It’s not surprising that the 1998 World Cup soccer tournament scored record early-evening ratings in France. After all, France both hosted and won the competition. What is a surprise is the program that finally topped the sporting event’s record viewership numbers this year – a documentary.
On January 7, more than a third of viewers in France (nine million in total) tuned in to public channel France 3 for L’Odyssée de l’espèce (Man’s Odyssey). The 90-minute film told of Earth’s first humans through a series of 10-minute vignettes. Screened alongside it was a 30-minute ‘making of’ program depicting how 3-D animation was used to create the prehistoric humans. Among those glued to their TV sets was French President Jacques Chirac, who publicly praised the program as ‘exemplary’. Says Patricia Boutinard-Rouelle, France 3′s head of docs, ‘It was a society event in France – it was absolutely incredible.’
Boutinard-Rouelle has reason to be proud – she initiated the 3 million (US$3.2 million) project. Boutinard-Rouelle is responsible for France 3′s national documentary production, which amounts to about 120 hours a year.
She also acquires an additional 30 hours, largely from international prodcos. Her annual budget is 15 million euros ($16.1 million). The rest of the pubcaster’s factual fare comes from the country’s 12 regional units and consists of mostly current-affairs and magazine programs.
France 3 generally ranks third behind TF1 and France 2, attracting about 16% of viewers. ‘We are bigger than BBC2 and smaller than BBC1, so average audience share is important,’ Boutinard-Rouelle notes. L’Odyssée was ideal for the pubcaster, she says, because it fit the channel’s mandate of creating television that is both popular and stimulating.
The success of L’Odyssée has greatly buoyed Boutinard-Rouelle’s programming ambitions, inspiring her to aim for bigger and bolder productions than the pubcaster has been known for in the past. In the next year, France 3 will double the number of feature-length primetime docs it produces, broadcasting 10 to 12 annually, including the next segment of L’Odyssée. Not surprisingly, Boutinard-Rouelle remains enthusiastic about docs that use new imaging techniques to re-create a bygone world. ‘We couldn’t do them before because it was too expensive… [New technology means] there are wonderful new topics to mine.’
In going for the big and the bold, Boutinard-Rouelle expects to get involved with more international coproductions. L’Odyssée brought together nine broadcasters (including Discovery Channel Canada, Channel 4 in the U.K. and Italy’s RAI) and four prodcos (Montreal, Canada-based Pixcom and Paris-based Transparences Productions, 17 Juin Production and Mac Guff Ligne) in a process that went surprisingly smoothly, according to Boutinard-Rouelle. ‘It was an enormous adventure, but it wasn’t difficult. We had a very precise scenario,’ she says.
Fearful of alienating a discerning audience and mindful of its public service mission, France 3 is cautiously testing out reality formats. The broadcaster will shortly screen its first historical format, Back to the Neolithic, a three-hour series about two families placed in a Stone Age setting. Boutinard-Rouelle is also flirting with the idea of screening a docusoap, but is dismissive of reality TV’s contestant-based programs.
‘In France in the public service we are resistant to this kind of television, where you create a show in which candidates are eliminated. The principle of elimination does not fit with the vision of public service,’ she avows. ‘But, it doesn’t mean we’re not interested in [the reality] phenomenon.’
Regardless, Boutinard-Rouelle intends to stand by her docs. ‘We are at the start of a revolution. Documentary will become more and more popular if we make the effort.’