Special Report on ARTE: A Status Report

On the fifth anniversary of its first simultaneous broadcast in...
November 1, 1997

On the fifth anniversary of its first simultaneous broadcast in

France and Germany, ARTE, Europe’s cultural channel, looks to expand across Europe and into North America while staying true to its independent roots.

Widely credited with the rebirth of the documentary in Europe, ARTE marks its fifth anniversary as an active broadcaster this year. Having grown beyond its original French-German mission, arte’s future plans encompass the whole of Europe as well as a move into North America.

Clearly, says Jerome Clement, president of ARTE, La SeptARTE and La Cinquième (France’s educational broadcaster), the European cultural channel’s mission is to become the leading Pan-European network. Currently, ARTE has formal partnership agreements, including coproduction agreements, with RTBF in Brussels, SBC in Bern, TVE in Madrid, TVP in Warsaw and rai in Rome.

ARTE (Association Relative á là Télévision Européenne) maintains its administrative pole in Strasbourg (ARTE G.E.I.E.) and is anchored by two equal national programming poles, La Sept/ARTE in Paris and ARTE Deutschland TV in Baden-Baden.

arte programs are broadcast from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. via satellite (Eutelsat 2F1, Astra 1D and Telecom 2B) to terrestrial and cable carriers, with more than 50 million European households now receiving the service, including 70% of the German population and 90% of the French population. Market share has grown, particularly in the past two years, averaging a three to four share in France and just less than a one share in Germany. On a monthly basis, ARTE’s European reach hovers around the 30 million viewer mark.

‘The original concept is that ARTE is an original European channel, which means it’s addressed to European audiences with particular care given to European creators in order to help and develop good producers, filmmakers, directors and authors in television,’ says Thierry Garrel, responsable for La Sept/ARTE’s documentary program unit.

Michel Anthonioz, ARTE associate director international, says traditional documentaries, including feature-length productions seen on primetime showcases such as Grand Format, as well as thematic programs seen three nights weekly, are at the core of the multilingual network’s schedule. Per Anthonioz, ARTE was created in a spirit of opposition to all-pervasive ‘commercial’ television.

The issue is not one of excessive nationalism or anti-American posturing, he explains, but rather arises ‘because we think it is very important that a specifically creative television exist, one that is highly ambitious artistically, culturally and educationally.’

arte broadcasts about eight hours of documentary programs a week, broken down into approximately one-third coproductions, one-third acquisitions and one-third re-broadcasts of licensed coproductions and acquisitions. While spending for coproductions is higher than for acquisitions, Garrel says the annual volume of hours is about the same.

‘Since [La Sept/ARTE's] creation in 1986, we have invested each year something in the order of 200 million ff in production and acquisition, and this investment has had a profound effect on the relaunching of the documentary,’ says Anthonioz.

‘With the multiplication of the channels, my feeling is that it’s clear documentary as a genre is back – exactly at the heart of television itself,’ says Garrel.

‘It is essential, maybe because of economic reasons, as one of the less expensive ways of filling a schedule, but also because all the new satellite channels need new documentary programs. It’s central also because it is powerful entertainment. The encounters and relations which documentaries bring to viewers permits them to understand the world and its emotions.’

Brighton, England-based veteran international documentary consultant John Marshall affirms ‘ARTE is indeed doing an excellent job.’ Per Marshall, ARTE’s contribution to coproduction budgets across Europe ‘ensure a great many documentaries get made and broadcast which would otherwise languish.’

In general, ARTE’s program formats include uncut feature-length films in the Grand Format strand which can run from 80 minutes to 105 minutes plus, in addition to more conventional one-hour discovery, social and political documentary programs.

The Grand Format slot includes features from world-renowned filmmakers (Garrel calls them ‘the popes’ of international documentaries) such as Frederick Wiseman, Michael Moore and Dutch filmmaker Johan van der Keuken, who produces out of Holland-based Peter van Huystee Film and tv. Garrel is currently in discussions with Moore and his representatives about acquiring Moore’s latest feature, The Big One.

According to Garrel, arte places special emphasis on ‘original, inventive prototype’ documentary production as opposed to ‘neutralized, stereotypical’ programming. The goal is to program material that addresses the important questions of the times, be they sociological, political, economic, historical or scientific. ‘I think the documentaries we are thinking of are the kind which recall the vision of 19th century novelists, of men like Zola and others of that order – people who document their own world and reality, but also create strong stories with characters,’ says Garrel.


