French drama takes downturn

Canadian viewers tuning out

MONTREAL — Quebec TV producers used to gloat about just how rosy things were for television production in French Canada. They’d quite rightly point out that their homegrown dramas generated far better ratings and profit margins than those in English Canada.

But the Quebecois producers aren’t gloating these days. Au contraire, they’re quite worried for the future of their biz. Ratings are down, costs are up, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to finance high-end French-language drama in Quebec.

TVA, Quebec’s leading web, cancelled “Un Homme Mort” after only one season because the budget was too high, and auds failed to spark to the American-style suspense series.This fall on Quebec TV, it looks like period drama “Nos Etes,” on TVA, will be the only series with a per-hour budget of C$800,000 ($750,000) or more.

A few years back, there were many series that cost roughly $1 million. But those days are gone, with networks relying on much cheaper reality and quizshows, plus mid-budget dramas and teleromans (Quebec’s distinctive primetime soaps).

Jacquelin Bouchard, CEO of Groupe Pixcom, one of Quebec’s leading TV producers, says his company is not developing pricey dramas at the moment because it simply doesn’t make economic sense. Bouchard notes that budgets have been decreasing by roughly $100,000 each year, and that the pool of money available has hit rock-bottom this year.

Pixcom had two pricey high-end dramas in the past couple of years, crime show “Au Nom de la Loi” and the boxing drama “La 7e Ronde,” but neither is on air now. Instead Pixcom will produce a cheaper teleroman, “Destinees,” this fall for TVA.

“I don’t have the miracle solution,” Bouchard says. “You can say the government should give us more cash, but that’s a dead end.”

The problem is that French-Canadian TV viewers can watch the same American series everyone else does, and they expect the Quebec shows to have the same production values as the more-expensive “The Sopranos” or “CSI.”

English Canada is also facing a crisis in drama production, with many in the industry complaining about the dramatic drop in the amount of drama on English-Canadian webs. But the problems faced by English and French Canada are completely different, Bouchard says.”In Quebec, it’s the problem of the small economy,” he says. “We have the audiences here for drama. In English Canada, they don’t have the audience.”

TVA will have three major dramas on its schedule next season, but all three — “Nos Etes,” “Lance et Compte” and “Le Negotiateur” — are returning hits. TVA spokeswoman Nicole Tardif says the network has no new pricey dramas in development.

“It’s too hard to make them profitable,” Tardif says. “We’re moving to the mid-budget range of $470,000 to $565,000 (per hour).”

Fifteen years ago, the top dramas, like period piece “Les Filles de Caleb,” pulled in 2 million viewers, an astonishing figure for a province of only 7.5 million people. But no dramas generate those kinds of ratings today. Blame the proliferation of specialty channels and the migration to the Internet. At the same time, the most popular shows on French-Canadian TV are unscripted series like “Le Banquier,” the Quebecois version of “Deal or No Deal,” and the reality show “Occupation Double.”

Guylaine O’Farrell, spokesman at the TV network Radio-Canada, says the pubcaster remains committed to drama, but at a lower cost. Producers can make series for less money now thanks to digital technology, but there isn’t enough coin available even for that, O’Farrell says.

“With the arrival of the specialty channels, that’s fragmented the audience,” he says. “So we have less advertising revenue. We have to be realistic.”

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