French TV operator strives for HBO-type quality

PARIS — While other Gallic TV operators are cutting back, paybox giant Canal Plus Group is ramping up original programming.

The Vivendi-owned feevee is rapidly becoming France’s nearest equivalent to HBO.

Canal Plus has dallied with fiction: It pioneered local sitcoms with hospital-set “H,” starring Jamel Debouze, in 1998. But it’s best known for primetime yakkers such as “Nulle part ailleurs.”

Now it’s pushing into event programming.

Former HBO chief exec Chris Albrecht is exec producing “The Borgias,” a 12-part series Tom Fontana is writing, for Canal Plus and Lagardere Entertainment.

It’s producing both an $18 million miniseries and feature, “Ilich — Story of Carlos,” about terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, also know as Carlos the Jackal.

Canal Plus is also developing a “minutely researched,” “West Wing”-style political series, according to fiction director Fabrice de la Patelliere. It will build on “L’ecole du pouvoir,” a telepic that aired in January and followed six students from France’s Harvard-like Ecole National d’Administration to Socialist Party leadership.

Fiction is just part, however, of Canal Plus Group prexy-CEO Bertrand Meheut’s far larger game plan as the paybox adjusts to France’s competitive TV market.   

In 2007, Canal Plus Group shelled out $1.65 billion to swallow pay TV rival TPS and become Gaul’s only feevee operator.

Now it’s battling a recession and competition from France Telecom-Orange’s premium pay TV services, launched last year.

Canal Plus’ challenge is to find new ways of attracting and keeping clients at home, while hiking international revenues and exposure to markets abroad.

Canal Plus and its satcaster, CanalSat, together reach 7 million households.

“If economic conditions deteriorate, it will be more difficult to add net subscribers this year,” Meheut acknowledges. “One matter’s domestic TV. The other’s growing abroad.”

Fiction serves both markets. In an ever-more fragmented and stagnating TV ad market, Meheut says it’s “tougher and tougher for free-to-air broadcasters to invest in content.”

Big-scale fiction can set Canal Plus apart.

“We want stories that are very controversial, targeting niches different from those on free-to-air channels,” Meheut says.

Bertrand Villegas, co-founder of Paris-based audience research company World Information Tracking, says commercial webs “TF1 and M6 try to produce fiction with good ratings. Canal Plus tries to be innovative, which is good for its branding.”

But excellence costs money, requiring international sales, says Meheut.

It is making some headway on that front.

Canal Plus’ “Spiral,” a hard-boiled cop series, aired on BBC4.

Two-part movie “XIII,” starring Stephen Dorff and Val Kilmer, sold to 52 countries and aired in primetime on NBC — though skedded against the 51st Grammy Awards on Feb. 8, its first night struck out with a 1.3/3 in 18-49.

Francois Godard at Enders Analysis says Canal Plus is right to diversify into series, which draw audience loyalty much more than films. But, he adds, some French movie screenwriters and directors are reluctant to make the smallscreen transfer.

Canal Plus is stepping up this recruitment process. Shooting early next year, “Carlos” is helmed by Olivier Assayas, whose “Summer Hours” grossed $1.4 million for IFC.

And it’s just signed novelist Francois Begaudeau — whose book Laurent Cantet adapted for his Cannes 2008 Palme d’Or winner “The Class” — to write a series.

After a frustrating experience with TF1, Gallic helmer and thesp Olivier Marchal (“36, Quai des Orfevres”), ended up co-writing and directing thriller skein “Braquo” for Canal Plus.

“My two conditions for making a TV series were to shoot in 35mm and work with my usual film crew,” explains Marchal. “Canal Plus trusted me enough to let me have both even if it cost more money.”

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