Since last autumn, French children have been the subject of a battle, which, however unassuming it may seem, is crucial to the future of France’s television channels. The struggle can be witnessed during various day parts, but is at its most intense on Saturday mornings, when French children can choose from 10 channels, all competing for their attention: Canal J, Teletoon, Fox Kids, Disney and Cartoon Network on cable or satellite and the terrestrial channels France 2 and 3, TF1, M6 and Canal+.
This is a staggering number given that France is a country of only 60 million consumers, and causes one to wonder which channels will survive.
For the moment, TF1, the heavyweight terrestrial commercial network, is on top. Aware that children are growing up and that they have parents who are concerned about them, the directors of TF1 have decided to take back control of their children’s schedule, which, for more than 10 years, rested with AB Productions. So far, the new strategy seems to have paid off and the network remains the ratings leader. But with so many challengers, how long can it remain number one?
Ironically, it was TF1 that was the challenger 10 years ago. Back then, nobody in France knew how to run a free-to-air, commercial television channel. But that all changed in 1987 when Bouyges, the massive construction company, took over the license of TF1 and decided to concentrate on prime time and prime-time access, the cash cows of advertising.
At the time, France 2 dominated children’s television. It had all the talent and resources, leaving TF1 with no choice but to lure away Dorothee, the star of France 2′s children’s schedule, and to entrust its associates, AB Productions, with the supply of ready created programs, for a lump sum that was seen as ridiculously cheap at the time. AB brought in cheap Japanese programs, set up a television studio in a hangar and, before long, the challenger TF1 had beaten the champion France 2.
TF1′s directors realized they had themselves a nice little earner for next to nothing. However, even the best formats do not last, and the constant slide in audience figures for AB’s programs, together with its poor public image, led to another change on the scene and the emergence of a total outsider: France 3. This publicly owned channel with a regional bias-which, for snooty Parisians, is the worst possible crime-was able to build up a healthy catalogue of programs and a positive image for children and their parents.
And, either by luck or good judgment, the lineup of prime-time and youth programming benefited the channel as a whole. As well as seeing its share of the audience rise, it also received substantial advertising revenue.
France 2, on the other hand, found itself in the doldrums with a poor library of programs, a damaged image and a high turnover of youth programmers, each with as little success as the last.
This scenario was the signal that attracted the specialist channels-Canal J, Disney, Teletoon, Fox and Cartoon Network-which, in turn, prompted this latest intensification in the fight for viewers. And as with any battle, the outcome is difficult to predict.
Following the winter school holidays, it was difficult to separate the three large French networks in terms of youth ratings. In September 1997, TF1 launched a new schedule and had the lead until the first week of the school holidays in November 1997, a key period for advertisers in the run up to Christmas. However, France 2 has also experienced a revival in its ratings, after counterprogramming with American and Australian live-action series and Medialab’s Planet Donkey Kong animated wraparounds.
Whatever the outcome, one thing is sure: every ratings point and subscriber will be fought over fiercely and programming, brand image and promotions will prove formidable weapons. So, for the moment at least, it looks as if the real winners in this battle are France’s program producers.
Robert Rea is vice president of Ellipse Programme, the television production subsidiary of Canal+.