Coming out right in the wash

Ex-P&G exec helps Canal Plus clean up

PARIS — Fresh-faced Rodolphe Belmer is easily France’s most youthful-looking TV topper. But then he is only 35.

His youth and lack of TV experience were two reasons why Gaul’s media establishment frankly didn’t rate his chances of turning round Canal Plus’ struggling French premium channel.

But that was 18 months ago. The one-time Procter and Gamble marketing whiz’s segue from Pampers to pay TV has proved more fruitful than anyone expected.

Having joined the Canal Plus Group as head of distribution and marketing Belmer was upped to exec VP in charge of the premium channel in November 2003. He was the troubled web’s fourth topper in two years. And in 2004, after three years of steadily bleeding subscribers, the web made a net gain of around 50,000 subs for a total of near 5 million, while its churn rate fell from a high of 12.9% to 11%.

Cheekily, Belmer boasts of achieving these results by shifting away from the oversimplistic “Procter and Gamble thinking” of his Canal Plus predecessors.

“Marketing Canal Plus as a ‘movies and sport’ channel was not a good idea,” the exec asserts. “It’s too easy to copy.”

He has gone about changing that — opening up primetime slots to documentaries, imported U.S. series such as “Desperate Housewives” and “The L Word” and local drama.

Critics and viewers were united in their praise for the web’s first drama commission, “93 Rue Lauriston,” a fiction based on the true story of the French Gestapo, which aired in December.

At Canal Plus’ new office just outside Paris, Belmer, casually dressed in a blue-and-green-striped sweatshirt, tells Variety: “Today Canal Plus is more than ‘movies and sport.’ To make people want to subscribe to a pay TV channel you have to be more intuitive, you have to create something that contains the best of every genre on television. Canal Plus is now a general interest channel airing all kinds of programming.”

He says this won’t change Canal Plus’ requirement for Hollywood product.

“We don’t intend to air fewer films,” says Belmer, “but because we have changed our editorial priorities we are a bit less dependent on the majors.”

The topper adds: “We value our relationships with Hollywood and we certainly wouldn’t want to lose a studio deal, but today the difference is that if it came to it we could.”

In fact it has already happened. Last year Canal Plus and long standing partner Warner Bros. parted company, the major pacting with rival Gallic pay TV operator TPS, as did Disney’s Touchstone Pictures.

However, the paybox also recently renewed multi-year output deals with Universal and Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp.

Canal Plus is still firmly embedded with the local film biz. It has come through a rocky patch in its relationship with the industry, signing a new five-year deal last year that will ensure it continues to finance French films to the tune of around e300 million ($397 million) — 9% of its revenues — annually.

“Between Canal Plus and French cinema it’s true love,” Belmer quips. “Previous management had other ideas but we believe our partnership with the French film industry is vitally important, and we’re proud to help French cinema flourish.”

And the web hasn’t completely given up on sport.

Having quietly despaired about its French pay TV interests — three years ago, Canal Plus Group was sinking under a $6 billion debt — parent company Vivendi Universal is feeling so bullish that it recently OK’d Canal Plus’ successful $786 million-a-year bid for French first division soccer.

As well as continuing to keep ahead of rival TPS, which boasts 1.7 million subs, the web’s next big challenge — along with terrestrial broadcasters — will be to hold onto its position when digital terrestrial TV bows in Gaul this spring, offering French TV viewers an array of new free and pay TV channels.

Belmer admits he has learned a thing or two about the TV biz while steering Canal Plus through its recent difficulties.

“Other sectors are more orderly, there tends to be more respect for the established pecking order and change happens slowly,” says Belmer. “But television is different. Channels steal each other’s presenters, they are always trying to outwit each other. It is much more competitive.”