Digital in France

With a switch to digital terrestrial TV looming on the horizon and a steady increase in satellite subscribers, digital TV in France seems to be hitting its stride. CHRISTINE COWERN looks at the digital landscape and gets the low-down on some specialty channels in France
June 1, 2001

The next few years promise to be significant for the development of digital TV in France. The country currently has six national terrestrial channels, the public channels – France 2, France 3, La Cinquième/ARTE – and the privately owned TF1, Canal+ and M6. (La Cinq and ARTE share a terrestrial signal, but each will have 24-hour transmissions when they go digital in November 2002.) There are also over 80 thematic channels on cable and satellite that specialize in everything from history and animals to classical music. Canal+ is the biggest French pay-TV operator and owns part of MultiThématiques, a group whose channels include Planète (docs) and Seasons (hunting, fishing and nature). TF1 and M6 also own cable and satellite channels, as does the AB Groupe, Pathé and Lagardère (also a partial owner of Canal+).

France was one of the first countries in Europe to launch thematic channels and it is among the first to jump on the digital terrestrial television (DTT) bandwagon, a move sure to revolutionize the broadcasting landscape. France plans the switch for 2002, when approximately 36 channels will be available in the new format.

The switch to DTT has been contentious from the start. The French government, anxious to avoid a monopoly, passed a law last year stating that no one shareholder could own more than 49% of any new digital terrestrial channel. After heavy lobbying from France’s commercial networks, that law is now being amended, but new rules stipulate no one group can own more than five channels. Gèrald Ganascia, director of research and communication for France’s broadcasting authority, the Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel, says the transition to DTT signals the biggest change of late and is a crucial step if France is to move with the times. ‘The main reason for launching DTT is to provide French people with more choice,’ says Ganascia. ‘Right now, only 20% to 25% of the population gets cable or satellite. The rest get only the six terrestrial channels.’ He adds, ‘The launch should make for great competition between cable, satellite and DTT.’

Competition is already strong in France, where rival services have launched theme channels in the battle to attract more subscribers. It’s a move that Richard Maroko, director of thematic channels for the AB Groupe, says has led to over-saturation. ‘Our concern is not new channel launches, but rather consolidation of what’s existing,’ he says. ‘The market is very crowded in France. There are many channels, but there’s no money out there… In the coming months, channels will disappear or will be re-enforced.’ He adds, ‘I think digital terrestrial will bring reality into the market, but only the strongest and most economically sound channels will remain.’

Maroko asserts both budgets and subscribers are on the rise at AB, thanks to its pragmatic approach to the future. ‘When you launch a channel, it takes two to three years to fine tune it and then you can start increasing the budget,’ he says. ‘The first step is to break even, which we have done, then you can start thinking about how to increase subscribers and make money.’ AB owns 17 channels, including Escales, Animaux and Encyclopedia.

All of AB’s channels are available on cable as well as on France’s two main digital platforms: Canal Satellite and Télévision par Satellite (TPS). Canal Satellite (backed by Canal+), the platform for MultiThématiques’ channels, leads the field. Their rival, Télévision par Satellite (TPS), is partially owned by the Suez Group, TF1, M6, and France Télévision/France Télécom. Canal Satellite launched in April 1996 and currently has 1.6 million subscribers in France – a significant jump over the 700,000 subscribers it had at the end of 1997. TPS launched in December 1996 and has more than 1 million subscribers, compared to 320,000 at the end of 1997.

If the steady increase in subscribers is any indication, digital TV is luring viewers away from the traditional terrestrial channels. The switch to DTT promises to make digital’s toehold on the marketplace even stronger. Ganascia says he’s optimistic about the change, but warns the transition will come at a price. ‘DTT will be in direct competition with cable, so although it’s good for the channels to be adding DTT to get more viewers, it will be difficult in the next year for cable operators and distributors,’ he says. ‘DTT is the biggest change in France’s TV landscape and will be for the next few years.’

Some digital outlets for docs in France:


Genres: Science, technology, ecology and space; magazine programs

Hours of broadcast: 7a.m. to 2a.m. daily

Hours for factual: Approx. 700 hours per year

Origin: 85% acquired, 15% coproduced

Encyclopedia or ‘The Knowledge Channel’ is owned by the AB Groupe and is available on cable, as well as satellite platforms Canal Satellite and TPS. ‘We are looking for programs that teach viewers something,’ says Amaury Druesne, who’s in charge of programming. The channel has thematic schedules for its weekly programming: Monday is arts and culture, Tuesday is space and technology, Wednesday is ecology, Thursday is society and Friday is science.

In addition to docs, which feature most heavily in the channel’s schedule, Encyclopedia runs hosted magazine programs. ‘The magazine shows either air weekly or monthly,’ explains Druesne. ‘We produce a 26-minute weekly magazine called Eco-Logique and a 90-minute monthly magazine called Science en Questions.’ Eco-Logique is on ecology and the environment. It airs on Wednesday night and is then repeated in the schedule 10 to 12 times over the next two weeks. Science en Questions is about the impact of science on daily life and airs on the third Monday of every month before being repeated. The channel also airs a daily 26-minute magazine called Futur Immédiat about science and technology.

