TF1 at 40: Network Invests in Fresh Talent and Concepts

For decades, TF1 was best known for its stable of high-rating yet aging French TV dramas like “Navarro,” “Julie Lescaut” and “Josephine Guardian Angels,” but shortly after Nonce Paolini took the reins in 2007, the network started shaking up its French fiction slate, investing in fresh talent and concepts. TF1’s wake-up call came in 2008, when local media reports showed that nearly all of France’s top-rated series were American, notably “House” and the “CSI” franchise.

“These American shows revolutionized the tastes of audiences and forced TF1 to push its limits,” says Fabrice Bailly, who was appointed head of programs in 2012. But while U.S. imports are still crucial to draw large audiences to TF1, the network has ramped up its local drama skeins for the past six years with police shows such as “Falco” and “Profilage,” and dramedy series like “Clem,” about a teenage-girl-next-door raising a child with her parents. And auds have turned up to watch these new skeins.

Launched in 2009, “Profilage” is France’s best-rated series, attracting up to 8.6 million viewers, a 31% share.

As part of its brand identity, TF1 has kept a strong emphasis on social and family themes, but it’s also started to bend the codes of cop shows, notably with characters that are more complex. “Falco” centers around a police lieutenant who returns to work after spending 20 years in a coma; “Profilage” boasts a strong female protagonist: s a psychologist who specializes in solving crimes. Police series, such as Luc Besson’s “No Limit,” starring Vincent Elbaz as a clumsy special agent juggling his ex-wife and temperamental teenage daughter, are also getting a shot of comedy.

“We’ve tried to be more daring, to adapt to the taste of audiences, which have become sophisticated, but we’re also making sure to have characters that express positive values,” says Bailly. “As a free-to-air network, TF1 can’t air series that are as purely dark-edged and gritty as pay-TV shows.”

The network has also reached out to international talent and moved into English-language series production.

TF1 recently partnered up with American novelist Harlan Coben (the bestseller “Tell No One” is among his titles) on “No Second Chance,” a drama-procedural series toplining Alexandra Lamy. Her character suffers a blackout after getting attacked and wakes up to find out that her husband has been killed and her daughter has disappeared.

“No Second Chance” marks the first French TV adaptation of a book by Coben, and the author’s first time as showrunner.

“TF1 jumped on board and they gave us a lot of freedom. We all know exactly the kind of stories we want to tell, we want to keep people in suspense, we want to stir their pulse, but we also want that warmth, we want that family feeling and we want to break their heart also,” says Coben.

Although not as aggressive and high profile as paybox Canal Plus in fiction programming — “The Tunnel,” “The Returned” — TF1 does have some pull for international talent like Coben because it can attract about 8 million or 9 million viewers on primetime.

“I can’t think of a network in the U.S. that gets the kind of audience that TF1 gets,” points out Coben.

Through fiction dramas like “No Second Chance,” Bailly says TF1 is looking to create events, position the network as a premium brand and renew the network’s audience.

TF1 has also benefited from the crossing over of Gallic film talent like Jean-Paul Rouve and Mathilde Seigner into the TV world.

Banking on the rising profile of French dramas, TF1 Droits Audiovisuels, the net’s commercial branch, has also started acquiring more of them to sell in international markets.

“Profilage,” for instance, has sold to more than 70 territories and currently airs in 27 countries. In Germany, which already has a powerful local TV industry, “Profilage” (renamed“Profilage Paris”) pulled a healthy 11% market share on Sat.1. The show is also the third-most watched series on the German VOD platform Maxdome, surpassing “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead.”

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