France Moves Forward

Despite their differences, French broadcasters airing non-fiction programming have many of the same issues on their minds: the upcoming change in presidency at the France Television Group, how to differentiate themselves in their packed marketplace
June 1, 2005

Despite their differences, French broadcasters airing non-fiction programming have many of the same issues on their minds: the upcoming change in presidency at the France Television Group, how to differentiate themselves in their packed marketplace

(now even more congested with the recent, though much-delayed digital launch), the docufiction boom and, of course, storytelling, storytelling, storytelling. No matter how much things change, the yearning for new ways to deliver stories always stays the same.

The following is a look at how five doc-friendly terrestrial channels – France 2, France 3, France 5, arte France and TF1 – are setting themselves apart from each other, and what they need from producers. Much like their counterpart Canal+ – a pay tv channel that airs roughly 100 hours of exclusive doc programs each year, with plans to increase those offerings – these broadcasters want innovation and quality from their producers, so pay attention as they reveal more details.

France 2: Helping the indie

Yves Jeanneau, head of documentaries

The pubcaster is using event-style docs to compete for audience against commercial channel TF1, and aims for five million viewers in primetime (which starts at 9 P.M.) and 2.5 million in the second part of the evening (which starts at 10:40 P.M.). Each year, it airs roughly six or seven multi-million dollar event docs in primetime, and about 25 in the second part of the night.

Jeanneau says he acquires about 15% of his programming each year, and roughly 85% is commissions. ‘This is more risky because it’s always easier to buy something that’s already done, but [commissions are] the best way to support the French industry, and also the European industry.’

France 2 still has a copro relationship with BBC on the pubcaster’s main projects, and is also developing programs produced by French indies to help them find international partners. One such project, a €3 million (US$3.8 million) one-off called The Gallery of Mirrors, will be shot at the end of the year by Paris-based Les Films D’Ici.

Docufiction and investigative doc programs have done well, including last year’s The World According to Bush, which reached 2.5 million viewers and was produced by Paris-based Flach Film.

When using CGI, Jeanneau says ‘You must be careful because we are still doing documentary, not fantasy. We need to keep reality as the main issue. Storytelling is the main thing, not the techniques.’ Iceman Murder, a 90-minute primetime docudrama soon to broadcast on France 2, uses minimal CGI, opting instead for fictional reconstructions.

France 3: Staying with big event docs

Patricia Boutinard Rouelle, head of documentary

Looking for ‘new ways of mixing information and pleasure,’ France 3 has become a pioneer of the docufiction hybrid, contributing from €500,000 to €1 million (US$634,000 to $1.3 million) to each of four or five different major coproductions each year. ‘Our brand is based on the revolutionary idea in France that documentary programs are creative and popular. [Before Species Odyssey], docs were rejected and on the fringe of the schedule.’

Boutinard Rouelle predicts it will take several years before the digital launch will affect the big channels. When it does, she thinks big event programming will continue unscathed. ‘We think we will still have the power of attraction. The [digital] channels will never be able to produce these kinds of big docs because it’s a lot of money, and they don’t have the budgets.’

Already known for its historical docufictions, the channel is now looking to use the approach in other areas, like science. One such film is The Future of Man, a 90-minute look into the next 3,000 years of human evolution. Produced by Paris-based Boreales, the prodco that broke viewer records with Homo Sapiens, Future will start production next year.

In response to the booming reality trend on France’s commercial channels, the pubcaster recently began airing Hotel Dieu, a 4 x 1-hour series that follows six patients in a hospital for one year. It draws roughly four million viewers.

France 5: Making counter programming count

Ann Julienne, head of acquisitions and international coproductions

‘What differentiates us from the other channels in France is that we’re a terrestrial documentary channel, whereas the other strictly non-fiction channels are on cable or satellite.’ Each afternoon, France 5 airs docs while many of the other terrestrials show game shows and soap operas. ‘Our brand is really recognizable because we have strong non-fiction programming throughout the day.’

