Programming topper Storch cultivates homegrown telepics

After a difficult 18 months as programming director at Gaul’s TF1, Laurent Storch says things are looking up at the commercial net.

The company announced a e60 million ($75 million) budget cut in February following publication of its 2008 results, which showed net profit had plunged 28% to $205 million on revenue down 5% to $3.2 billion.

Although TFI remains the market leader, averaging a 26.3% share, it has been losing ground to the new digital terrestrial channels over the last two years, as have other mainstream terrestrial networks.

Now Storch, a former marketing exec at Procter and Gamble who joined TF1 in 1997 as director of acquisitions, is fighting back. He’s greenlit high-profile homegrown telepics, including thrillers “The List,”with Eric Cantona (“Looking for Eric”); “Les Associes,”starring Christophe Lambert; and skein “Profilage.”

Even though the network’s new shows seem more ambitious than in previous seasons, cost-conscious Storch says their budgets haven’t risen. At TF1, 90-minute telepics cost approximately $3.2 million to produce, while 52-minute episodes of series come in at between $1.17 million and $1.46 million apiece.

The solution, Storch says, has been to shorten the duration of shoots and spend more time on the writing.

He also plans on setting more series in rural regions to regain wide audiences. “We are aware that 80% of our audiences are made up of rural folks,”Storch explains.

This is something of a U-turn for the exec, whose career milestones include skedding hit U.S. shows “CSI”and “House”on TF1 in primetime — a move that some industryites say contributed to the downfall of French fiction. “CSI”bowed in February 2007, “House”in January 2008, and both have scored some of this year’s ratings records.

Until recently, French TV has had a love-hate relationship with American shows, protecting its local industry and marginalizing U.S. shows to the edges of schedules. But in the past two years, Hollywood shows have begun to monopolize primetime slots to the point that, in 2008, U.S. imports took 57 spots in the 100-most watched shows list, while Gallic fiction only nabbed 13, according to French audiovisual promotion org, APA.

Today, French webs, including TF1, again are banking onthe value of homegrown drama.

Storch’s biggest challenge is to reboot and freshen-up its locally produced shows. The net’s most popular French shows are 20-year-old “Navarro,”17-year-old “Julie Lescaut”and 10-year-old “Josephine Ange-Gardien.”

As director of TF1 Film Prods. for the past four years, Storch has built the kind of relationships with the Gallic film community that give him some leverage. He’s bought “Welcome to the Sticks”and “La Vie en Rose”for the web, and recently picked up Luc Besson’s “Adele Blanc-Sec.”

Another of Storch’s tasks will be to dissipate concern among French helmers and producers that TF1 is just too intrusive and restrictive to work with.

“For some time, I just gave up on pitching anything because I could hear them say, ‘It’s not for us,’ “explains Paris-based Septembre Prods. prexy Jean Nainchrik, who produced $2.3 million-budget “The List.”

“But Storch and his team have assured me that they’d take time to listen and are more open to diverse formats.”

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