French nets up for fare war

Gains at home vs. U.S. series bode well for int'l sales

PARIS -- French television has turned into a bilingual showdown of late as popular U.S. imports and homemade series wrestle to win over small-screen audiences. To combat the wave of U.S. shows that have exploded onto the market, leaving audience records in their wakes, French networks are investing more and more in domestic programs and are seeing results.

Now, with the domestic playing field more level these days, Gallic producers are wondering whether their locally produced series can compete with the Hollywood TV invasion abroad too.

That will be the question on everyone's mind at this year's TV France International Rendez-Vous, the domestic screening market set for Sept. 7-9 in Biarritz. All the major French television distributors will show off their offerings for more than 250 buyers from 50 countries with the hopes that the recent popularity of French fiction fare will extend across borders.

France's original indigenous programs have been topping the ratings charts recently, proving to be tough competition for the increasingly popular U.S. series crossing the Atlantic.

As "CSI: New York" and "CSI: Miami" continue to break records, with more than 10 million viewers on average per episode, Gallic viewers have been dissecting the forensics drama "R.I.S.," TF1's homegrown version of "CSI." One January episode of the series attracted 11.3 million viewers, beating even "CSI: Miami's" highest score (10.3 million). "R.I.S." maintained a 9.9 million-viewer average during its first season and has averaged a steady 7.4 million its second.

For France Televisions, which has thrived behind American-made police dramas "Without a Trace," "Cold Case" and "The Closer," national fare also has performed well. More than 7.1 million French viewers tuned in this year for France 2's literary period adaptation "Chez Maupassant," based on short stories by 19th century author Guy de Maupassant. And TF1's "Profession: Guardian Angel," "Femmes de loi" and "Une femme d'honneur" are consistent audience chart-toppers, taking in 7 million-10 million viewers a night, while the network's summer saga "Mystere" attracted a whopping 9.4 million viewers for its first episode and has averaged about 7 million viewers.

The major French networks are competing by slowly inching away from the traditional 90-minute format and embracing the 52-minute series, making the programs attractive domestically and internationally.

"The French are really making an effort to adapt their formats to the international market," TV France International executive director Mathieu Bejot said.

They also are hoping that increased spending on in-house fictional series will make them competitive.

"It's about talent, but it's also about money if we want to be able to compete with American series," said producer Claude Chelli of Capa Presse, which produced the recent drama "Reporters" for pay TV network Canal Plus.

Canal Plus will spend more than €30 million ($41.15 million) in 2007, and all of the networks are boosting investment in the genre. France 2 and 3 have an annual fiction budget of €213 million ($291.26 million), and TF1 will invest €220 million ($300.83 million) this year.

"Television is a rapidly changing industry, so we must constantly adapt. There are always cycles," France Televisions programming head Thierry Langlois said. "The cycle of the moment is U.S. series, both in terms of volume and content. But French fiction is a format that's been working for years and will continue to work well."

After eight years in Saint-Tropez, organizers moved the Rendez-Vous last year to the popular beachside resort of Biarritz to accommodate the growing number of attendees. TVFI is the first television market to offer only digital screenings, allowing buyers to watch the same programs at the same time, instead of having to exchange videotapes.

An estimated 10,000 screenings are planned for the more than 820 programs up for sale this year in Biarritz, and Canal Plus executive vp content Rodolphe Belmer is confident that French fare for the small screen will be part of the big picture for international buyers there.

"We're not threatened by U.S. series," he said. "We're making a lot of French shows that are seen by audiences as innovative and creative."
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