Responsible for ARTE programming at the three main centres are: Jean Rozat, director of projects, programming, for La Sept/ARTE; Klaus Wenger, ARTE director/ coordinator for ard; and Hans-Gunther Bruske, arte director/coordinator for ZDF.

Aside from the feature-length Grand Format showcase, arte program formats include La Vie en Face, which examines social trends; Les Mercredis de l’Histoire; and L’Aventure Humaine, a discovery program on human life, science and geography. arte also broadcasts programs on fine arts, architecture and the history of cinema, as well as regular magazine shows on sociological themes (Brut), history (Histoire Parallele) and science (Archimede). La Lucarne is a documentary showcase devoted to unique and highly personalized film d’auteur works.

Current projects include an ARTE/BBC coproduction about the rise of the contemporary neo-fascist extreme right in Europe, with bbc commissioning editor Nick Fraser doing much of the journalistic work.

Garrel is especially pleased with a new Peter Chapell and Greg Lanning coproduced feature-length documentary on the World Bank and its dealings with the government of Uganda. The 90-minute film, Nos amis de la banque, is being coproduced by Channel 4 in the U.K. and by JBA Productions and IBT, two indie producers.

Select award-winning La Sept/arte Euro coproductions include: Frederic Laffont’s Maudits soient les yeux fermes, produced in association with InterScoop, BBC and RTSR, the French-language service in Belgium; and Richard Dindo’s Une saison au Paradis, coproduced with France’s prolific Les Films d’Ici and the tsr in Switzerland, a winner of the National Film Board Award for Best Documentary at the 1997 Festival International du Cinema et des Nouveaux Medias de Montreal.

ARTE also buys American documentary product. Feature-length documentaries acquired by La Sept/ARTE and broadcast on the network’s Grand Format showcase include Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, Jane Loader and Kevin Rafferty’s Atomic Cafe, Frederick Wiseman’s Missiles, and Robert Drew’s The Chair.

Other North American acquisitions and coproductions picked up for ARTE’s thematic strands include Sue Williams’ two-hour historical study Born Under the Red Flag; Elliot Halpern’s worrisome examination of New Russia, Jesus in Russia; two Alan Berliner films, Intimate Stranger and Nobody’s Business; Barbara Politsch’s The 28th Instance of June 1914; and Jonas Mekas’ Reminiscences of a Lithuanian Journey. arte is showcasing a National Film Board of Canada documentary this season – Patricio Guzm‡n’s Chile la memoria obstinada, a dramatic 25-year retracing of the violent military overthrow of Salvador Allende. France’s Films d’Ici is the coproducer.

THE PRICE THEY PAY: Coproduction/Acquisition Dollars

In coproduction terms, La Sept/arte will typically invest 40% (600,000ff) of the budget of a one-hour, 1.5 million ff documentary. Perhaps half the sum handed down by arte goes to acquisition-licensing rights for a two-, three- or four-year period in the assigned broadcast territory (all of France, cable and terrestrial; cabled Germany; and areas of Belgium and Switzerland covered by cable).

‘We do not stock rights outside of our broadcast,’ says Garrel. ‘As a co-financer, the other 350,000ff (250,000ff for the licence fee) is calculated against a percentage of commercial export revenues. For example, 20% of export revenues that will come to us.’

Sales for these programs can either be done via the coproduction partners’ sales operation, the program distributor, or by ARTE’s export department, which is active in all major markets, says Garrel.

‘What is most important for us is to help produce new programs to feed the ambitious aims of ARTE, not only in its schedule, but also as part of a larger patrimonial group of creative European programs.’

Prices for acquistions reflect the window or program slot, but late-night programs (like the current midnight slot for more experimental and ‘singular’ documentaries) usually pay an average of 100,000ff an hour. The price for a primetime ‘social’ or ‘history’ slot, in acquisition terms, is closer to 150,000ff

DECONSTRUCTING ARTE: Making sense of labyrinthine structure

Although arte’s bi-national structure appears complicated from the outside, Marshall raises the point as to ‘whether this is inevitable given the cross-national, cross-language nature of the service, and the need to balance different national and political considerations, as well as to deal with the very different broadcasting environments in France and Germany.’

Apart from the broad long-term and mid-term questions of revenue requirements, stable public funding and willingness to move closer to market realities, it has also become important to sort out some of the fundamental differences between the quite separate French operation and the Baden-Baden operation.

Broadcaster La Sept/arte produces, acquires and pre-finances solely for the unified pan-European arte network. The service’s German pole, ARTE Deutschland, on the other hand, is associated with and financed by Germany’s public tv networks: the centralized ZDF network and the 11 ADR regional stations, some of which are more active suppliers to arte than others.

