Nets dump halfhour series in favor of hourlongs

PARIS — Tough times have seen one major TV casualty in France — daily soaps.

Not that Gallic sudsers have ever been runaway hits, except for France 3’s “Plus Belle la vie.”

This year the number of 26-minute segs — the stuff of daily soaps — running in daytime and access primetime plummeted 44% to 476 episodes compared with 2008, according to technical industry trade org Ficam.

Terrestrial giant TF1 produced no half hours at all this year, while its smaller rival M6 turned out just 16.5 hours of the halfhour format.

Plunging advertising sales have hurried both broadcasters along a road they would probably have taken anyway — retrenchment.

TF1’s first big bet on a soap came last year when it put up e28 million ($40.8 million) on the upscale “Second Chance,” about a single mom. The show bombed in France, as did M6’s urban youth soap, the $24.7 million “Paris 16.”

This year M6 also yanked “Comprendre et pardonner,” a midday scripted-reality soap using unknown thesps.

Plus Belle la vie,” set in a working class district in Marseilles, still reigns supreme. Aired on pubcaster France Televisions’ France 3 starting in fall 2004, it’s now in its sixth season. The Dec. 15 episode averaged a 19.4% share and 5.3 million viewers.

As Gaul’s broadcasters suffer ever greater market fragmentation, soaps may simply have come too late to France. “?’Plus Belle’ has a perfect timeslot and a broad family target. ‘Second Chance’ and ‘Paris 16′ maybe had demos that were too narrow,” says Bertrand Villegas, at Paris-based audience research company the Wit.

The market could be too tough for private broadcasters to nurse soaps until they grow audiences, Villegas notes. “We don’t have a culture of daily soaps like the U.S. and U.K.,” he adds.

The soaps “require fast-paced chain writing, shooting and editing,” which isn’t an area in which Gauls have much experience, says Tetra Media’s Emmanuel Dauce, who produces hit hourlong drama “A French Village” for France Televisions.

To replace soaps, TF1 is skedding repeats of far-less-costly fare “The Ghost Whisperer” and Gallic versions of “Blind Date” and “Wheel of Fortune”; M6 has scored in primetime with a 14.8% under-50 femme share for “Scenes de menage,” an acid marital sitcom.

TF1 CEO Laurent Storch said in October that TF1 would focus on higher-quality fare.

Backing this up, France’s biggest fiction ratings battle as the fall season plays out is being fought in primetime among higher-bracket shows running for at least one hour.

In France, we know how to produce high-quality one-hours or 90-minute dramas, like ‘Maupassant,’ inspired by French film tradition,” Dauce says.

According to Ficam, 216 single hours of drama were produced this year, similar to 2008.

TF1’s new bets include 90-minute “Sacred Services,” a “Da Vinci Code”-ish thriller, and, earlier this year, hourlong procedural “Profiling,” which is now shooting a second season.

TF1 war horses still score big: “Josephine Ange-Guardian” notched a 29% share on Nov. 2.

But this season’s most-buzzed rookies are two Canal Plus’ hourlongs: cop drama “Braquo”; and “Pigalle,” about a man looking for his missing sister, a stripper, which also serves as a beginner’s guide to Paris’ red-light district.

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