More Euro slots, more coprod opportunities: France’s doc-casters spawn new channels

On October 16, Planete Italy signs on the airwaves, signalling further expansion of France's doc-casters....
September 1, 1997

On October 16, Planete Italy signs on the airwaves, signalling further expansion of France’s doc-casters.

On July 14, Histoire launched in France, the latest documentary channel to find its way onto Gallic television screens in what is a rapidly expanding doc broadcast market.

More than 10 doc channels are already available in France, a number set to explode further as newcomers, like National Geographic, enter the European natural history fray, and existing local players spin off new specialist channels.

One such player is TPS, the TF1-owned digital satellite platform, which launched Histoire and operates Odyssee, a doc channel also in its first year of operation. Officials there say a new animal channel is currently under discussion.

And just as doc-themed channels on cable and satellite are multiplying in France, the appetite for this genre is increasing at the country’s older terrestrial broadcasters. Public broadcaster France Television (which operates France 2 and 3) is among those increasing investment and the number of hours it devotes to documentaries.

France’s documentary broadcast landscape features two broad-based doc channels – Odyssee and Planete Cable – and a cluster of specialist channels. These include the CanalSatellite-owned SeaSons, a hunting and fishing outlet, six thematic channels operated by tps rival AB Sat, including the recently launched La Chaine Histoire and the only existing animal channel, AB Animaux. And finally Voyage, the travel channel acquired earlier this year by Pathe from U.S.-based Landmark Communications.

All of these channels operate against a backdrop of more than 80 cable and satellite services in France. Licensed by the Conseil Superieur de l’Audivisuel, these services reach 10% of Gallic television households, with a 20% penetration rate, over 80% of which is via financially beleaguered cable companies, with satellite gaining subs fast.

By far the oldest and largest documentary channel in France is Planete. Owned by Canal+, Planete launched in September 1988 with just 3,500 cable subscribers. It now boasts 1.7 million cable and satellite subs. Today its broadcasting tentacles also reach into Switzerland, Poland and Germany and will soon extend to Italy. This not only makes it the number one doc channel in France, but the largest in Europe and second only to Discovery worldwide.

Odyssee, owned by TF1, France’s leading commercial broadcaster, launched on the tps digital satellite bouquet on January 12, 1997. Chief rival to Planete, Odyssee’s satellite subs currently number around 200,000 while its cable penetration is 400,000.

Its president Gerard Carreyrou says the channel’s main objective is to increase its subscriber base and become a significant force in the French documentary broadcast market. By the end of the year, it hopes to increase its satellite subscription base to 300,000. Meanwhile, the channel is negotiating to extend its reach by another 320,000 through a deal with France’s second largest cable operator, France Telecom. It is already part of Lyonnais Communications’ basic cable service, France’s largest cable operator.

‘If we can reach one million homes on cable and half a million subscribers on satellite by the end of 1998, I will be happy,’ says Odyssee’s Carreyrou.

Since its inception, Planete has pursued two main goals, according to head of programming and acquisitions Michel Badinter. One is to increase the price it pays for programming in accordance with the growth of its subscriber base, and secondly, to get into coproductions as soon as it reached break-even, as happened in 1992.

To date, Planete has coproduced 35 docs, a figure that is set to rise considerably over the next few years as the channel coffers swell and it extends its coprod structure.

Currently the channel has set an investment ceiling of 250,000FF for a 52-minute film, but in the future it plans to open a new window where it could invest a higher amount in productions of exceptional nature and longer shelf life.

Badinter says that the channel’s aim is to make coproductions that would not get made if Planete didn’t exist, and to tackle important subjects. One such is sida: Parole de Famille (aids: Families Speak Out), which Planete coproduced in 1995 with M de Film.

A more recent example is Enquete d’Identites, an investigative doc about immigration to air this autumn, which was coproduced with North Africa’s Y.N. Productions.

On the acquisition side, Planete pays an average of 22,000FF for 52 minutes for France and Poland, 12,000FF for Germany and 10,000FF for Planete Italy.

