Since the merger of the kids programming teams at France 2, 3 and 5 under the France Télévisions Jeunesse (FTJ) umbrella was announced last fall, the Gallic pubcaster, and largest single commissioner of toons in the country, has been promising to unveil sweeping changes to its broadcast strategy. So it was under a tented patio that producers, studio heads and competing broadcasters gathered for a press conference held at MIFA last month in Annecy, France to find out what FTJ and France Télévisions have been cooking up.
To the disappointment of some in attendance, VP and head of FTJ Julien Borde later admitted the press conference was intended largely to tease the overarching re-invention that’s set to be announced this fall, possibly at MIPCOM in October. However, the execs who took the mic offered up a peek at programming strategies going forward and there was no shortage of French producers on hand to give their take on what it might mean for the industry.
Animation lands on France 4
For one, the announcement of a new afternoon animation slot on France 4, launching in Q4, turned some heads. The slot is designed to serve the up-and-coming channel’s slightly older kid demo. It plans to offer a much-needed afternoon home for cartoons and provide an opportunity to air some 20 animated series financed by France Télévisions as part of its four-year-old agreement with animation lobby group SPFA (Syndicat des Producteurs de Films d’Animation) that have yet to be broadcast.
‘It will be a huge deal for producers once [FJT] starts commissioning for that block,’ said Olivier Dumont, MD at TV-Loonland. Several French producers we interviewed are similarly optimistic about the new block, but have to wait for the backlog of commissions to debut before spaces open up. Also Borde has yet to nail down a formal commissioning strategy.
Edutainment, enviro series a priority
For their part, producers have reason to anxiously await the potential opportunity. France Télévisions touts 14 million viewers per week who tune into its youth programming, accounting for more than half the kids in the country. ‘France Télévisions is the biggest commissioner by far in France,’ noted Dumont. ‘If you don’t deal with them, you’re cutting yourself off from more than 50% of your commissioning money.’
In the meantime, FJT has laid out a new animation commissioning structure to spend its estimated US$23.8-million annual animation budget on programs that fall into one of four categories: edutainment, ecologically focused series for six to 12s, adaptations of literary classics and preschool short-form programming.
Several series are already in the works for each new area. Beginning with the edutainment mandate, which Borde says will extend from preschool to the six to 12 demo, the pubcaster has greenlit Les P’tites Poules (32 x 11 minutes) from Blue Spirit Animation and Millimages’ Around the World with Mouk (62 x 11 minutes) for France 5, as well as Normaal Animation’s Art Investigation (52 x 13 minutes).
The enviro coffers are stocked with a few Alphanim-Gaumont series, including Pok & Mok (78 x seven minutes), The Greensquad (52 x 13 minutes) and The Mysteries of Alfred (52 x 11 minutes), as well as Lulu Vroom Vroom (52 x 13 minutes) from Mondo TV France and Tiji, and Marsu Productions/Samka’s Marsupilami in Palombia (52 x 26 minutes).
As for literary adaptations, France Télévisions is aiming to include more preschool fare. Le Petit Prince (52 x 26 minutes) from Method Animation and several co-pro financiers is a highlight, as well as Normaal and Marsu’s Gaston (78 x seven minutes) and Futurikon’s Captain Biceps, both adapted from French comic book series.
On the shorts front, consider comedic Studio Hari/TV-L series Léon (52 x three minutes) and Xilam’s Mr. Bébé (52 x 3.5 minutes) as good examples to emulate. The broadcaster is looking for one- to three-minute programs for both kids and preschoolers that can serve as testing grounds for new writing formats.
Also slated for launch are two experimental websites, one kids and one preschool, that will stream alternate programming such as Chop Socky Chooks as well as offer games and community features, when their corresponding linear dayparts are off-air. ‘The main idea is to benefit from the incredible power of the group of channels, but we’re going to play with global media to build a new system based on classic linear channels as well as the internet,’ says Borde.
Borde’s director, Céline Limorato, who’s in charge of overall artistic and strategic consistency, is overseeing the three-member editorial committee that analyzes and selects new animation projects and eventually helps choose which pilots to air. The names to know here are Pierre Siracusa, animation manager for six to 12s, Céline Chesnay, who handles all preschool, and new media/hybrid programming specialist Voyelle Acker. (Submissions can be sent to the editorial committee via email.)
Waiting for the sequel
For the most part, the French producers at MIFA were anticipating attending France Télévisions: The Sequel, a.k.a. the expected fall unveiling of strategy specifics. However, they were optimistic about the increased afternoon airtime, online opportunities and commitment to animation. ‘[FT] has to be more than the old model,’ said Aton Soumache, CEO and producer at Method Animation. ‘It’s a huge thing for a broadcaster to move and change and it’s preparing itself,’ he added.
And the worry surrounding a possible funding crisis – expected to be precipitated by the impending all-out ban of advertising on French public television – that reached its height last spring has abated somewhat courtesy of heavy SPFA lobbying. The org has helped ensure state funding will kick in when ads stop airing on the pubcaster’s channels in 2011. But it’s not to say that questions about the future of financing in the industry aren’t still floating around. One industry member said she foresees more pressure being put on French producers to shore up larger chunks of the budget on new productions. And business plans released by France Télévisions this spring suggest a drop in revenues is forcing the pubcaster to rejig its financial model, which will include decreasing staff by 900 through both layoffs and early retirement, cutting back on movie acquisitions and entertainment programming, saving on transmission costs with the digital switchover, and funding new internet and high-definition initiatives.