‘Columbo’ Leads The Way Through French Primetime

Even on this side of the Atlantic a rumpled trenchcoat goes a long way. The original “Columbo” series and the recently produced TV movies with the same character are among the hottest Gallic offerings. As fiction finally finds its primetime niche in France, detective series are among the few recurrent themes network execs here are willing to trust.

“‘Columbo’ is very successful, whatever the timeslot because it’s such a cult series and cult character,” says a programmer for private web TF1.

Programming grids here change frequently. But most weeks permanent ratings champ TF1 offers a copper double shot with “Columbo” preceded by a policier starring a French version of Peter Falk, called “Navarro.” Another weekly series on TF1 follows a female gendarme.

U.S. film fare dominates French programming. A glance at one week’s sked for the four main networks reveals nine U.S. movies, eight French and one each from Germany and Italy. No one in the industry here was surprised to learn that the three top-rated programs in 1994 were the Winter Olympics and two American movies – “Pretty Woman” and “Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves.”

Gallic sitcoms, however are due to break into primetime soon. Reason? They’re cheaper. As the prez of a large French production house recently noted, sitcoms produced in France cost only $100,000 per 26-minute show, while dramatic fiction runs as much as $2 million an hour.

A few sitcoms, like the domestically produced “Girls Next Door,” already have made it to access primetime – traditionally the hour just before primetime and perhaps the most important time of day in a country whose viewers often stick with one channel throughout the evening.

However, French access time is expected to change in March, when pay TV Canal Plus introduces an interactive game show to run unscrambled in the 6:30-7:00 p.m. timeslot.

Perhaps the most popular among all French age groups are the reality shows, shown once a month. TF1’s “Lost From View,” a version of “America’s Most Wanted” in which families are reunited on the air, averages a 46% market share, high even for TF1.

The success of reality shows has prompted French webs to consider shorter versions for access primetime or even earlier.

French daytime programming is currently comprised of French versions of “Family Feud” and “The Price Is Right,” a smattering of dubbed American soap operas and oldies such as “Magnum P.I.,” and “Charlie’s Angels.”

Execs agree the big problem is the all too mutable timeslots. “We are one of the few countries in the world to have 90-minute primetime shows,” says pubcaster programming maven Bertrand Le Ficher.

“In France, people say (that) if you have two hours, it fosters zapping (channel changing) behavior, and it’s difficult to negotiate with producers for just one hour.”

Le Ficher says recent complaints that the average French 90-minute series drags a bit are due to the popularity of U.S. fiction.

“French viewers are getting used to American pacing,” he says.

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