembourg and a French company headed by Pierre Desgraupes that wants to offer cultural programs.
It is one or more of these other channels that the opposition says it will sell to private buyers if the conservatives win control of the National Assembly in March.
France now has four television channels--three run by the government and a cable channel controlled by a government-owned company. All carry commercials but do not let them interrupt programs.
The heavy government hand in French television has subjected it to two main lines of criticism: that government control stifles creativity and that it distorts news coverage.
Cabinet ministers are no longer as brazen as they were in the days of President Charles de Gaulle, when they would phone TV news directors with orders about what to televise or omit. But an incident earlier this year persuaded many French people that government control of television news is still extensive.
The incident involved Christine Ockrent, a Belgian-born former producer for the CBS-TV news show "60 Minutes," who was the most popular news anchor on French television. Brisk and authoritative, her objectivity, thoroughness and professionalism made her presentation an exciting innovation.