TF1 at 40: French TV Giant Stays in the Lead With Smart Moves

Coming on board TF1 in 2007, Nonce Paolini took over the TV giant just as the world was about to experience the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. But the charismatic, astute and cautious natural-born leader with Corsican origins led the 40-year-old TF1 — with its interests in TV, digital and film — through the economic storm and revamped the network’s brand.

A former human resources topper at TF1 and co-director of Bouygues (TF1’s parent company), Paolini demonstrated his crisis-management skills over the years, and notably last month when the group addressed the death of 10 people in a helicopter crash during the shoot of “Dropped,” an unscripted adventure show commissioned by TF1.

After paying homage to the victims, Paolini didn’t comment again publicly to avoid fueling a media frenzy, although he was seen discretely welcoming the surviving show participants when they returned to France.

Paolini’s interview with Variety took place in the aftermath of the tragedy, and the 65-year-old topper appeared sincerely affected, wondering, like many, what really happened on March 9. He emphasizes that the accident shouldn’t be blamed on the format.

“‘Dropped’ was not TV reality, but a high-quality adventure show that was meant to entertain family audiences,” he says.

Paolini is known for being calmer and more mild mannered than his predecessor, Patrick Le Lay, and he’s also reportedly more committed to driving ad revenues with quality content than Le Lay, whose infamous claim that “TF1’s job was selling human brain time (to advertisers)” prompted many to accuse TF1 of dumbing down content with cheap programs.

“At TF1 our mantra is to inform and entertain,” Paolini says. “We envision TF1 as the network of social solidarity, one that brings people together, regardless of their religion, ethnic group or status. As France’s most-watched channel, we are both the witness and the actor of social change, and while we’re not utopians, it’s necessary for us to keep the dialogue open with people who watch us, and cultivate values of tolerance and positivity through our programs.”

Some of Paolini’s biggest accomplishments have been to gradually revamp the network’s brand and give it a major role in the digital arena, while maintaining its leadership in France’s highly competitive TV landscape.

Since Paolini took the helm in 2007, TF1 has strengthened its position within the digital-terrestrial TV landscape, acquiring two channels — the general interest TMC and NT1 — and launching HD1 in 2012. HD1, which is dedicated to French fiction programs, U.S. series and movies, also ranks as France’s highest rated HD DTT channel with 225,000 viewers on primetime.

With its four free-to-air channels, the TF1 group has managed to increase its audience share by 5.5% to 28.7% in the past six years. TF1’s flagship channel accounts for 22.9% of that share.

Aiming to give TF1 a makeover, Paolini managed to shake up the network’s slate by introducing a flurry of fresh shows, such as hit formats “The Voice” and “Dancing With the Stars,” U.S. imports “The Blacklist” and “Arrow,” and Gallic crime series “Falco,” while reducing programming spending by 5.5% to €920 million ($1.03 billion), excluding major sports events, since 2007.

“Fifty percent of our programs are under 3 years old,” says Paolini, who adds he brought in comic-turned-journalist Nicolas Canteloup for a series to give the network an edge, and a hint of political incorrectness, that French auds appreciate.

One of his boldest moves was to remove Patrick Poivre d’Arvor, who had been at TF1 for 21 years, as host of the sacrosanct 8 p.m. newscast. After various up and downs, the gamble has paid off: Now hosted by Gilles Bouleau, TF1’s nightly newscast leads ratings.

Under Paolini’s watch, TF1 also handed over control of Eurosport Intl. to Discovery, something that Philippe Bailly, an analyst at consultancy NPA Conseil, describes as a smart step.

“The deal has been able to feed the cash pipeline of TF1 and allow it to focus more on its home market,” Bailly says.

The Discovery agreement also means it has a strong partner to develop its other French pay-TV businesses and factual program production, notes IHS analyst Tim Westcott.

Today, TF1 is almost an anomaly ratings-wise compared with other European nets: With an average market share of 22.9% in 2014, it is way ahead of the others.

That has proved highly attractive to U.S. studios looking for the best platform for their content. TF1 has solid relationships and deals in place with Sony and Warner Bros., and although still heavily dependent on U.S. series, TF1 has been much more committed to original French fiction than in the past. Examples of top-rated French shows on TF1 include Luc Besson’s comedy-action series “No Limit” and the cop show “Profilage,” which is also an international sales hit.

“Like most major free-to-air channels, TF1 has lost audience share over time, but it actually increased annual share in 2014. This gives it a good platform to benefit from recovery in the TV ad market and to build its digital offerings,” says Westcott, who adds that IHS predicts France’s TV advertising market to grow in 2015, the first year-on-year increase since 2011.

“Recovery will be fairly modest — a 0.4% gain to €3.2 billion ($3.9 billion) — but for the French TV market leader (TF1) this is a major positive,” the U.K.-based analyst says.

“Paolini has succeeded in adapting to changing tastes and implementing a quality-centric approach while containing the cost of programming in a difficult economic environment,” says Jean-Baptiste Dupont, co-founder of LGM Cinema, one of France’s top production companies. “Paolini understands that talent is gold, whether in film and television, and he has cultivated (those) relationships.”

Although TV consumption is now fragmented, even in France, Paolini has insisted on maintaining traditional slots. “Our programming lineup is very clear and stable on TF1 and all of our channels. That’s a crucial aspect of our strategy because more than ever, audiences need predictable rendez-vous,” he says.

The Sunday slot dedicated to films remains a key one. Of the more than 100 films that TF1 airs, 60 have to be French, many of which are mainstream comedies or actioners. The group’s other channels, like HD1, air a more diverse lineup of content as they are under less pressure with regards to ads and ratings.

Going forward, Paolini says he’s keen on owning more content in order to generate upside from secondary and international sales.

Meanwhile, TF1’s main challenge in the coming years, per Paolini, is to create new revenue streams in the digital area.

MyTF1VOD, the first VOD platform launched by a free-to-air channel, currently ranks second to Orange. But TF1 still has to catch up with Canal Plus’ CanalPlay and Netflix on the subscription VOD front as the network doesn’t boast a comparable service. Paolini says he’s not worried.

“I say welcome to Netflix because it has shown by setting its headquarters in Luxembourg the disparities of French regulations (investment and programming quotas in French and European content) and how much they’ve become as obsolete as the Maginot Line,” Paolini says half-jokingly. “Netflix has not presented a threat to us because television still plays a big part in bringing people together. Even in the U.S. where it’s powerful, Netflix hasn’t killed the Super Bowl.”

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