Every pioneer encounters challenges, and in the five years since Orange — part of telco giant France Telecom — set up its content division, it has had its fair share. Yet the company has proved adept at navigating the obstacles, and its faith in a multiplatform strategy that provides all types of content everywhere and at anytime seems to have succeeded.

Orange is now a major content provider in France, where it has 8.6 million fixed-line broadband customers. It offers some 150 Internet TV channels, including all the main TV networks, catch-up services for pubcaster France Televisions and commercial network M6, and video-on-demand through its 24/24 service, which also carries content from TF1 Vision, the VOD service of commercial TV network TF1. It also carries the services of pay TV giant Canal Plus.

A year ago it entered the premium TV biz, providing select pics and series through Orange Cinema Series and live sports on Orange Sport on all its platforms — mobile, online, TV and VOD. At that time, Canal Plus dominated the pay TV market, but Orange saw an opportunity. “Canal Plus’ offer on the market was quite good, but we felt it wasn’t innovative enough, and the way it was structured was limited to about 20% of the population,” says Herve Payan, Orange Content Division’s senior VP. “We thought there was a gap that needed to be filled.”

One issue Orange wrestled with was how to deliver content to rural areas. Half the company’s customers were unable to receive its Internet TV services through ADSL phone-line technology, so it developed a satellite system to deliver the channels, which launched in December. Now everyone can take the triple-play option — Internet, telephone and television — an offer no other provider can match.

Orange’s desire to boost the number of triple-play subscribers lay at the heart of its decision to enter the premium pay biz. This has paid off, with 40% of its 2.3 million triple-play subscribers also taking one of the pay TV options, including 17% that take one of the premium Orange pay TV offers.

By the end of June, Orange’s premium TV services had attracted 400,000 subscriptions.

Payan says content is important when consumers decide which Internet service provider to go with. Orange’s research shows that all customers want access to Internet TV and 40% make their choice according to the content on offer.

Xavier Couture, head of the Orange Content Division, says the content goes far beyond traditional concepts of television: “We are creating a ‘cloud’ of content that can be accessed on TV, widgets, interactive entertainment and social networking sites. This content will be part of a transmedia offer, meaning it will be interactive, designed for and rebounding among the three screens.”

Part of the attraction of the premium TV service is its a la carte offer. While Canal Plus bundles premium sports and cinema together, Orange subscribers can choose to take just one — research showed that 71% of consumers preferred it that way. Many subscribers wanted to watch a range of live sports, not just soccer, so Orange Sport carries several sports — the only French premium pay service to do so.

Innovation also drives the service delivered by Orange Cinema Series, which has five channels filled with exclusive movies and series. Subscribers can view all content for up to 30 days on its catch-up service at no additional cost. Canal Plus only has a seven-day catch-up service. Subscriber can also sideload content — move it from one platform, a PC for example, onto another, typically a mobile device.

Orange’s multiplatform distribution presents both opportunities and challenges for content suppliers. “It’s a complication in the negotiations because it makes the contracts more complex. And for some of them, it’s the first time they’ve considered it,” Payan says. “But with each new partner that we sign up, we know that the next deal will be much faster. In the long run, it’s going to help everybody because it is expanding the market.”

Charles Schreger, HBO president, worldwide programming sales, welcomes the entrant. “Any supplier likes competition,” he says. “And the fact that it was coming in France from a smart, well-financed entity like France Telecom made it appealing to us.”

The model developed in France could be applied to other European countries, but Payan cautions that each is very different. “That’s the beauty of Europe: Every country is a new challenge,” he says.

There are still plenty of challenges ahead. “We’re in a first phase in the development of premium pay TV, triple-play and the content-everywhere strategy,” Payan says. “We’re implementing it step by step, steadily but surely. We have a long way to go, but in contrast to many concepts (being talked about), it’s not just a vague notion, it’s a reality.”