Marathon exploits French soap market

In tough business environment, drama sells

PARIS The Mattei siblings in “Cinq Soeurs” (Sisterhood) France’s new Riviera-set soap, run the gamut of early womanhood: 32-year-old Benedicte’s a model wife, younger Lea’s into hippie chic and Manu’s battling teen angst.

But when the going gets tough the girls all pitch in.

That togetherness during tough times philosophy reflects its producer, French TV giant the Marathon Group, which launches “Sisterhood” overseas at a Mip TV cocktail reception in Cannes this week.

“Soaps are a growth market in France,” says Bertrand Villegas at WIT, the Paris-based audience research company. “There’s very little tradition or know-how: Marathon’s one of the companies with greatest expertise at making them.”

It’s just as well Marathon has found a new niche to exploit because TV’s become a tough biz in France. Feevee is eroding broadcaster share. Commercial giant TF1, once securely dominant, is now looking to produce with smaller, cheaper companies and retain more rights.

At French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s behest, pubcaster France Televisions will yank advertising at the beginning of 2009. The measure, if fully implemented, will whittle French TV ad revs by 2.5% in 2009, Screen Digest estimates.

But Marathon’s being proactive. In February it bought KM, a light entertainment company owned by thesp-director-producer Renaud le Van Kim, making it the biggest TV production and distribution house in France, overtaking Endemol.

In 2006, Marathon merged with Gallic shingles Marathon Media, Tele Images and Adventure Line. And in July Marathon, itself, was purchased by Italy’s DeAgostini, a publishing-media conglom.

The intent, says Marathon prexy Pascal Breton, was talent aggregation.

“Marathon’s very strong in drama and animation, but not in formats. Le Van Kim’s the man whom channels call when a format’s in trouble,” Breton says, citing the case of commercial web M6’s “Pop Idol.” “I want to form a group that delivers answers for any question — outside sports and news — primetime access, a drama series with this kind of budget, a long-running series.”

Agostini-Marathon’s ambitions don’t stop here. DeAgostini already partners DeAPlaneta in Spanish broadcaster Antena 3. Agostini, with Marathon, aims to acquire companies in the U.S., Canada, U.K., Northern and Eastern Europe.

“Ultimately we aim to become Europe’s third-biggest TV company, after Endemol and Fremantle,” says Breton.

Size helps facilitate synergies on format redos, animation and drama sales, and building libraries, Breton argues.

Despite this, the quietly spoken Breton is not a straight suit. He laughs readily.

Why buy KM? Because Le Van Kim “is a very funny man,” he jests.

Breton developed and produced Marathon’s “Saint Tropez,” which sold abroad in 500-episode bundles.

He likes above all “creating success.” So he’ll be eyeballing “Sisterhood.”

At Mip TV, Marathon will be mopping up sales on toon series “Monster Buster Club,” which has already sold to 133 countries, and introducing six doc series, including “The Fabulous Story of Poop,” about creatures’ relationship with their own waste.

With shares at 7.6%-8.6% in the last week of March, the show, which bowed Jan. 28 on France 2, isn’t lighting ratings fires.

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