In the run-up to the Sunny Side of the Doc event, which kicks off on Tuesday in La Rochelle, the Centre National du Cinema (CNC) has unveiled a report underscoring challenges within the Gallic TV documentary market.

While production levels reached a decade-high in 2011 with 2,649 hours commissioned (a 7.7% year-on increase), the hourly rate dropped 9% to €146,900 ($183,448). Commissions from free-to-air digital terrestrial nets account for nearly 78% of the additional hours produced. And as the CNC points out, DTT channels allocate smaller budgets to docs than pubcasters.

Another key trend is the drop in foreign investment in French TV docs, which fell 25.1% to $21.2 million. Pre-sales dropped 34.6% to $7.3 million and co-production coin fell 18.9% to $13.8 million.

With these difficulties in mind, Sunny Side of the Doc founder Yves Jeanneau is launching Docs in Progress, a sidebar presenting 20 international projects near completion to industryites.

“Worldwide broadcasters are becoming more selective, favoring docs that can be promoted as mini-events or documentaries helmed by well-known filmmakers,” Jeanneau said. “These kinds of upscale docs can be slotted on primetime and attract hit ratings,” he added, citing pubcaster WDR in Germany, which recently launched a primetime slot for docs.

The success of Manuel Herrero’s “Play” illustrates the appetite of foreign broadcasters and pay TV nets for high-profile offerings that can make a strong rating impact. The HD-lensed doc explores sports practices and rituals across the globe, and features exclusive interviews with international champions — including soccer player Zinedine Zidane — as well as archive material. The original score is by French musician Laurent Garnier.

Repped by Europe Images Intl. and commissioned by Canal Plus, “Play” sold to Australia (SBS), South Korea (EBS), Canada (Explora) and Qatar (Al Jazeera), among other territories.

Some 1,700 industryites from 60 countries are expected at the 23rd Sunny Side of the Doc, similar to last year.

China will play a bigger role in the event with two new sponsors — investment bank China Intl. Capital Corp. and Rare Media, a Chinese doc producer-distrib looking to link up international producers with the home market — and two panels examining co-production and acquisition opportunities in the country.