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News, Games, Dating : Videotext--In France, It’s the Rage

Times Staff Writer

A young man, in a new French pop tune, falls in love with a young lady through his videotext computer but cannot reach her anymore.

“I am not receiving any more messages,” sings Noe Willer in his song of modern technological woe. " . . . The stop-connection button is too cruel. To what network are you now plugged in?”

The song, sad as it may sound, celebrates an extraordinary technological phenomenon in France. Videotext information systems are failing throughout the world, and Americans, in experiments, have found videotext confusing and of little use. But the French system is a raging success.

Almost 2 million French homes and offices are now equipped with videotext computer terminals, known in France as Minitels and linked to computers through regular telephone lines. Almost 3,000 services are available to every Minitel user, who employs a keyboard to write on the screen of his or her terminal or call up information on it.

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Electronic Directory

The French use their Minitels to look up telephone numbers in an electronic directory, call up the latest news and sports results, write anonymous messages, make blind dates, read pornography, play games, reserve seats on trains, check bank balances, study airline schedules, find weather forecasts, question politicians and plug into a myriad of other sources of information.

One service known as “Hebraica” features Jewish jokes, mostly bad ones. Another provides the text of the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man. A third promotes natural medicine, recommending that overweight people take a bath in sea algae while dieting.

Other services on the Minitel teach French grammar, sell clothing, rate new automobiles and plot the course of the current world championship chess match between Anatoly Karpov and Gary Kasparov on a board minutes after each move is made.

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Persuasive Evidence

The French system, which is still evolving, is persuasive evidence that despite all the frustrations elsewhere in the world, there is a future for bringing into the home a wide variety of electronic services and information.

The French success has been so dizzying that the government has started to fret about one of the most popular uses, the exchange of anonymous, often sexual messages. In a statement issued early in September, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications said it was “strongly concerned by an abuse of videotext for the goal of prostitution or of assaults on good morals.”

The ministry said it will team up with the Ministry of Justice to put an end to these “shocking practices.” But anonymous message boards produce so much revenue for the government and are so cumbersome to monitor that it is hard to believe that the ministry will follow through on its threat.

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Danger of Addiction

Success has spawned another problem. Sending and receiving anonymous messages and playing video games can become addictive. A shy and lonely bachelor may feel a heady sense of power communicating anonymously with women who are using code names such as Mimi and Amour. A teen-ager may find it fun to while away an hour or two playing a game called “Kidnaping in the Paris Metro.”

But there is a price for the power and the fun. French videotext addicts are soon overwhelmed by the size of their bimonthly telephone bills, which contain videotext user fees .

“I looked at my first bill--and then I packed up the Minitel and put it in the closet,” said one university professor.

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“I use the Minitel in my office to send messages,” said a 23-year-old woman who sells photocopying machines, “because it is just too expensive at home. A lot of people use the Minitel in the office because it does not cost them anything.”

Sensitive to this problem, the government has said that it may soon lower the telephone charges for using the Minitel.

Although tryouts of the French videotext system began in 1981, the real push for it came two years ago when the state-run telephone monopoly started to distribute large numbers of free Minitels to telephone subscribers. There are now 1.9 million Minitels in use, and the government hopes to have 2.6 million distributed by the end of the year.

Increasing Use of Services

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Use of the services increases 10% a month. In June, the French connected their Minitels for almost 3 million hours.

There is little doubt that the success of videotext in France is due, in large part, to the free distribution of the terminals. Nothing like that has been done on a significant scale in the United States.

“The Minitel would not be successful in France without the government,” said Antoine Michel, the director of news services for Parisien Libere, the most popular service on the system. “It is the government that subsidized the experiments and provides the Minitels. A private company would not have the resources to hand out Minitels for free.”

The French approach to videotext reflects an old tradition and a new mood. The French have long felt that only strong direction by the government can help private enterprise work. A conservative government pledged to a free market was elected earlier this year, but even this government has maintained the heavily subsidized Minitel program.

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On top of this, there is an intense feeling in France these days that the nation must keep in the forefront of high technology in the computer age, and the encouragement of videotext fits into this new mood.

