La Cinquième

Since its launch in December 1994, upstart public broadcaster La Cinquième has introduced a radical, new concept to daytime TV in France - intellectual programming. Spurred by the notion that daytime audiences want more than soaps and talk shows, the Issy-les-Moulineaux-based...
March 1, 1999

Since its launch in December 1994, upstart public broadcaster La Cinquième has introduced a radical, new concept to daytime TV in France – intellectual programming. Spurred by the notion that daytime audiences want more than soaps and talk shows, the Issy-les-Moulineaux-based pubcaster offers history, science, health, people and places instead. ‘Basically, the channel is very documentary and magazine [oriented]. We have very, very little fiction,’ says Ann Julienne, who is responsible for La Cinquième’s acquisitions and coproductions with foreign partners. ‘We’re an education/knowledge channel.’

Although La Cinquième is now available on satellite from 6am until midnight, it has built its reputation as a daytime terrestrial broadcaster. Four years ago, La Cinquième became France’s fifth terrestrial (hence the name), broadcasting daily from 6:45am to 7pm (La Sept/ ARTE shares the channel with La Cinquième and broadcasts from 7pm onwards). It placed its faith in daytime viewers, and has not been disappointed. According to information from the channel, 14 to 17 million TV watchers tune in to at least one La Cinquième program each week.

Though La Cinquième has a clear idea about the kind of programming that fits its mandate as an educational channel, nothing is produced in-house. The vast majority (80%) is commissioned; the rest is acquired.

One of the channel’s most recent offerings is a strand called La Cinquième Rencontre (La Cinquième Debates). ‘It’s usually acquired programs and acquired 52-minute documentaries, but then there’s a half-hour discussion about the subject,’ Julienne says. ‘Because they’re in this discussion format, we can cover subjects that are more sort of social issues that we wouldn’t have been able to cover before. That’s opened up quite a lot of programming possibilities.’

La Cinquième Rencontre, which is almost a year old, runs four afternoons a week (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday). As Julienne explains, each day has its own theme: ‘On Monday we try to find subjects that are about families or schools, on Tuesday it’s health and science – but all from a social issues perspective – Thursday it’s the legal system, and Friday is economy and the workplace.’

Julienne fills these slots with one-offs, which generally air only once. She casts far and wide for health and science programming (La Cinquième recently bought a program about the sociology of serial killers called To Kill and Kill Again from Channel 4, for example), but sticks closer to home to find suitable shows on the other themes. ‘I find that the programs that work better in the Monday, Thursday and Friday slots tend to be French or close-by European – Belgian or Swiss, maybe,’ she says. ‘If we were to talk about problems at the workplace in Canada, for instance, it wouldn’t work as well because people wouldn’t feel they could relate to that.’

Julienne often looks to PBS (or distributors that specialize in PBS programs), Discovery (both TLC and the Discovery Channel), Channel 4 and the BBC for appropriate programming. License fees range from around US$12,000-$14,000, though they are roughly $3,000-$5,000 lower if the programs need to be dubbed into French. And since La Cinquième went on satellite a couple of years ago, Julienne says she’ll often take exclusive terrestrial rights and non-exclusive satellite rights.

In terms of coproductions, Julienne says La Cinquième does four or five projects each year, which include a mix of one-offs and series. In the works at the moment: Passion for the Past, a five-part series coproduced with wgbh. ‘Each episode is about some technology from ancient times that we no longer understand,’ Julienne explains. An episode to be shot this summer, for example, is about submersible bridges that were made in China during the Middle Ages. ‘The technology is lost. All that’s left are drawings, so we’re going to see if we can build one and find out how they did it,’ Julienne says. ‘We’ve always got either scientific or historical reasons for doing something.’

La Cinquième isn’t the only channel in France to take the high road in non-fiction programming, but Julienne says she doesn’t consider any of the other French doc-specific channels to be a threat. ‘I don’t think we have real competition because we have so many specific areas where we’re the only people doing that sort of programming.’

One of La Cinquième’s most popular programs, for example, is L’oeil et la main (Eye and hand), a monthly magazine-style show aimed at deaf viewers. ‘Part of our remit is to reach portions of the population who normally are excluded from a more generalistic type of television channel,’ Julienne says. The two hosts of the show are deaf, but in the spirit of universal accessibility, a translator interprets the sign language for the general viewer. ‘Even though it’s obviously for the deaf, it also concerns all the people who have contact with deaf people – so, their family members, their doctors, their teachers – and it’s very watchable,’ she says.

However, not all of La Cinquième’s programming is that specific. Wildlife shows make up a significant chunk of its schedule, with one wildlife strand running in a half-hour midday slot Monday through Friday, and another on Saturday afternoons for an hour. Is there competition with other channels for these programs? Not according to Julienne. ‘France 3 and Canal+, and France 2 to a lesser extent, all air wildlife programming but many fewer programs than we do. They don’t have nearly as many strands. So, I never really feel like they’re a threat to us at all, or competition, because I’m still able to find all of the product that I need.’

La Cinquième’s mix of programming reflects its desire to provide educational, rather than scholarly, TV. The difference, as Julienne explains, is ‘we make a big effort to have these programs have a broad appeal.’

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