The French Conundrum

The numbers are in and for the first time in six years, the stats are not encouraging. The Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), France's administrative and funding body for the film and TV sector, reports that it supported 2,466 hours of TV docs in 2003, down about 10% from 2002. Additionally, the numbers show that broadcasters covered slightly less of the costs this year, delivering producers a double hit.
May 1, 2004

The numbers are in and for the first time in six years, the stats are not encouraging. The Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), France’s administrative and funding body for the film and TV sector, reports that it supported 2,466 hours of TV docs in 2003, down about 10% from 2002. Additionally, the numbers show that broadcasters covered slightly less of the costs this year, delivering producers a double hit.

Digging a little deeper reveals some interesting developments. The volume of doc hours broadcast by pubcasters dropped a little over eight percent between 2002 and 2003, and rose four percent for private channels such as TF1, Canal+ and M6. But, the money invested in docs by pubcasters dropped only about nine percent, and plummeted about 32% for the private channels – a stat that puts the nature of the docs being aired into question.

Looking at the numbers, it’s easy to see why France’s factual community is feeling a bit protectionist. So, to blame the current controversy in France on Popstars is to present a slightly oversimplified version of events. As the French readily admit, nothing in the land of croissants and foie gras is ever simple, especially when it comes to public policy. But, sometimes you need to focus on one ingredient to better understand the dish. So, here goes.

In October 2001, the CNC decided that Popstars, a factual format produced in France by Paris-based Adventure Line Productions (ALP) for commercial channel M6, qualified as a documentaire de création. The term directly translates to ‘creative documentary,’ but its meaning is more complicated than the English version implies. Explains David Kessler, general director of the CNC, ‘A documentaire de création is a documentary that raises a point of view from the filmmaker. It doesn’t simply take a camera on the street and film what’s going on.’

The decision was significant. The CNC redistributes a portion of broadcasters’ resources (gathered mainly from a tax on subscriptions and ad revenues from the private channels, and by taking a portion of the license fee and ad revenues from pubcasters) to indies producing fiction, animated films and creative documentaries, provided they have the support of at least one French broadcaster. Yet, because it’s a public fund, the films must promote audiovisual creativity and encourage the export of French programs – the CNC’s primary objectives as regards the TV industry in France. In other words, the projects must warrant public funding, because they contribute to the health and wealth of French culture.

Okay, moving on… In November 2001, the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA), the French broadcast industry’s Paris-based regulatory body, qualified Popstars as an oeuvre audiovisuelle. Again, the English translation to ‘audiovisual work’ belies the term’s significance. Referring to animation, fiction and docs as well as magazine programs, an oeuvre as defined by the csa is generally considered a work that is creative and might even promote cultural diversity. As regards non-fiction programs, it’s a definition by exclusion. Explains Kessler, ‘The text only says what is not an oeuvre – information, sports and games.’

This decision was also significant. The definition of an oeuvre is used by the CSA to regulate two quotas that ensure European and French productions are supported by French broadcasters. The quota de diffusion dictates that 60% of the oeuvres a broadcaster is obligated to transmit must be European in origin, and 40% of that 60% must be French productions. The quota de production says channels must invest a certain percentage of the previous year’s turnover in commissioning European and French oeuvre.

The quota system is complicated (surprise!), with each channel having different obligations to broadcast oeuvre. There are also rules within rules regulating the relationship that the indie commissioned to produce an oeuvre can have with the broadcaster. It’s best not to dwell on that. What’s important is that the quotas don’t specify that channels broadcast or invest in a certain amount of docs (or fiction or animation or magazines), only that they invest in and broadcast a certain amount of oeuvre.

Formats hit the Fan

That Popstars was supported by both the cnc and the CSA outraged much of the French production community, which suddenly saw public funds and well-intentioned regulations supporting a new breed of factual entertainment – a genre already populated by magazine formats. ‘The opposition was strong, because they estimated it could be bad for future discussions about what’s a creation or not,’ says Patrice Laurent, general manager of ALP. ‘It’s a question of money,’ he continues. ‘Small producers in France didn’t agree, because it would be better to share the cake with five people rather than 10 people.’

So, as is the French way, they protested. The effort was partly rewarded in March when France’s public court overturned the CNC’s decision to fund Popstars. ‘We always thought Popstars was on the border of the definition of oeuvre that we have to apply,’ says Kessler. ‘But, we thought it was on the good side; the court decided it wasn’t.’

