Featured player: Patrick Le Lay

TF1's Le Lay plays war game

PARIS — Prexy of commercial web TF1 Patrick Le Lay can wipe his blackboard clean.

Last week, combat plans for TF1’s acquisition of Gallic paybox Canal Plus were spread out center stage in his vast 14th floor office. Days later, Vivendi Universal decided to hang on to Canal Plus’ core assets.

One can imagine Le Lay spending his vacation plotting his revenge and scheming up ways to make Canal’s rival paycaster TPS — in which TF1 owns a 66% stake — a stronger competitor.

Plus there’s still Germany’s fallen Kirch broadcasting and rights empire to conquer.

All along, Le Lay knew getting a stake in Canal wouldn’t be easy.

“Nothing is done in France to encourage an entrepreneur,” he tells Variety, an observation that seems paradoxical for someone as pro-French as Le Lay.

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Ironically, Le Lay’s tough and direct way of conducting business is more American than French, and his closest friends are business kingpins Arnon Milchan, Haim Saban and Rupert Murdoch, who have close ties to the U.S.

“Americans get to the heart of things,” says Le Lay. “Business is business.”

When asked about the future of digital terrestrial TV — long a controversial political issue in France — Le Lay looks across the Atlantic for an answer and flatly states, “There is none,” adding that if the technology had a future, “they’d be using it in the U.S.”

Le Lay came to the “complicated audiovisual sector” from the public works field, and in 15 years at TF1 has seen the broadcast group — which boasts a 33% market share — become one of the most profitable in the world. TF1 revs for first-half 2002 were up 11.2% to $1.34 billion.

Le Lay makes four or five trips a year to the U.S. He’s negotiated output deals for TPS with MGM and Paramount and recently pacted with Miramax to form a joint French distribution venture, TFM.

But though Le Lay would consider expanding the Miramax relationship into co-production, he’s cautious and not interested in controlling rights or assets beyond Europe.

“There a law of physics: Any foreign money invested in Hollywood can be considered lost at the moment of investment,” Le Lay states.

And he’s savvy enough to know that though he understands his Hollywood counterparts, he is not cut from the same cloth, and seems embarrassed by the cross-cultural faux pas made by former Vivendi Universal chairman Jean-Marie Messier.

“Messier was a caricature of an American,” declares Le Lay of the ousted topper. “I know Hollywood, but I’d never be pretentious enough to think I was from there.”

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