France: Nets vie for American skeins

U.S. shows occupy top-shelf space

United Kingdom

It used to be that Gallic auds could only see U.S. series in primetime on upstart M6. Now, market leader TF1 and pubcaster France Televisions are also vying for American skeins, a development that has raised the ceiling on the prices execs are willing to pay to nab the next big hit.

TF1 waded into the battle 18 months ago when it aired “Lost,” the first time in a decade the private web had aired an American series in primetime. To counter pubcaster France 2’s strong Sunday ratings from U.S. series “Cold Case” and “Without a Trace,” TF1 then ditched its Sunday night movie in favor of “CSI,” the web’s top-rated American skein.

Not to be outdone, M6 unveiled a line-up chock-a-block with Yank shows. Of the 14 new series to air this year, 12 are American, including “Prison Break,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Commander in Chief.”

All this competition, however, has jacked up prices. Since 2002, prices for U.S. series have risen 40%, estimates TF1 acquisitions head Laurent Storch.

Another exec said that the pricetag generally rings in at $110,000 per episode, but that that figure can more than double if a bidding war ensues.

And battles to grab the cream of the crop have intensified.

Storch says that the hike in prices that webs are willing to pay is tres logique.

“We’d rather pay more for something that is really excellent than less for something that is mediocre.”

And quality is the reason every French broadcaster seems to be getting into the act. While M6 used French music on the soundtrack of Fox’s “Prison Break” as a marketing technique to attract auds, most execs agree that it is the increasing quality, both technical and creative, of these series that has mesmerized Gallic viewers.

“The quality of American series has gotten so much better, it’s almost cinematographic,” Storch says.

His comments echo those of M6 VP Thomas Valentin, who in unveiling the channel’s Yank-saturated line-up justified the move by saying: “In the last three or four years, with reality TV dominating lineups, U.S. studios have put more money and creativity into developing innovative fiction.”

But not everyone’s pockets are deep enough to play the game consistently.

France Televisions, for example, said that last month that it plans to spend less on U.S. series and instead turn its attention to local fiction.

The web, which lost its output deal with longtime partner Warner Bros. two years ago, will spend a record E365 million ($470 million) on domestic programming in 2006.

The move highlights the fact that, ultimately, homegrown fare outperforms U.S. fiction. The slick, sophisticated skeins coming from Hollywood are prompting French webs to pour more money into new local productions.

Some of the costliest include TF1’s adaptation of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” which may cost $1.25 million an hour, and paybox Canal Plus’ version of the BBC series “The Office,” which rang in at $4.4 million for the first six half-hours.

The fact that the French studios are upping the budgets for local fare, however, indicates that there may be a ceiling on the prices broadcasters are willing to pay for U.S. programs. And with the recent deals for adaptations, it seems Gallic webs are increasingly looking for ways to translate U.S. series into Frenchified local hits.