Kessler says the court reasoned that because Popstars didn’t capture something that already existed – that it was created just for TV – it was not a documentaire de création. ‘But, I’m not sure this definition is true,’ he continues. ‘Take what we now call docu-fiction, like L’Odyssée de l’espèce or Pompeii. Those documentaries built something only to be shot. So, I’m not sure it’s right to make such a distinction. At the same time, Popstars is not only a documentary, it’s a game. I can understand what the courts wanted to say.’

Laurent, however, disputes this characterization of the show. ‘Popstars is a real docusoap. Nobody is winning something on Popstars – nobody,’ he explains. ‘If [they sell] cds, videos, etcetera, it’s because the music group is doing something with the distribution company, not with our company. We are only the producer. We have followed the group, that’s it.’

Given the court’s ruling, it’s possible that ALP will have to refund the CNC the †130,000 (US$154,000) it was initially granted, a figure Laurent describes as significant to the format’s overall budget. Yet, although the decision is important to the show’s economy, Laurent says it won’t affect ALP’s strategy moving forward. ‘Economically, we have to move with the broadcasters – our clients,’ he explains. ‘Every year, there will be less money for producers specialized in classic programs. Television is moving; it’s like society. No broadcaster, even if it is public, will not follow.’

Laurent also questions how long the ruling will be upheld. ‘We are the most conservative country in Europe regarding this kind of situation. I’m not sure the conservative people in this case will win,’ he says. Kessler, however, isn’t so sure. ‘For the reason that there are more programs and hours of programs being shot, we will be obliged to be more selective,’ he explains. ‘And, this type of program doesn’t need public funding, unlike others.’

Still, as Popstars demonstrates, deciding what to fund and what not to fund will likely become increasingly difficult as factual programs adapt to the market. ‘We want to keep the rules and finance real oeuvre, but you can’t prevent new ways of TV being done,’ says Kessler. ‘There will be new types of documentaries and we have to support them.’

Formats hit another fan

The controversy doesn’t end there. The court’s decision to withdraw the CNC’s funding for Popstars gave an indirect boost to a quest being waged by two of France’s broadcast trade groups, the Union Syndicale de la Production Audiovisuelle (uspa, representing the TV production industry) and the Syndicat des Producteurs Indépendants (SPI, the indie producer’s union). Both groups have been working since January 2002 to narrow the CSA’s definition of an audiovisual oeuvre, specifically as regards magazine programs. Currently, magazines qualify as oeuvre for both the quota de diffusion and the quota de production when less than half of the show is comprised of talk elements.

Says Jacques Peskine, USPA’s GD, ‘The CSA definition is too wide. It allows broadcasters to invest part of their obligation in programs that, in our view, are not programs for which the quota was invented.’ In other words, they’re not oeuvre.

Proving Peskine’s point, while the courts looked at the definition of an oeuvre as defined by the CNC and then ruled against the organization, they supported the CSA’s evaluation of Popstars as an oeuvre. But, the much maligned decision drew the attention of the government’s cultural ministry, which is now considering amending the definition.

‘Our first proposal was to take magazines off completely,’ reveals Peskine. ‘But, the most probable proposal is as follows: when a broadcaster commissions a magazine, say for †1 million ($1.2 million), the investment will be taken into account only proportionately to the content of the magazine that’s oeuvre. So, if 60% of the program is documentary and 40% is talk, only 60% of the †1 million investment will count towards the channel’s quota de production.’ The perk? ‘This frees more broadcaster money for production. In this example, †400,000 ($475,000) has to be spent on other eligible productions [oeuvre].’

Those include fiction, animation and docs, but the consensus is that fiction will reap the most rewards if the definition is amended. This is because France’s large private channels, such as M6 and Canal+, will be most affected by the change, since magazines feature heavily in their schedules. Says Olivier Mille, head of the USPA’s doc commission and a producer with Paris prodco Artline Films: ‘It’s not that they don’t put enough money in documentaries, it’s that they don’t broadcast docs at all.’

But, original fiction is expensive. Both M6 and Canal+ declined to be interviewed for this article, but ALP’s Laurent notes, ‘M6 prefers to put less money in a program that will still get good ratings. Popstars was perfect.’

