Faced with the rising competition from global streaming services and the inflation of sports rights, French networks such as TF1, France Televisions and Canal Plus have ramped up their investment in international drama series in a major way to sustain ratings, boost their brands and lure millennials.

Public broadcasting group France Televisions is spending €280 million ($329 million) in fictional programs. TF1, France’s leading commercial network, is investing more than $176.3 million in fiction per year, while Canal Plus is working with a budget of more than $76.4 million a year.

“The competition, notably from Netflix, is stronger than ever and in this context we need very powerful series to thrive,” says Fabrice de la Patelliere, head of original fiction at Canal Plus.

“We’re going to do two more series per year to reach eight to 10 shows, either French series or international co-productions,” says de la Patelliere. Canal Plus started investing in high-profile drama series 15 years ago, notably with “Spiral,” “Braquo” and more recently “Versailles.”

Local channels have come a long way. A few years ago, the 100 most-watched series on French TV were mainly U.S. series such as “House” and “CSI.” In 2017, French fiction took 42 slots in the ranking.

“Traditional broadcasters tend to be risk-averse and they needed disruptive players like Netflix and Amazon, who are into edgier shows dealing with tough subjects, to show them the way and force them to look outside the box,” says Emmanuelle Guilbart, co-founder of About Premium Content. He previously headed France 4, part of France Televisions. “When you see how popular ‘Casa del Papel’ is in France, it sends a clear signal to local channels.”

Claude Chelli, the head of leading production outfit Capa Drama whose credits include “Braquo” and “Versailles,” concurs.

“Even if TV audiences are aging, French channels have had to jump on the bandwagon because people have different tastes nowadays and they are consuming so many international series from Netflix and other services,” says Chelli, who is in production on Netflix’s upcoming sci-fi series “Osmosis.”

“Original drama has the power to define the identity of a network and its brand, as well as bring returning audiences, in a way that talk shows or U.S. drama imports can’t,” he says.

This competitive landscape has prompted French channels to start producing in-house or co-producing in order to own IP’s and/or seek more upside on series that they are mainly financing.

“Owning rights to shows we commission allows us to recoup our investment and in turn gives us the resources to finance future series,” says Fabrice Bailly, head of fiction at TF1. “We’ve been taking more risks in artistic and editorial terms.

Bailly cites “La Mante,” about a serial killer helping cops to track down her copycat and which sold to Netflix, as well as “Les Bracelets Rouges,” an adaptation of Albert Espinosa Puig’s Spanish series “Polseres Vermelles.” TF1 is also eager to do more international dramas such as “The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair” with Patrick Dempsey.

The co-production route is increasingly taken by French channels seeking to board ambitious drama series that can’t be financed with a single broadcaster.

France Televisions recently forged ties with international players, launchin the Alliance, a partnership with ZDF and Rai to co-produce ambitious series such as “Leonardo,” about Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci. Italy’s Lux Vide is producing with Germany’s Beta Film.

“This partnership allows us to join forces on high-profile projects like ‘Leonardo,’” says France Televisions’ head of programming Takis Candilis.

“International co-production gives us the means to be ambitious and the capacity to have a better grip on the drama projects which we finance,” says Candilis.

De la Patelliere, meanwhile, says Canal Plus has been able to spread its net wider and be more competitive thanks to international co-prods. The pay TV group is working with the U.K. company Urban Myth Films on a modern adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” with writer Howard Overman.

“We’re not at the financial level of ‘The Crown,’ which has a budget of about $10 million per episode, but we’re on the right path. The second season of ‘Young Pope’ [the HBO series with Jude Law] will have a considerable budget,” he says. The first season of “Young Pope” had a budget of about $45 million; the second one has an even bigger budget, though he declined to give a figure.

The pay TV group has also become more vertically integrated. Studiocanal, its sister company, which already owns outfits in the U.K., Germany, Spain and Denmark, recently launched a Paris-based TV drama series production company.

As the demand for drama grows, the French have ventured into genres. De la Patelliere points out that Canal Plus has several genre series in the pipeline.
“We have many projects ranging from the Western to science fiction, for instance ‘Ovni,’ a series set at the end of the ’70s and dealing with the frenzy around alien invasion.”

Over at France Televisions, Candilis says the broadcaster has greenlit series set in environments that are seldom seen in French shows. He cites “La Dernière Vague,” a fantasy series in the surfing community in Biarritz; “Philharmonia,” in the world of classic music; as well as “A l’intérieur,” which takes place in a psychiatric hospital.

Gallic broadcasters’ push into original drama has been paying off as more and more shows travel abroad, including in English-speaking markets such as the U.K. and the U.S., which were once inaccessible for French series.

The best-selling French shows of the past couple years include France Televisions’ “Call My Agent!,” Canal Plus’ “The Bureau,” “Midnight Sun” and “Versailles,” and Orange Cinema Series’ science-fiction series “Missions.” The top territories were Belgium, Portugal and Italy, while Australia and Canada were top two non-European markets.

“I was in the business of selling TV programs for a long time and when I left seven years ago, I had never sold a single show to the U.S. and today it’s one of the biggest foreign market for local series,” says Hervé Michel, who joined TV France Intl. in 2016 as president after working for over two decades at France Televisions.