Different U.S. Systems

The American videotext systems tried so far have been far different from and far smaller than the French one. In France, the single, state-run telephone company controls the operation. In fact, a free and extremely useful telephone service--a computerized directory of all telephone numbers in France--is usually what draws users to the Minitel in the first place.

On top of this, the telephone company registers a large number of firms that provide information systems--2,986 at last count--to provide services on the Minitel. These compete, sometimes with hard-sell advertising, for the attention of the Minitel user. To attract clients, some systems will offer as many as three dozen services, from news to theater reservations to sex messages.

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“It is like the Old West out there, a wild market,” said Michel of Parisien Libere. “We do not yet know what will interest people for very long.”

To use the Minitel, a person phones the telephone company and types onto the screen the code of the system he or she wants. Later, the telephone company puts the Minitel charges on its regular phone bills and shares the revenue with the systems that have been called up.

In the United States, since the breakup of AT&T; in 1984, the local telephone companies, such as Pacific Bell and Nevada Bell, do not have the legal authority both to provide the information services and to deliver them over their own telephone lines. Instead, videotext systems must be run by other companies, and indeed, several newspaper companies have been among the early and unsuccessful entrants in the field.

Times Mirror Effort

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In one such operation, which closed down earlier this year, Times Mirror Co., the parent corporation of the Los Angeles Times, leased videotext terminals to subscribers and offered more than 50 electronic services to home subscribers in Orange County.

As the French program accelerates, there is a strong possibility that the subsidies will pay off for the government. Minitels cost the government 3,000 francs (about $450) apiece. A telephone subscriber usually pays 62 francs (about $9) an hour in phone charges for use of the terminal, of which a little more than a third goes to the phone company and the rest to the provider of the service. A subscriber using the Minitel for an hour a day pays back the cost of the machine to the phone company in 18 weeks.

The Parisien Libere service receives more than 55,000 calls a day, almost three times that of its closest competitor, and takes in revenues of 5 million francs ($750,000) a month. Its success offers some insights into the kind of information that the French want on their videotext computer terminals.

Sixty per cent of Parisien Libere’s callers head straight into the personal message box, but the service, which is owned by the same company that runs the Paris newspaper Le Parisien and the national daily sports newspaper L’Equipe, still tries to attract and hold customers with news and sports.

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“At the beginning,” said Michel, who is in charge of news on the service, “we tried to imitate a newspaper, and that was a big mistake. French newspapers tend to have a good deal of analysis, and we tried to do the same.

Sadat’s Assassination

“The big test came for us when (Egyptian President) Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981,” he continued. “We put out the bulletin that he was killed and then added a lot of other material, like an analysis of what had happened. We found out that our customers did not have the slightest interest. All they wanted to know was that Sadat had been assassinated. If they were interested in finding out more, they would buy a newspaper, listen to the radio or watch television.”

When Parisien Libere got started in 1981, it had a single computer for accepting calls and a staff of four, including Michel, who left law school to work in the new operation. Now the service, still growing, has a staff of 60 to 70 and more than 20 sophisticated computers.

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“Almost all of us are young, working in our first job, and enthusiastic,” said the 29-year-old Michel. “Some journalists have worked here, but it is hard for them. Journalism has a romance in France. But, if you work here, you cannot think of yourself as a writer reporting the news of the world, exposing a Watergate.”

The Parisien Libere’s greatest problems center on growing pains. On the night of the French parliamentary elections last March, it offered a program that supplied the results of any of the 95 French departments--a department is the main administrative division of France--to Minitel callers.

“We received 150,000 calls that night,” said Michel. “It was a great success. But it also was a disaster--150,000 calls are too many for us. Our computers can take no more than 2,000 calls at any one time. Many people must have become irritated with the delays.”

Success also accounts for another problem. The reception clerk in the doorway of the Parisien building, which houses the Parisien Libere operation, does not know precisely where it is located.

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“I’m not surprised,” said Michel. “We are always forced to move because we keep outgrowing our space.”

Alice Sedar, editorial assistant in the Times Paris Bureau, contributed to this article.


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