After more than 15 years spent programming docs, France 5′s head of acquisitions and international coproductions, Ann Julienne, is taking a year off to gain a fresh perspective on the future of television and her role as commissioning editor. The departure came just as public TV in France was delivered its biggest challenge yet: to figure out a new funding model – and fast. She says don’t dismiss the message because you don’t like its delivery.
Why did you decide to take a year off?
Mainly, I needed to shake myself up. I’ve been at France 5 since the beginning and I felt like I needed to make myself do other things for awhile. It was a hard decision – I’m happy at France Televisions and opting not to have your salary top up your bank account every month is difficult. But I also wanted to pursue things like my commitment of the last few years to the Science and Factual Congress, where I’m on the board, and I’ll be doing some consulting and exec producing for independents.
What does shaking yourself up entail?
Getting myself out of the broadcaster mode for awhile. People are watching TV and, therefore, documentaries, in a different way; broadcasters need to step back and ask, ‘Where are we going?’ I’m not sure I know, but I know I need to find out. I’m a tutor for Discovery Campus this year and I’m consulting on a project that was on my short list, but I’m finding it difficult to advise them properly on where to go to get it financed. It’s sort of a 24-hours-in-the-life-of project that happens across different mediums and globally. It’s a solid team, but television has changed. Should they go to a broadcaster or try to do it a different way and maybe a broadcaster will come on later?
You’re also on the advisory committee for the Realscreen Summit. Why do you get involved with events?
I’m in the nice position right now of being an enthusiastic attendee, and I think these events are essential to the TV business. It’s a place where we can discuss where television is going, how content is changing and what we as commissioning editors and heads of departments need to do to make viewers still want to watch TV. We’re all in this business because we like it, so how do we make it better? It’s so important for different people to meet like that and discuss content, because without that you don’t know where to go. You really don’t.
If you could assume the role of dictator for events, which three rules would you impose?
One: You have to go to at least five sessions – and not just the ‘Meet the Commissioning Editor’ sessions. The sessions will help you. That’s what it’s all about.
Two: Commissioning editors can’t just go up to their rooms and hide, which I have to admit I’ve often done. You have to go out and meet the producers. I’m always trying to get my colleagues from TF1 and M6 to come because you have to understand where producers are going, what their frustrations are and what their talent is.
Three: I’d find some rich mentor to help finance all the people who can’t afford to come to these events. I would love to have that ability. There are a lot of really good African producers, for example, that just have no money and so they can’t get international commissions.
Finding new voices is definitely an ongoing industry concern, especially when you look at media as a global outlet, via the Web or otherwise.
It’s a crisis. It’s particularly obvious for African, Latin American and even Asian countries, though at least Asian countries tend to have their own national markets. But, to a lesser degree, every territory has this problem. In France, it’s difficult for non-French producers to penetrate the market because of the laws in place to protect French businesses. To fit into the CNC mode of subsidies, French broadcasters sometimes force non-French producers to work with French producers, but it’s not always a happy arrangement. It also means that there are too many French producers. If they were to merge into bigger companies with shared overhead, they would be more productive. And because of the laws, they don’t go out and try to find coproducers in the rest of the world as much as they should. Of course, there are exceptions.
The UK is a little bit of the same in that it’s very difficult for non-UK producers to work in the UK. The same is true of Germany. All of the territories tend to be too parochial and yet my experience has shown that working with people with a different point of view often results in a more interesting program – nearly all of the coproductions I’ve done with NHK have been big successes on French TV. That’s one of the things I’ve loved about my job all this time: trying to make people look outside their own country. And I’ve been in a unique position to do that because I’m American born but have lived nearly all my life in France, so I see both sides.
Is copro still the best funding model?
It’s still the best funding model for big television documentaries, but television is changing. I’ve been following the us election by watching all the speeches on YouTube. I buy programs on DVD or download them. Some people aren’t paying their license fee because they no longer have a TV. Financing for public TV has to change drastically. Public television, certainly in France, is in an absolute crisis right now.
Did French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposal to phase out advertising on France Televisions starting as early as January come as a surprise?
I think it could have been done in a more delicate way, but it had to come sometime. I’m not sure it would have been in such terms, but the issue of how to finance programs would certainly have been raised. Something has to fund a channel and license fees just don’t do it, especially the license fee in France, which is very low. And people just don’t watch TV the same way anymore, so how programs get financed has to be different now. Television funding is never going to be the same again. I wish the title of this article could be Ann Julienne Knows the Way Out, but I don’t.
Sarkozy has set an ambitious timeline for finding the answer, with ads being completely phased out by 2011.
This crisis is going to take a good year to resolve, because it means changing the law. And in 2012 everything is going to be digital in France, so the issue – and this is only a couple of years away – is going to be completely different again.
One of Sarkozy’s complaints was that he couldn’t find enough difference between French public and private television.
Public TV should be interesting to everyone, even if it’s a quiz show. Wildlife is entertaining but it’s also educational. Reality is something people like to watch, but you can do it right. I think you can do everything right. Why shouldn’t France Televisions have shows that pull in big audiences? If people want to kick off their shoes, sit on the sofa and watch something entertaining, that’s television. But do it well. Have a harmonious schedule where each channel has an identity but they’re all working together to bring something for a different audience every evening and every day.
Do you think public TV still has a role?
I think people want to have a public service. Public TV never developed in the us like it did in Europe; it has always had – let’s face it – low ratings but good value. Public TV in Europe, especially in England but also in France, has always been a major player if not the major player. That makes the whole issue slightly different in Europe. At the same time, the way people are watching TV is not so different anywhere else. You see the rise of cable channels in the us that make very good fiction and documentaries. That evolution has been going on for 20 years and now we’re in a digital age. Who would have thought Thierry Garrel would leave ARTE for a digital company? Yet that’s the way everything is going. That’s the revolution. But I strongly believe that the public service television in France does a good job and that it should stay put, though I don’t know how the financing will happen.
What of President Sarkozy’s proposal that the government appoint the president of France Televisions?
It’s wrong and it’s very dangerous. Public television should remain a public service and not a megaphone for the person in power.
Part of that proposal is to merge the programming departments of France Televisions so there’s only one head of programming for each genre. Is that feasible?
It’s something people in the programming departments don’t want to hear. I didn’t want to hear it either. But I think it’s inevitable. You can’t model France Televisions on the BBC because it doesn’t do in-house production, so it won’t work quite like that. But it will eventually happen, there will be a person who’s not the top commissioning editor but who oversees which commissions go to which channels. I still believe that can and will happen serenely, because there will still be a top commissioning editor at each of the channels. So far it’s less… systematic.
Does fewer people taking pitches raise the risk of good ideas being overlooked because of personal tastes?
If you do it right, even if there are five people involved, you can keep opportunities open. It is a risky business and there are only so many slots on the channel, but it’s a risk worth taking.
What do you predict public TV will be like in 2012, when the switch to digital is complete, technology has marched ahead and presumably today’s dust has settled?
People will need to make programs that work better on the Internet, on VOD, etcetera, and everyone from the various platforms will need to work hand-in-hand from the beginning. Programming is no longer about making something for TV and then doing something else with it. It all has to be thought out right from the origin: Why are people going to be interested in this? Who is going to be interested in this? Where are they going to watch it: VOD, DVD, download? I’m not sure how all this is going to settle in the end, but I think the executive production of a program will remain a key role. That’s why I’m not so concerned about genres being under one person. If you have an exec producer on a series, they have to make sure that all aspects of the program are working.
That’s only three years away! In the more immediate future, what happens at the end of your year off?
Technically I can go back to France Televisions, to a similar position.