Now, that’s not to say that broadcasters are clamoring to have reality formats qualify as oeuvre. By law, an oeuvre can only be cut by ads once during its transmission, which isn’t ideal for the genre sponsors love to love. But, short of lobbying for doc quotas within the quotas, Mille sees another possibility for non-fiction producers. ‘Everybody is extremely interested in the ratings that Odyssée and Pompeii got,’ he says. ‘That could be an opening through which these channels enter the doc field.’

There’s already evidence that this might prove true. During April’s MipTV market, Christine Cauquelin, director of docs for Canal+, told RealScreen that the satcaster plans to bring documentaries back as one of the channel’s key offerings.

‘The change in definition,’ Mille concludes, ‘means that in one to three years, there’s going to be more money in the television system.’ Some of that cash may even go to docs. Simply put, that’s good news.

Cutting the ties that put the CNC in a bind

Around the same time the CNC was taking heat for its decision to fund Popstars, the organization introduced an amendment that pulled back support for docs and factual magazines produced by small cable channels.

COSIP, the acronym for the CNC’s TV production account, requires producers to have the support of at least one French broadcaster. Once this stipulation is met, producers who have made programs for French TV in the past can qualify for automatic assistance, which allows them to by-pass the regulator’s selective commission that evaluates funding requests on a project-by-project basis. The amount of money each producer can access is determined by the number of hours broadcast the year before.

Previously, the support a broadcaster gave producers could be issued in cash or in resources such as camera equipment, talent or archives. Since January, however, doc producers need a broadcaster to invest at least †6,000 (us$7,000) per program hour in cash in order to qualify for automatic funding. ‘In the last few years, we’ve seen more and more documentaries produced only with cnc money,’ explains David Kessler, GD of the CNC. ‘When COSIP was created in 1986, it was thought of as complimentary money to help producers, not the only money for a project. If it went on like this, we would have had less money to give to big-budget productions that are supported by broadcasters.’ Doc producers, he continues, would have felt the impact as early as next year, with the CNC forced to reduce its support by up to 10% per project.

Kessler blames the situation on local cable channels that operate with little revenue and fill air-time with cheap factual magazines. Indeed, the CNC’s 2003 figures reveal that of the †11.2 million ($13.4 million) invested in docs by local stations, a whopping †10.9 million ($13 million) was in resources, not cash.

Olivier Mille of Artline Films in Paris agrees with the CNC chief. Mille produces about 10 hours of factual programming a year for French pubcasters and cable channels such as Planète and Odyssée. With the exception of wildlife, Artline tackles most doc genres, with budgets ranging from $200,000 to $500,000 per hour. About 15% to 20% of each program’s budget is financed by the CNC. ‘If cable TV had continued with the number of ‘fake’ productions they were doing, it would have been a big, big risk,’ says Mille.

Doc projects without a cash investment from a broadcaster can still receive CNC money if they’re approved by the selective commission. But, says Jacques Peskine, GD of the USPA, a trade body representing the TV production community, ‘It will affect the commissioning of small cable programs very strongly, because those commissions that do not pass the selective system will not be produced, since they were produced only with CNC money. So, there will be a change, but it’s one we’re aiming for.’

Christophe Champclaux of Paris prodco Rose Night has already been affected by the amendment. His 5 x 1-hour series on Algeria’s Berber people was picked up by Berbère TV, a satellite theme channel based in Paris that launched in January 2000. However, support came in the form of archive footage and editing facilities. Champclaux applied to the CNC for †65,000 ($77,000), one third of the series †200,000 ($237,000) budget, but without a cash investment from brtv he was not automatically approved. ‘It’s a little cable channel, so they can’t give us cash,’ says Champclaux. ‘I’ve met with several cable stations and they’re very angry about this new law. If it is strictly applied, it will be impossible for them to produce documentaries.’

In mid-April, two hours of the series were approved for funding, and the CNC’s selective commission granted the project †30,000 ($36,000). Says Champclaux. ‘We’ll produce these two for brtv and then look for money for the others, maybe from international market sales.’

Going forward, Champclaux says he will rely less on French broadcasters for funding – something he’s already attempting with another series called Masters of the Silverscreen. Denied funding by the CNC, it nonetheless won the interest of Paris-based distrib 10 Francs. ‘If we had not met 10 Francs, it would not be possible to do this series,’ says Champclaux. ‘They have gotten a good response from broadcasters overseas. We have no contract for the moment, but we are underway producing and the series will be finished for next October.’ KB

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.