The total documentary budget is quite evenly split between the French and German partners, says Garrel. The 1997 documentary budget for La Sept is in the order of 60 million ff, including 10 million ff for Histoire Parallel, a major archival-based historical program seen each week.

‘But the budget changes year after year,’ says Garrel. ‘The documentary program unit at La Sept is more focused on traditional documentary,’ he adds. Certain non-fiction programs (like Metropolis and certain thematic evenings) are handled outside the doc unit.

La Sept/ARTE, works closely with independent producers, having virtually no in-house production other than network news programs. The approach serves the network’s general European mandate and opens up a wide range of national and European production and marketing/acquisition funding opportunities.

A majority of international documentary productions, perhaps 15% of the overall budget, are coproduced with European partners. Coproductions with partners outside the European sphere is limited, and are, in a sense, still in the early stages.


Thomas Frickel, director of A.G. Dokumentarfilm, the German documentary filmmakers association, and a documentary producer says, ‘While in France, ARTE/La Sept is more or less independent in terms of finance and commissioning, ARTE Deutschland, with its headquarters in Baden-Baden, has never freed itself from dependence on the German public television stations.’

Frickel explains that while each German station is assigned to supply a given percentage of arte programming, ARTE-assigned programs are also used to meet the station’s stand-alone German domestic broadcast requirements. The upshot is that arte funding is used to finance or ‘re-finance’ some of the station’s own activities and ‘productions are frequently only commisioned or acquired if ARTE pays.’

These, and other issues, including what rights are assigned and paid to German independent producers, have seemingly reached an impasse. The A.G. Dokumentarfilm producers’ group is seeking major structural change in the interests of its members, with the demand that programming responsibility for arte in Germany be freed from the interests of senior management at Germany’s public stations.

Marshall agrees that there are problems on the German side, but they may be largely attributable to the complex, decentralized nature of the German broadcasting system.

‘Whereas the French put money in directly from the government, the German broadcasters insisted that [the funding] went through them, so it went through the zdf and [the decentralized] ADR networks. Each of them has an arte department, and so, first of all, there’s a kind of duplication of resources. And then each network has access to arte funding which they can divert into domestic funding, an issue which is central to the complaints of the German producers,’ says Marshall.


In France, legislation enacting an administrative programming and funding fusion of La Sept/arte and La Cinquième (the French educational service) died with the dissolution of the last government; however, according to Anthonioz, indications point to renewal on the part of the recently elected majority government headed by Lionel Jospin.

The two French partners have combined resources of more than US$300 million a year, and, says Anthonioz, may be looking to new channel start-ups in France and internationally. Two channels have already been created: Histoire, which launched on July 14 of this year; and Festival, a fiction-programming network. Both channels are partnered by La Sept/arte and France Television, and are delivered via cable and digital satellite platforms.

As for the brand new links with raisat in Italy, Anthonioz says, ‘We’ll have a weekly thematic program on RAI Uno as of November 1, as well as a number of coproductions valued at several tens of millions of French francs.’

INITIATIVES IN NORTH AMERICA: First we take Berlin, then we take Manhattan

‘We are very open to working with independent producers from North America, but the problem is that the North Americans have to be open to working with us, too,’ says Anthonioz regarding the possibility of arte developing a relationship with North America.

ARTE’s fifth anniversary is the subject of a tribute this fall at New York’s Museum of Television and Radio, and Anthonioz says the New York tribute/exhibition is especially important. ‘We really have the impression that there is a genuine interest in the U.S., notably on the part of A&E, Bravo and Ovation.’

Anthonioz met with executives from all three of the American specialty networks in September: ‘We all had conversations with pbs, notably in New York, Philadelphia, Washington.’ Referring to La Sept/arte and La Cinquime’s combined annual budget of US$300 million, Anthonioz says the amount is even more to work with than what their rich American ‘cousins’ at PBS have.

‘There is a great, great interest in working more closely with Canadians, both filmmakers and broadcasters, and with independent American producers. We hope all the efforts made to date will give rise to real cooperation. That is the objective we are pursuing,’ says Anthonioz.

Anthonioz will be in Montreal in late November to prepare for an application for a new Canadian specialty channel called Reseau des Arts. The proposed service is in partnership with Radio-Canada and Télé-Québec.

-ARTE: Historical Landmarks
-ARTE: Structure & Budget
-ARTE: International Award Winners from 1996-1997

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.