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Series shaping up and shipping out

French programs gaining global sales

Local dramatic fare has always ruled on the Gallic smallscreen but it’s been a hard sell internationally. Lately, though, the French TV world seems to be turned on its head.

Scripted series such as soap phenom “Life’s So Sweet,” the long-running copshow “A Woman of Honor” and the edgy drama “Spiral” are making strides in the international marketplace and finding audiences in countries as diverse as Finland and Iran.

But — zut alors — back at home, local drama for the first time has been on the losing side in a bitter ratings war with U.S. fare.

Recent casualties of the Gallic ratings rout include TF1’s summer miniseries “Mystere” and M6’s “Suspectes,” a “Desperate Housewives”-style soap thriller.

Latter show’s first episode drew a healthy 5 million viewers opposite a soccer match on TF1. But when TF1 deployed “CSI” in the same timeslot, the French series lost more than a million viewers.

“There are so many American shows in primetime now that on any given night, a French drama is almost bound to find itself competing with one of them, and it is probably going to suffer,” says Nicolas Coppermann, president of French production and distribution house Tele Images.

“Because American shows are on the major terrestrial channels, a much wider French public is getting a taste for them, and they make most French shows look old-fashioned,” he adds.

Even the French version of “Law and Order,” “Paris Enquete Criminelle,” produced with the help of NBC and Dick Wolf, has garnered less-than-stellar ratings.

The problem is being taken so seriously that leading commercial web TF1, which pumped E157 million ($212 million) into local drama last year, recently hosted a day of brainstorming with industryites, writers and directors.

The conclusion was that after years of complacency, French drama simply had to shape up — and take a leaf out of the U.S. industry’s book by churning out more professionally produced series in larger volumes.

It is still more common in France for a TV script to be written by one person than by a team of writers. Artistic decisions are left to the director, and showrunners don’t exist.

Episodes of France’s top-rated series have traditionally been produced at the leisurely rate of three or four a year.

“This ratings crisis is forcing us to question the way we’ve always done things, and that’s a good thing,” says Simone Harari, president of the producers’ union USPA.

Certain changes are already under way, with a resulting uptick in foreign sales.

Because of the intense pace of production, shows such as “Life’s So Sweet,” which airs five days a week, have adopted what the French call “industrial” production methods.

From small beginnings two years ago, the Marseilles-set soap has crept up to a more than 20% audience share on France 3, outperforming the 8 p.m. news on bigger pubcaster France 2. The producers have already churned out more than 750 episodes.

French broadcasters are also spurning the 90-minute format, once the only size French primetime drama came in, in favor of 52-minute episodes.

In 2006 there were still more of the former produced, but their volume fell 35%, while production of 52-minute series went up 48%.

These two developments — greater quantities of stock and more easily salable 52-minute series — are good news for French TV exports.

“When you’ve got 24 episodes you can’t sell a show. You need at least 50 to interest buyers, and fortunately there are getting to be more of those now,” says Marie Laure Hebrard, VP of international sales at AB Intl. Distribution.

The distribution arm of indie production group Telfrance, 2001 Audiovisuel, has seen its revenues triple in the past five years, including a 60% hike in 2006, and topper Laetitia Recayte sees no sign of flagging interest for French drama abroad.

“Shows like ‘Dolmen’ and ‘Life’s So Sweet’ have done wonders for the salability of French series,” she says.

Recayte warns that while it is a good thing to borrow from U.S. production methods, French producers should not imitate American fare too closely.

“We can’t compete with the Americans on their own ground,” says the exec, “we must produce things that aren’t plagiarisms.”

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