PARIS — Vincent Bollore, the boss of Vivendi — parent company of Canal Plus Group, Universal Music Group, Dailymotion and shareholder of Telecom Italia — rocked the boat at the annual shareholders’ meeting on Wednesday, warning that Canal Plus’ six pay TV channels would fold if escalating losses continued.
In what seemed to be a lobbying push directed toward the French antitrust board, the French billionaire said loud and clear that the livelihood of Canal Plus depended for the most part on its ability to access sports rights, which have been held by Al Jazeera’s BeIN Sports since 2012. The anti-trust authorities have yet to clear Canal Plus’ deal for a five-year exclusive distribution of beIN Sports.
Per Bollore, the launch of BeIN Sports, Netflix and other OTT services have been highly detrimental to Canal Plus, which keeps losing more and more money — Canal Plus’ pay TV channels lost 180 million in 2014, 250 million in 2015 and 400 million in 2016, according to Vivendi. Meanwhile Canal Plus Group’s debt has reached 1 billion Euros. Bollore shared the figures in a letter sent to all Vivendi employees and collaborators.
“Is it worth saving Canal Plus? I say yes, I personally think we should save it. But Vivendi is, apart from a few French shareholders, 70%-owned by foreign investors who won’t be willing to continue pouring money indefinitely into Canal Plus,” Bollore warned.
While he acknowledged that Canal Plus was a well-known brand overseas and remained “a pillar in the development of content that are essential to Vivendi’s growth strategy” and its ability to face off U.S. and Asian media powerhouses, Bollore also said folding Canal Plus’ pay channels in France was possible, and would make sense financially.
“The only part that is hurting Canal Plus are its (pay TV) channels made in France. It’s totally imaginable to have a Canal Plus group made of Canal Overseas, CanalSat, Studiocanal, the free-to-air channels D8 and D17 and Canal News (if the antitrust board allows us to rebrand iTele).”
However, Bollore doesn’t seem to take into account the fact that the Canal Plus brand has gained its international profile thanks to premium programming, which were developed by the original creation label of Canal Plus’ flagship pay TV channel. Upscale, edgy drama series and miniseries, such as “Carlos,” “Spiral,” “Braquo,” “The Returned” and most recently “Versailles,” have traveled worldwide and contributed to bolstering the Canal Plus brand overseas.
On the movie side, Canal Plus has also played a crucial role in supporting the French and European film industry (investing on average 150 to 200 million Euros per year), which in turn has allowed the company to cultivate ties with talent, filmmakers and producers worldwide — connections that have also benefited Studiocanal, the film arm of Canal Plus Group.
Addressing the wave of critics concerning his strategy that many have deemed self-sabotaging, Bollore said at the annual shareholders meeting: “My past pleads for my future. When I invested in the stationery business, people said ‘he’s crazy,’ then I went into Africa, I also heard ‘he’s crazy,’ same with Havas and electric cars. (…) I invested 4 billion Euros with my family (for Vivendi) so I obviously don’t think it’s shit. But sometimes I can be wrong.”
Bollore emphasized Vivendi’s aim at expanding its footprint in Southern Europe, notably Italy and Spain as well as in Africa. Vivendi also plans to develop its presence in the English-speaking world and in Asia.
During MipTV, Vivendi announced Studiocanal had taken a 20% stake in two U.K. outfits, Benedict Cumberbatch’s production company Sunny March TV and Urban Myth Films, and a 33% shareholding in Spain’s Bambu Producciones, which is producing Netflix’s first original series in Spain. Vivendi Contents’ boss Dominique Delport also announced the launch a Studio Plus, an offer of mobile-native, short-format premium series which represents an investment of 25 million Euros for the first 25 series produced.