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Editorial – France – the vue sur les doc is more green than blue

There's not much to grumble about in France these days, except maybe post-World Cup melancholy. In the heat of midsummer, when most of the country is on vacation in Italy anyway, the French tv picture for docs isn't too bad at...
July 1, 1998

There’s not much to grumble about in France these days, except maybe post-World Cup melancholy. In the heat of midsummer, when most of the country is on vacation in Italy anyway, the French tv picture for docs isn’t too bad at all.

While there’s been widespread fretting amongst producers about doc darling Canal+’s decreased expenditures – down to 42 million francs in `97 from 56 million in `96 – and its recent forays into the winsome, cotton candy land of docu-soaps, the overall climate for French non-fiction is far from wretched. Actually, the television outlook for feature-length films, the grand dame of the doc genre, is more positive than most spots on the map.

So, a few opportunities have been lost, but new ones have been cropping up. As noted in our special report on France (pg. 22), domestic public broadcasters are showing a reinvigorated interest in feature-length fare. France 3 held its breath, wished and launched a new primetime slot earlier this year. It’s only once a month at present, but it’s a start. The ratings so far are on the mark, and the pubcaster has seen fit to throw an extra ten million francs into the coproduction pot.

Meanwhile, France 2 is considering a complete Thursday night schedule devoted to factual programming. The proposed lineup – a news-magazine hour, a social issues slot, followed by a slot for otherwise hard to place films – is part of the broadcasters’ drive to improve its doc performance and spend an extra 38 million francs.

While some may assert that it’s the public broadcasters’ burden to pick up the slack if for-profit services snub (or mutate) the genre for better numbers, even France’s commercial broadcasters are looking to non-fiction as a viable ratings winner in primetime. TF1, neighbor on the TPS satellite package to doc service Odyssže, is kicking in between 300,000 and 600,000 francs per hour to coproduce general interest docs bound for Odyssže, asking for video rights and a second window in return. The remarkable point to the deal is that docs have been virtually non-existent on TF1 to date.

The pessimist might look at the overall numbers – volume was down 3.5% in `97 and expenditures down 4.9% – and see an ebb, but the tide had been coming in since early this decade, culminating in a burst of growth in `95 and `96. Foreign investment in French production, via coproductions and pre-sales, was up to the tune of 18% last year, and almost half the sales of French docs were posted outside Western Europe. The small dip is a stabilization, not a slide.

Mary Ellen Armstrong, Editor

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