If you asked me what the best channel on French television is, I would probably reply without much hesitation: Arte. But if you asked a German person what the best channel on German television is, it is quite plausible that they would also reply: Arte. “How is this possible?” you, the Briton, may well ask. Well, it all comes down to France’s and Germany’s approach to the European Union – an approach quite different from the rather radical one favoured by the United Kingdom.
At the end of the 1980s, the Eastern Bloc was breaking into a multitude of independent countries, a reunification between East and West Germany seemed more and more likely, and France and Germany were trying to show strong unity in the construction of the European Union to counter Margaret Thatcher’s opposition. It was in this context that, in 1988, German chancellor Helmut Kohl and French president François Mitterrand, both ardent believers in the European project, met at the 52nd Franco-German summit where they decided to create a television channel funded in equal proportion by the two states, and with the ambition of becoming a proper European project.
It wasn’t so easy to put into practice however. The problem lay in the very different political systems of France and Germany. In France’s strong centralised state, the president and his Minister of Culture had the power to decide what the cultural policy of the country was going to be. Germany’s federal state was another story: each Land having its own cultural policy and its own television channel, the Ministerpräsidenten – leaders of the German federal states – were reluctant to let Helmut Kohl impose his ideas on them. An agreement had to be found with each Land separately before the final treaty could be signed in 1990. This new channel was called Arte – Association Relative à la Télévision Européenne and the first show was broadcast in 1992.
Arte was defined from the beginning as a cultural channel: 40% of its programmes are documentaries, usually on history, art, sociology and science, and other shows such as Reportage or Le dessous des cartes/Mit offenen Karten provide in-depth analysis of current issues. Cinema and music also form a major part of the channel’s content, with films from all over the world being shown, as well as concerts and operas being regularly broadcast live. My favourite show is probably Karambolage, a short broadcast that compares German and French culture in a humorous and inventive way.
Has Arte lived up to its initial ambition of becoming the European channel? Well, not quite. Although the “e” in its acronym is for “European”, Arte is still a Franco-German channel and no other country funds it. There have been agreements with many foreign channels, but only to co-produce programmes. And although things went a bit further with places closer to Germany and France – the channel is available to watch on Belgian, Dutch and Austrian television – in general Arte hasn’t been able to attract countries from Southern and Eastern Europe. As for the European Commission, it didn’t show much interest in supporting and developing a project that was only Franco-German.
Things have begun to move since 2015 however, but on the channel’s website rather than on the small screen. Arte’s content, all of which can already be watched on playback in France and Germany, is progressively being made available for free in other countries and with subtitles in the relevant languages, a project this time funded by the European Union. The United Kingdom and Spain were the first to benefit from this, Poland followed in 2016, and Italy is next on the list. The language can be selected on the top right of the website for subtitled content (here the English page), and some of the non-translated shows available on the French and German sites can now also be watched in other countries.
A good source for anyone interested in learning more about the history of the channel is Le choix d’Arte (415:4.c.201.54), an account of its creation by Jérôme Clément, who was its first president. Our other holdings on the subject – all in German – study the place of Arte in Europe and in the media, and can be found at classmarks 415:4.c.95.89, 415:4.c.95.82, and 1997.8.77.