July 14 is a good day to watch the Tour de France. In spite of the cloud of doping scandal that hovers over professional cycling, and the ruthless commercialism (even Didi le Diable, a fan who dresses up in horns and trident, has a sponsor now), it’s fascinating because the long time-scale allows a myriad sub-plots to develop, during one day and over three weeks. The main attraction for me however are the sumptuous helicopter shots of the French countryside dozing in the summer heat. You can get live streaming video and audio from Eurosport – on different URLs, so you have to mute the German commentary that comes with the video feed and listen to the English commentary on a separate tab. Don’t ask me why.
Technically, the coverage of the Tour by French public TV is excellent: at least three cams on motorbikes, with the leaders, the peloton, and the rear; a fixed cam at the finish; and one in a helicopter. It stands out against the general mediocrity. I seriously wonder what French public TV does with the rest of the €2bn receipts of the redevance audiovisuelle.
This is a fixed levy of €116 a year, added to household taxes. These are augmented by advertising. The news is OK so far I could see, though the network of foreign reporters lacks depth. French TV hasn’t learnt how to make a hospital or community-based soap opera. Of the core genres, they do decent cop shows (special line in stylish women cops) and travel/adventure series; that’s about it. I had to spend several weeks in hospital once watching daytime French TV, in which a Magnum rerun came as a high point. They can’t even run their mediocre programmes on time. Mind you, the private channels are worse. All reality TV is dire, but a special mention goes to TF1’s La Ferme Célébrités, where simpering starlets are upstaged by goats.
The BBC has it faults, as it oscillates between placating the Calvinist ghost of Lord Reith, the idols of the market-place, and the watching gargoyles of the Palace of Westminster, but low productivity isn’t among them. Whether or not British viewers need nine cookery programmes, they’ve got them: including tips on barbecuing oryx roulade from the “Hairy Bikers” in Namibia. The BBC has more channels – 2 main and 7 thematic and a good website, against 2 main and 4 thematic public ones in France (counting Arte and Euronews as half each), but half of the BBC’s money goes on the main TV channels.
A British household pays half as much again as a French one for its TV license fee, £126.50, making a total of around £3bn. There’s no doubt who gets better value, and the British still trust Auntie ahead of any other source of news.
The BBC thinks of itself as the paradigm of public service broadcasters. But the French is surely more typical. (The aversion to soaps is culture-specific: combine the three unities of Racine and the 20th-century idolisation of le septième art, and a form that rambles on for ever with multiple story lines like a mediaeval romance doesn’t stand a chance.) But even knowing that you can’t clone the BBC’s institutional culture, I’d still defend public-service broadcasting as an essential element in the mix. It has built-in problems – featherbedding, stuffiness, deference to the state; but so has broadcasting financed by advertising – the race to the bottom, deference to business, and continual interruptions. The free-market economist’s ideal may be pay-per-view for everything, but luckily it’s still infeasible. So two cheers for Antenne 2 and Al Jazeera.