Gallic pay TV subs sink

Exex blame losses on poor p'gramming choices

PARIS — The Canal Plus Group’s troubled French paybox — its biggest cash generator — is expected to lose another 120,000 subscribers this year.

The bad news comes as the group grapples to meet tough financial objectives set by parent company Vivendi Universal, which has ordered management to return the money-losing group to operational profit this year for the first time in seven years.

Analysts believe the subscriber slump, revealed by a French newspaper, won’t prevent Canal Plus from achieving its aims as it continues to slash costs and restructure under recently appointed chairman Bertrand Meheut.

Fortunes went south in 2001

After 15 years of growth to a peak of around 4.5 million subscribers, the Gallic pay TV web’s fortunes shifted in 2001, shortly after Canal Plus’ merger with Vivendi and Universal.

It lost 70,000 subscribers that year and, continuing to parallel Viv U’s rocky fortunes, shed that many again in 2002.

The subscriber losses follow a trend in pay TV globally, while locally, Canal Plus has had to contend with the growth of rival French pay TV platform TPS, now a serious competitor with more than 1 million customers.

This year’s subscriber decline probably also reflects the loss of opportunists who signed up last year only to take advantage of aggressive promotional offers.

But Canal Plus execs blame the worsening bleed this year on the poor programming choices of the past two seasons, made by a changing cast of execs as long-serving chairman Pierre Lescure and then his successor, the subsequently ousted Xavier Couture, tried to kickstart the stalling channel.

High rate of turnover

An array of those execs has since ankled, including the short-lived programming chief Alexandre Drubigny and channel topper Dominique Farrugia.

Programming gaffes included a lowbrow talkshow hosted by a popular youth radio presenter and a lame “Osbournes”-style fly-on-the-wall series with French rapper Joey Starr and ballad singer Francis Lalanne, whose tackiness outraged some Canal Plus subscribers.

Co-managing director Guillaume de Verges, who like Couture was poached from TF1, said he wants to reposition the French web and bring back quality programming.

But the channel’s mid- to long-term fate remains murky, along with that of the rest of the Canal Plus Group, while Viv U chief Jean-Rene Fourtou focuses on debt reduction and a sale of assets.