Planete Italy, which starts operating on October 16, is the latest in a string of international launches which the French channel has undertaken in recent years. New launches are also planned in Scandinavia and Benelux, while a Belgian channel has been under discussion for five years. Also being mooted is Forum Planete, a Gallic debate/discussion channel.

Like Planete, Odyssee has positioned itself as a broad-based doc channel. But while its more established rival puts greater emphasis on historical and social docs, Odyssee is slanted more heavily towards discovery, adventure and travel programs (about 60% of its output).

Historical/social docs make up 30%, while news docs make up the rest. Carreyrou, formerly news editor at TF1, is particularly keen to extend this area of programming.

‘We want family audiences, but we are also trying to appeal to a younger audience,’ notes Carreyrou, who says the main demographic target is 15-25 year olds.

With a programming budget of just 35 million ff a year, Odyssee is not yet cash rich enough to get involved in production. However, Carreyrou says that coproductions are likely to be on the agenda by next year, with exploratory discussions already underway with Discovery.

In the meantime, the TF1-owned channel has begun commissioning productions from its parent broadcaster’s news division with more planned in the future.

‘We are a small channel, but we have a huge reservoir behind us, which is the staff at TF1,’ explains Carreyrou.

Despite their exclusivity, Carreyrou says Odyssee will not invest any more than a straight acquisition fee for the TF1 shows, which include a doc looking at the history of France through its houses. Presently, that amounts to about 10,000-15,000ff for 52 minutes, although that can go up to 22,000ff in some cases, and even higher if Odyssee is engaged in a bidding war, says Carreyrou.

Unlike Planete, Odyssee is not actively pursuing an international expansion strategy. Nevertheless, Carreyrou expects Odyssee to be running a limited service (about eight hours) for the Arabic satellite network arte by September and to be fully operational by January.

Back at home, Odyssee is in talks with leading French newspaper Le Monde about starting a new discussion channel, similar to one on the drawing board at Planete. Odyssee Monde would run a few evenings a week. Two pilot shows have been filmed and Carreyrou predicts that negotiations for the new channel will be concluded in the next few months.

More significantly, Carreyrou says the channel is considering a new animal channel spin-off.

‘There is a great demand for animal documentaries and the terrestrial broadcasters here have been poor at delivering them,’ he comments. ‘I have been pushing the people at TF1 hard and we will either launch one on our own or as a joint venture.’

Apart from creating an abundance of sales options and a licensing headache for distributors, Tim Muff, general manager of BBC Worldwide in France, does not think the new channels pose any serious threat to traditional broadcasters in France. As for fees, Muff says they’ve stayed constant, with terrestrial broadcasters often paying ten times more for first-runs than channels like Planete and Odyssee.

Chronology of Launches:

September 17, 1988 Planete Cable launches in France and Switzerland

December 2, 1996 Planete goes on air in Poland

January 12, 1997 TPS launches Odyssee

June 21, 1997 Planete and sister channel SeaSons join Germany’s DF1 digital bouquet

July 14, TPS launches Histoire

October 16, 1997 Planete Italy begins operating

For the Record:

úFrance 2 has more than 220 hours of documentaries for 1997, and has increased

its budget in this area by 30% to 92 million ff. The channel both produces and coproduces.

úCanal+ devotes 4.6% of its schedule to documentary programs. It provides around 200 original productions a year.

úVoyage was launched by Landmark on May 31, 1996, and acquired a year later by Pathe. It currently has 700,000 cable and satellite subscribers. The channel acquires programming but has its own in-house production arm, producing around 600 hours of programming a year. It also coproduces, an area which is set to increase dramatically next year.

úAB Sat has six documentary channels: Encyclopedia, AB Animaux and Automobile, which all launched on April 2, 1996; Chasse et Peche (Hunting and Fishing) and Escale (Travel), which launched on December 4, 1996; and La Chaine Histoire, which launched on May 8, 1997. Collectively, the channels have 11,000 satellite subscribers.

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