Dramatic turnabout at Canal Plus

Company taps TF1 exec sans prod'n stint

PARIS — Canal Plus prexy Dominique Farrugia surprised the industry Thursday by upping a TF1 exec to head of fiction at the paybox, despite earlier vows to model the feevee on HBO’s formula of writer-driven original programming.

“Not only does Canal Plus have to be innovative creatively to become the French HBO,” a Gallic TV producer opined, “they’ve also got to move away from the current French model of director-driven fiction that stations like TF1 tend to do.”

New boss Fabrice de la Patelierre, 34, who has little production experience, was a fiction consultant at dominant broadcaster TF1, known for its mainstream, big-budget miniseries and TV movies.

His new deputy, Bruno Gaccio, who’s been at Canal Plus since 1990, is the creator of one of its most popular programs, “Les guignols de l’information,” a satiric newscast featuring puppets of the country’s political and cultural figures. Both men take their posts Sept. 15.

Original fiction programming is a new arena for Canal Plus, which made its reputation airing sports programs and firstrun films. As a result, the paybox attracted — and continues to attract — a young male audience.

Ever since rival paycaster TPS bowed in 1997, cutting into Canal Plus’ exclusive sports and cinema rights and its subscriber base, the latter has struggled to attract a larger, more diversified audience.

The paybox’s only foray into fiction was the sitcom “H,” starring Jamel Debbouze of “Asterix” fame. The skein aired unscrambled as a way of drawing new viewers to the channel.

But “H,” set in a hospital, was only a bandage and not a strategy. Canal Plus lost 60,000 subscribers last year.

Laffers lapse

Now Farrugia is dumping sitcom development for the one-hour dramatic format.

Canal recently bought Fox’s “24” and HBO’s “Six Feet Under.” “By putting on great American shows, Canal hopes to educate its viewers,” a Canal Plus insider told Daily Variety. “Unless you’re used to watching edgy one-hour dramas, why would they be an incentive for you to subscribe?”

Canal hopes to have one or two original series ready for 2003. In development is a cop drama by one of the writers of the successful Claude Zidi pic “My New Partner II.” A drama series based on box office hit “The Crimson Rivers” is also in discussion. But even the French are skeptical about Canal Plus’ new mission.