Public Broadcasters and Global Digital Competition: The Strategy of France Télévisions

During the presentation he made last January 24 at HEC Montréal, Éric Scherer, France Télévisions’s Director of Innovation and Future Media, advanced that public broadcasters would have no other choice but to adapt quickly to new technology and consumption realities or they would be at risk of disappearing. Among other things, they are called upon to rise to several challenges—including the challenge of keeping their audiences attentive—while they deal with increased production costs. Let’s examine how France Télévisions attempts to make a place for itself in the modern digital environment with its projects such as the Slash and Salto platforms.

Adapting the offer to new usages

On both sides of the Atlantic, public broadcasters did not wait for governments to adapt their respective legislative frameworks to the new reality of global competition. They instead invested proactively in the digital broadcasting platforms that their respective audiences increasingly seek out.

In Canada, Télé-Québec and Radio-Canada have an online video offer in place since the end of the 2000s.

On the other side of the Atlantic, France Télévisions began developing, in 2010, a global digital offer providing access to shows to catch up on as well as on-demand content through the Pluzz and Pluzz VAD platforms. where France Télévisions houses its free content

In May 2017, the French public broadcaster decided to group all of France Télévisions’s content on a single platform, i.e., For Mr. Scherer, this free platform is poised to become, in the medium term, the group’s first live and on-demand broadcasting antenna, thereby replacing linear broadcasting.

Announced during the recent Séries Mania festival, which took place in Lille, the adaptation of Michel Houellebecq’s novel titled Les Particules élémentaires will be the first fiction feature film to be broadcast exclusively on the group’s digital platform.

During his recent visit to Montreal, Sened Dhab, Director of Digital Scripted Content of the France Télévisions group, recalled that the linear broadcasting of the public group’s services successfully reaches both children and the elderly. However, the group has much more difficulty maintaining the attention of 15–49 year-olds.

Slash: a 100% digital offer targeting young adults

It is with the aim of reaching this audience through different channels that France Télévisions launched its entirely digital Slash offer last year.

Mr. Dhab explains that, with Slash, France Télévisions hopes to present a bold offer that reflects the diversity of French society and takes into consideration the preoccupations of young adults by proposing subjects that are less often touched upon by linear broadcasting.

Accessible not only through the platform, but also through social networks such as YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, Slash proposes square format and subtitled videos aimed at Facebook users who consult the social network mainly through their smartphone (with the sound muted).

Adapting the offer to maintain attention

For Mr. Dhab, conquering digital happens to a great extent through digital fiction. It’s a term that he prefers to that of webseries, which he considers “pejorative”.

His mission within the group is therefore to propose a digital offer that complements the linear offer, an offer that is not limited to short formats but also explores new genres as well as less consensual subjects such as the wearing of religious symbols. He sustains that the French adaptation of Skam France is an excellent way to reach young adults who do not consume as much linear television.

For 2019, the group’s digital fiction division has access to a budget of €10 million.

Salto: France’s equivalent of Netflix in a public-private partnership

Always with the goal of supporting new uses and countering the advance of foreign platforms on the French territory, the France Télévisions group associated itself with private companies TF1 and M6 in June 2018 to create Salto, a shared on-demand video service available online.

Such as the Netherlands’s Nlziet or Great Britain’s BritBox, Salto is a public-private partner that is seeking to provide the French with [TRANSLATION] “an ambitious response to their new expectations by offering a quality service that is innovative and easy to access.”

The three partners would be willing to invest up to €15 million each, thereby providing Salto with an annual operating budget of €45 million.

Just as is the case with ICI Extra and Gem in Canada, Salto will be aimed at offering the on-demand content of partners and the content should be accessible on a subscription basis. Furthermore, Salto should also be offering live and catch-up broadcasting of its partners’ channels as well as exclusive content, and several subscription packages should be made available. Although no prices have been officially announced, certain media have advanced that subscriptions could start from as low as 5 euros.

France Télévisions says no to YouTube and to Netflix

It’s in order to give preference to its common platform project that the public broadcaster wants to regain control over the digital distribution of its content. Thus, Delphine Ernotte, the group’s president, announced that she no longer wanted to broadcast the series produced by France Télévisions on Netflix and had decided to stop broadcasting full content on YouTube.

It is also with the aim of regaining control over its content that the group signed an agreement with producers in the optic of distributing its series through its own free and pay-to-view digital platforms. By virtue of this agreement, France Télévisions obtains a 12 to 24-month period of market exclusivity to provide access, in VSOD format, to fictional works of which it finances more than 66% of the costs or to documentaries of which it finances more than 55% of the costs. In addition, France Télévisions benefits from a period of market exclusivity lasting from six to nine months to operate a free non-linear model.

Coproductions to counter cost increases

In 2018, Netflix spent more than one billion dollars on European content and it is reported that it is currently at work on seven French series and films.

Faced with this intense competition, the France Télévisions group is betting on international coproductions in keeping with the initiative announced by Scandinavian public television stations to create an alliance for the production of high-quality Nordic series.

Consequently, France’s public broadcaster as well as its German and Italian counterparts—i.e., ZDF and Rai respectively—announced the Alliance, a public European coalition that is capable of producing series that rival those produced by America’s largest players. Although the BBC declined the offer, other public groups in Europe have expressed an interest in joining the Alliance.

According to Mr. Dhab, four to five projects are the object of signed agreements and are currently under development. These projects include Mirage, a thriller set in Dubai that is being coproduced by France, Germany and Canada, Leonardo, a grand historical work on Leonardo da Vinci coproduced by France, Italy and Germany, as well as Eternal City, a thriller set in Cinecitta in the 1960s that is coproduced by Italy and France.

Mr. Dhab indicated that France Télévisions typically allots a budget of anywhere between €700,000 and €1 million to the production of a digital series. However, coproduction projects are allotted much higher budgets, i.e., anywhere between €1.8 million and €2.5 million per hour. The Alliance’s most recent project, titled Le Tour du monde en 80 jours, is based on Jules Verne’s novel. It is financed by a budget that could reach up to €3 million per episode.

By 2022, France Télévisions will have invested €200 million in digital programming.

An international French-language platform as the next step?

Although France Télévisions currently favours collaboration with European players, President Emmanuel Macron, during the most recent Francophonie Summit held in Erevan, gave his support to Canada’s project to develop a French-language digital platform based on TV5Monde.

The Canadian government has already announced a financial participation in this project totalling $14.6 million over the next five years.

To which extent will the France Télévisions group, a TV5Monde partner, take part in this project? To be continued…

Jean-Claude Cadot
A diligent observer of developments in audiovisual and digital companies, technological transformations and the evolution of television content consumption practices, Jean-Claude Cadot has worked for more than 20 years for private broadcasters, as well as in public organizations. Today, he provides screen industry decision-makers with monitoring, research and writing services in the strategic, economic, technological and regulatory fields.
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