Bow news for the plurality of information and competition on the advertising market or missed opportunity to constitute a French television champion in the face of the surge of American platforms? The decision of Bouygues and Bertelsmann, the shareholders of TF1 and M6, made public on Friday September 16, to abandon the merger of the first two French television groups, comes at a crucial moment in the history of audiovisual. The one where television, after many other economic sectors such as distribution, the press or cinema, is hit hard by the digital revolution.
Traditional so-called “linear” television channels – where a program is watched at the time of its broadcast – are seeing competition from the on-demand viewing of programs offered by platforms such as Netflix and online videos such as YouTube.
The failure of the TF1-M6 merger follows the Competition Authority report (ADLC) according to which the operation would only be authorized if the future entity got rid of one of the flagship channels of the two groups, either TF1 or M6. An amputation which each of the parties felt would empty the merger of its interest. Together, the two groups would have occupied an ultra-dominant position both in the television audience in France (more than 40%) and in the advertising market (71%) or in the audiovisual production market.
In support of their request, TF1 and M6 argued in particular that their share of the advertising market should be assessed on a broader basis, including the advertising of Internet players, which are on the rise, a method of calculation which would have their share below 50%.
It is regrettable that considerations unrelated to the file itself counted: Emmanuel Macron, in deciding, in October 2021, to change the president of the ADLC, suspected of reluctance vis-à-vis the merger, may have given the impression of wanting to influence this institution, thereby leading it to rear up to preserve its independence. The fact remains that the planned merger would have weighed heavily on the diversity and plurality of information and programs, and given the new group an unprecedented dominant position on the advertising market.
Porosity of practices
Justified in the current audiovisual landscape, the conditions imposed by the Competition Authority weaken two of its central players at a time when their audience is crumbling – the French watch television on average twenty minutes less per day than is five years old – and where their business model is under threat from platforms. Claiming, as the ADLC does, that the two uses and the two markets remain separate, ignores both the porosity of practices, the intermodality of screens and the current introduction of advertising on large American platforms. In a changing landscape, the arguments opposed to the marriage of TF1 and M6 risk quickly becoming obsolete.
However, it is difficult to argue that the group born of a merger would have been able to compete with American giants of the Web, like Netflix and its 220 million subscribers worldwide. The envisaged union could not replace the efforts not made for years to develop in digital, win over young audiences and get closer to other foreign players. Beyond the French weaknesses, the failure of the TF1-M6 adventure cruelly highlights the absence of major European platforms.