The channel launched on digital terrestrial on March 31, and rebroadcasts are largely used to fill its new 24-hour sked, including the popular current affairs talk show C’ Dans L’Air, which gets a typical market penetration of 1.1 million viewers. ‘We’re also timidly starting to buy more history series because we think they’ll work in the evening.’

In addition to globally themed docs, France 5 also airs ‘close-to-home issues that are French programs by French producers that don’t travel in the way the other genres do.’

While docudramas have gotten hype for three years, Julienne believes some have gone over the top ‘when actors are talking similar to fiction.’ She says viewers are coming back to preferring more traditional docs. ‘In the last year, there’s been fewer docudramas getting done; they can still work as event programming, but not more than one or two a year.’

Wildlife programming still rates well on France 5; roughly 80% of it is acquired from high-end producers and distributors, including London-based Parthenon and the BBC.

ARTE France: Looking outside of France

Thierry Garrel, head of documentary unit

Christoph Jörg, specialist factual commissioning editor

ARTE France has five departments dealing with docs: the main doc unit; specialist factual; culture; current affairs; and performing arts. About 40% of the channel’s programs are docs.

At the core of ARTE is the ‘European dimension,’ which Garrel says ‘opens the window to the world’ and gives viewers encounters with different countries and lifestyles. ARTE is especially keen on creative docs that build bridges between different European cultures.

The channel is in the process of revamping its sked with the addition of new shows for 2006, including a new science slot, but no details can be confirmed yet.

ARTE France looks for strong characters to bring viewers deep into a group of people. For instance, Signe Chanel is a 5 x 26-minute series by Paris-based Lalala Productions that follows the creation of a complete collection by the venerable fashion house, and recently aired in primetime. Another 5 x 26-minute series (from Paris’ Agat Films et Cie) is 9m2, where two jail inmates film each other telling stories about their lives.

ARTE France coproduces three theatrical docs each year that subsequently air on the channel. The first one was Darshan, an official selection at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, about a female guru in India. It will be shown in theaters this fall and will screen on ARTE in two years. The most recent one follows Real Madrid footballer Zinédine Zidane and is set to play in theaters next year.

Jörg is working on the ambitious Democracy Project – an undertaking of the STEPS International working group that has indie filmmakers worldwide tackling the subject. As one of several partners on the project, ARTE will create a large event around the 2007 broadcast of the 10 films that were greenlit by STEPS.

TF1: Keeping it real

Edward Boccon-Gibod, head of communications

‘We are a generalist channel – our strength is to be strong with every kind of program: news, fiction, sports, movies, youth programming,’ says Boccon-Gibod. Forty percent of TF1′s programming is non-fiction.

TF1 doesn’t do copros for its non-fiction programming; instead it buys rights or produces shows itself.

The commercial channel has done history specials to commemorate anniversaries such as the end of World War II, and it will air a project to mark the anniversary of Hiroshima in August.

A primetime show called Ushuaïa (so well received that it spawned its own like-named channel), that Boccon-Gibod says features multi-million dollar docs about special places on earth, broadcasts five times a year.

With reality TV still very popular in France, TF1 and M6 are in fierce competition to nab format viewers ‘because the public channels decided not to compete with reality tv,’ contends Boccon-Gibod. TF1 has aired Joe Millionaire, Survivor and Temptation Island, among others.

In addition to buying 60% of its well-known reality shows from Endemol France, TF1 also uses its own Glem subsidiary to produce formats.

The channel’s best-rated reality show, Star Academy, will start its fifth edition this fall. The fourth, which was produced by Endemol France, aired daily between 7 P.M. and 8 P.M., then again in primetime on Fridays. The primetime average was eight million viewers.

TF1 recently started broadcasting The Farm, a reality show that has former celebrities living in an old farm in the south of France as farmers did in the last century. It airs between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m., and ratings are six million viewers per night.

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