Encyclopedia prefers 26 or 52-minute docs, but lengths vary. Budgets also vary for the channel, and Druesne reveals they have increased. ‘Encyclopedia’s budgets and those of the other channels in the AB Groupe are higher than last year – for program acquisitions, but especially for our own TV productions,’ he says. Encyclopedia

produces the hosted segments of the magazines in-house, but acquires most of the channel’s doc material. Druesne says the channel always dubs its material. Encyclopedia’s audience share grew by 25% in 2000 and by the end of last year, the channel had 300,000 subscribers.


Genres: Travel

Hours of broadcast: 8a.m. to 2a.m. daily

Hours for factual: Approx. 500 hours per year

Origin: Acquired, coproduced, commissioned

Nathalie You, head of documentary programming for Escales, says the travel channel provides viewers with a chance to get away from the rigors of everyday life. Escales, which translates to ‘a port of call’ or ‘stopover’, has been up and running for about six months and is owned by ab. It’s carried on cable and through the TPS and Canal Satellite platforms.

‘Escales is a channel that lets people escape and dream,’ says You. The channel considers docs its main area of

factual programming and runs theme programs in its daily schedule, including culture, nature and adventure.

Escales broadcasts 26-minute and 52-minute docs in its nightly 6p.m. to 7:30p.m. time slot, although length can vary. After a doc premieres, it airs 10 more times in rotation, in various time slots, over a two-week period. You explains there is no specific number of factual programming hours the channel must allot annually and confirms Escales acquires more material than it commissions. The channel also coproduces.

You is open to all types of programming. ‘We need classic programming that shows beautiful beaches and good music and we also need humorous material.’ She adds, ‘I’m really looking for docs that are a bit lighter, such as ones about Bora Bora or Tahiti. I have a lot that deal with heavier topics, but I need more basic programming that makes people dream.’

About 60% of what airs on Escales is international material and 40% is domestic. The channel buys a lot of its international material – which is dubbed rather than subtitled – from Germany, Spain, England and Australia. Recent docs include Voyage, Voyage, a 52 x 45-minute series produced by ARTE that provides personal views on travelling across the world, and Tales from Oceania, a 13 x 26-minute series produced by Sydney, Australia’s Juniper Films on the legends and myths of the South Pacific, distributed by London’s Dandelion Distribution.


Genres: Various; docs and magazines

Hours of broadcast: 9a.m. to 2a.m. daily

Hours for factual: 400 hours of docs per year

Origin: 23% coproduced, 77% acquired

Odyssée bills itself as a channel that’s 100% dedicated to docs. It’s owned by TF1, one of the country’s private channels, and is available as part of the TPS satellite package in France, as well as on cable. Marie Dominique Tatard-Suffern, head of communications for the channel, says Odyssée has a broad mandate. ‘We air every kind of documentary,’ she says. ‘About 60% of the ones we broadcast are on what we call discovery: animals, nature, travel, people, technology and adventure. About 40% of the documentaries we broadcast are on knowledge and include history, science and art.’

The channel also incorporates magazine shows, a move that Tatard-Suffern says was implemented to give viewers a change from the regular doc fare. ‘All of our magazines are made for documentaries. It’s boring to have different documentaries coming one after another with no link, so we decided to add hosts to tell people why it’s important for them to watch the documentary and why we chose it.’ Among Odyssée’s magazine programs is Adventure, a 60-minute show about exploits in France and around the world that premieres on Thursday nights and is repeated at different times over the next week. Also, Pays de France, a 60-minute in-depth look at ‘the marvelous things we have in France’ airs first on Sunday nights. Tatard-Suffern estimates that Odyssée coproduces 80 hours of Adventure and Pays de France annually.

Tatard-Suffern says the channel has recently come into its own. ‘Our budget has increased in the last few years. We began with FF32 million (US$4.3 million) and now have FF50 million (US$6.7 million).’ Odyssée’s doc budget is FF20 million to FF25 million (US$2.7 million to US$3.4 million) and the channel now invests in coproductions as well as magazines. Odyssée is currently available in about 1.7 million households.

Docs can be anywhere from 30 to 120 minutes in length, although Tatard-Suffern says the standard is 50 to 60 minutes. The channel usually acquires rather than commissions and dubs foreign material. It buys programs from almost every territory, including the U.S., U.K., Asia and Europe. ‘The only doc we initiated is one on Algeria,’ says Tatard-Suffern. ‘The chairman [Gérard Carreyrou] was really interested in it because there wasn’t anything on [that area]. It’s an investigative piece about how the French army could be involved in torture in Algeria.’ The documentary, entitled Torture in Algeria and produced by Paris’ Ego Productions, is slated for broadcast on Odyssée in January 2002.


