Ad regulation has upside for TF1

French network adjusts to new television law

PARIS — On New Year’s Day, Gaul’s biggest regulatory overhaul of the audiovisual sector in a generation is due to become law.

For TF1, France’s biggest private net in terms of income and audience share, the new era will present as many challenges as opportunities.

On the plus side, analysts predict an average of around $225 million in extra advertising income for the TF1 Group in 2009 when the government bans ads after 8 p.m. at pubcaster France Televisions’ four domestic nets.

That could easily double if, as expected, the government also allows commercial channels to carry more evening ad breaks.

Those same commercial networks have also won a big government concession — the proposed 3% tax on their ad revenues supposed to finance the pubcaster channels is now likely to be 1.5% until 2012.

Still, for the TF1 Group as a whole, issues old and new need addressing.

  • Home to nearly 90% of its ad spend, flagship station TF1 is suffering aud share erosion. Many pundits see this as inevitable now that 75% of French households get more than 15 channels, often through the evergrowing multitude of free-to-air digital terrestrial TV offerings.

November’s average for TF1 aud share was 26.1%, down 3.2% on the year and off by 4.7% from November 2003.

•  Auds for evening newshour “20 heures” — the most watched evening news broadcast in Europe — have plummeted since the ouster of veteran anchor Patrick Poivre d’Arvor in June.

While theories are plentiful about behind Poivre d’Arvor’s exit, conventional wisdom holds that TF1 hoped his replacement, Laurence Ferrari — a telegenic blonde nearly 20 years his junior — would lure back viewers.

This backfired badly. From a high of 40% when she started in August, Ferrari’s numbers sank to 29% in early November

While they have recovered a bit since, this is an all-time low for a show with more than 20 years of timeslot dominance.

The 8 p.m. news slot will take on extra significance in 2009 when pubcaster France 2 moves up its news start time. Commercial net M6 also is considering a full-length evening broadcast.

• After a slew of expensive French fiction flops last year, many of TF1’s new headaches come from reality skeins.

The Sept. 19 season debut of musical talent contest and former mega-hit “Star Academy” dropped to 5.6 million viewers from 7.1 million on the year and has underperformed since. Producer Endemol France is refusing to commit to a ninth season.

And in a case that could deal a major blow to the whole Gallic reality genre, the net is at the center of a class-action suit with former contestants on “L’ile de la tentation,” France’s version of “Survivor,” over various contractual and privacy-invasion issues.

While quick fixes are elusive, TF1 is streamlining and consolidating ops in two key areas — program production and news gathering.

TF1 Group’s director of news information, Jean-Claude Dassier, has called for patience in seeing Ferrari’s numbers rebound.

Meanwhile, Edouard Boccon-Gibod will head the new TF1 Prods., which will bring six magazine, fiction, variety and other units under the same roof for the first time in January.

Boccon-Gibod points to valuable lessons learned in the remarkably fast production of nearly 180 22-minute episodes of “Seconde Chance,” TF1’s first new telenovela in 18 years.

“This was the first time that all the people involved were in the same place for production,” he says. “The authors were on set in our studios, very unusual for a French production. I think it will help us in learning more efficient methods — lessons that can also help with production in other genres.”

He doesn’t see further market share erosion for the flagship channel as inevitable.

“Some 85% of France may now get DTT, but the average growth per DTT channel is going to decrease — in some cases quite a lot,” he says. “And the quality of programming will always be higher on the main (free-to-air) channels.”