The news from Sunny Side of the Doc this year came fast and furious. France 2 and 3 promised more docs, ARTE committed to three annual features, and TF1 promised to launch all-doc channel Ushuaïa TV in November, joining its existing non-fiction offerings Odyssée and Histoire.
Then there is the pending launch of digital terrestrial television (DTT), which brings 15 free-to-air stations into the market in March 2005, followed by 15 new pay services the following fall. Discovery France will also launch this September.
On first blush, it might seem as though the system is firing on all cylinders, but looks can be deceiving. ‘It is true that there are more channels coming,’ notes Olivier Brémond, president of Paris-based prodco Marathon, ‘but the truth of the market is that there are already too many channels in France, and many of them are losing money.’
The DTT launch was already pushed back once – to the suspected relief of pay providers TF1 and M6, which can’t be thrilled by the prospect of 30 new competitors in the field, half of them free-to-air. Insiders say the pay nets have thrown the occasional barrier in the way of the launch whenever possible.
Marathon currently does about 15% of its business in France because of the small amount of investment from domestic television. (Domestically, Brémond’s sales are mostly for second and third windows.) But, he says, some are willing to spend, such as the Planète group, Canal+ and France 5.
The DTT launch could impact France 5 and arte the most, as they now currently share a single terrestrial signal. Ann Julienne, France 5′s head of acquisitions and copros, agrees the fiscal landscape is changing, but she says it is probably more indicative of international moods than those on the domestic scene. ‘I think more and more channels [have] decided to finance their docs better, but make fewer of them and rerun them more often. So does that mean more money? Yes and no. It means certain projects will be better financed, but there might be fewer projects.’
Julienne says she doesn’t see it as an overcrowded broadcast market, as the players have differentiated themselves well in the minds of the viewers. Solid branding, she notes, will be the key to continued success for those providing the slots. As to what gets shown in them… That, she says, is changing. Hybrids – though she flinches at the term – might be the new norm: docs with more drama elements and new storytelling techniques that allow for a more varied pace.
It’s undeniable that change hangs heavy in the French air and the coming year will be revolutionary for the region. But for his part, Brémond remains confident: ‘All in all, I think we are in good times. We’ll have to see what it is like at the end of the day, but over all, I am optimistic.’