Genres: Various

Hours of broadcast: 6a.m. to 2a.m. daily

Hours for factual: Approx. 1,000 original hours per year

Origin: 90% acquired, 10% coproduced

Planète has been up and running in France since September 1988 and broadcasts via satellite and cable. It’s available on Canal Satellite and is owned by MultiThématiques, itself owned in part by Canal+. Versions of the channel air in Italy and Germany. The French Planète is also broadcast in Poland, Belgium, Switzerland and parts of Africa.

Francis Kandel, head of acquisitions and programming for Planète, says the channel airs docs of ‘any sort, and length, and on any topic.’ With 22 hours of original docs each week, Planète remains one of France’s largest doc outlets. Its sister channel, Planète 2, airs the same 22 hours of original docs per week, but never simultaneously.

‘We try to have a wide array of programming, so we look for documentaries that you don’t see on every channel,’ says Kandel, who works with a budget of approximately FF22,000 (US$3,000) for an hour-long program. Although Planète is partial to the 60-minute format, it airs docs of other lengths, as well as series. ‘We’re looking for light documentaries,’ she continues. ‘People think if there’s not a sad story in a documentary it’s not interesting, but we need to have a balanced schedule, so we try to have different kinds of material.’ Once documentaries are first broadcast they will air for the rest of the week in different time slots.

Planète both dubs and subtitles its material, and works with producers and distributors worldwide, including the BBC, Granada and Films Transit. It’s also looking for material from new territories. Says Kandel, ‘We are always happy to find productions that come from a country where we haven’t bought anything before.’


Genres: French heritage and culture; docs and magazines

Hours of broadcast: 7:30a.m. to 12:30a.m. daily

Origin: 86% acquired, 14% coproduced

The programs on Régions are meant to provide viewers with ways to discover the regions in France. The channel, which began broadcasting in 1998, is available on the TPS satellite platform and cable. Its goal, according to director of programs Jean-Paul Chailleux, is to ‘show the great diversity of France…and provide portraits of people throughout the country.’

The channel broadcasts only domestic programs and acquires the majority of its content from France 3.

As Chailleux explains, ‘France 3 broadcasts regional programs, but only in the region where the program was produced. Since France 3 is Régions’ main shareholder, we buy programs from them to broadcast across the country.’ He adds, ‘This way, a person who lives in the south of France can watch a regional program produced in the north.’ Régions has an annual budget of about FF52 million (US$7 million), approximately FF17 million (US$2.3 million) of which is for factual programs.

Docs usually run 13, 26 or 52 minutes in length, although 90-minute docs and series are also broadcast. Magazines that air on the channel are produced in-house and include Visiomag, a 26-minute daily that lets viewers across the country discuss issues using special webcams. Another, 7 en France, is a 26-minute ‘discovery’ magazine filmed throughout France. Two presenters visit parts of France and conduct interviews on various topics.


Genres: Hunting, fishing and nature; docs and magazines

Hours of broadcast: 12p.m. to midnight or 1a.m.

Hours for factual: Approx. 620 hours per year

Origin: 50% coproduced, less than 50% acquired

Seasons is a channel dedicated to hunting, fishing and nature. It’s part of MultiThématiques and is available on Canal Satellite’s platform and cable. The channel can also be found in Poland, France, Spain, Germany and Italy.

Seasons runs 12 hours of factual programs per week. That breaks down to 10 hours of original docs that run in various time slots in the schedule, and two hours of in-house original productions in the form of magazine shows. The magazine programs are each 60 minutes. Saisonnier deals with hunting, fishing and nature in all seasons, and Bouquinage is a book show featuring interviews with authors and experts about similar topics.

Olympia Dubischar is the acquisitions and programming manager for Seasons. ‘Every day at primetime there are new programs coming into the schedule and they go around the schedule for the rest of the week at different times,’ she says. ‘The documentaries don’t have to be a certain length,’ Dubischar goes on to explain. ‘We don’t want to be locked into a special format. The ones we buy or coproduce are usually 26 or 52 minutes, but it varies.’

Dubischar says that although about 30% of what airs on the channel originates outside Europe, the programs have a strong European base. ‘Because our subscribers are European, we are trying to give them more programming that relates to European fishing or hunting,’ she explains. ‘A documentary for us should be one where you see and understand the process of hunting and fishing. American programs often focus on dramatic catching and shooting and don’t examine the process it takes to get there.’

Seasons dubs all its material, including the voiceover and commentary. Recent programs for the channel include the 26-minute Une vie de chiens, about abandoned dogs who are cared for during the war in Yugoslavia (a copro with Seasons and Paris-based Dari Films), and Chasses en Europe, a 10 x 52-minute copro between Seasons and French doc unit MC4 that examines hunting in Europe.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.