French-made TV not faring so well

Viewers prefer American dramas over 'L'hopital'

PARIS — Post-mortem soul-searching continues as Gallic TV execs ponder the reasons for the unusually high number of fall flops this year, mostly locally produced drama.

Private broadcaster TF1, which has seen a 20% audience slide year to year, has taken the lion’s share of commercial and critical drubbing.

“L’hopital,” a $1.9 million-per-episode medical drama bearing more than a passing resemblance to “Grey’s Anatomy,” never garnered more than a 20% share. The decision to cancel was made after only six episodes.

“Paris enquetes criminelles,” the Gallic format of NBC’s “Law & Order,” has not lived up to ratings expectations since its launch in May, prompting major cast changes to the $1 million-per-episode series.

Even before “L’hopital” flatlined, TF1 programming director Takis Candilis frankly admitted the network’s fiction department was in “deep upheaval.”

Other recent duds include TF1 forensics drama “Section de recherches,” its “Desperate Housewives” clone “Suspectes” and commercial terrestrial channel M6’s UFO drama “Mystere.”

All were routinely and soundly beaten in primetime either by French-made reality series or by the U.S. dramas they tried to imitate.

Much has been made by pundits and industry insiders of the difficulties in adjusting to American-style shorter episodes, mostly 52 minutes. That length is a major departure from Gaul’s longstanding 90-minute format.

Pubcaster France Televisions has found success with a combination of the old (its opulent historical miniseries) and the new (daily 26-minute soap “Life is Sweet”). In its fourth season, “Sweet” has sold well internationally and scores higher ratings than the evening news weekdays at 8:20 p.m.

France Televisions director of fiction Perrine Fontaine says the local biz’s main difficulty is the passage from an era of artisans to one of industry.

“For a long time, the short-format series was considered by many professionals within dramatic fiction as less noble than the telefilm or the 90-minute series,” Fontaine says. “These days, audiences used to the American format respond to different rhythms. It is now necessary to respond to this in French programming for both economic and program planning reasons.”

Fontaine also feels that too many series are still written by a single author. “This can clearly create problems in following seasons,” Fontaine says. “It is sad to see programs people liked disappear because writers are unable to follow up.”

Fabrice de la Patelliere, programming director for French fiction at paybox Canal Plus, feels the flops are due to broadcasters trying to imitate American product.

“At Canal Plus, we have tried to inspire boldness and creativity in our 52-minute series without resorting to carbon-copying,” she says. “It’s been interesting to see our police series ‘Spirals’ picked up by the BBC, and to see British critics praise it for its writing and originality. We never set out to make an international product, but rather a truly French fiction, with all its faults and virtues.”

M6, often considered the most youth-oriented and “Americanized” broadcaster, is also enjoying success with many of its 52-minute series.

Cop skein “Les Bleus” averaged 3.8 million viewers through October, remarkable considering it is up against “CSI: NY.”

“The stories are better suited to a younger audience,” Jeremy Guyot, M6 director for fiction, cinema and youth programming, says. “We’ve had the best reviews for a French series in a long time. The following years will be better for French series in general, I think. Writers are learning to cope with all the recent changes.”

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