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France’s Broadcasting Reform Bill Sets TV Networks Against Indie Producers

With a long-gestating broadcasting reform bill looming in France, local TV groups such as Canal Plus and TF1 are gearing up to lobby hard and fight independent producers in order to increase IP ownership and retain rights for the series they finance.

Under current agreements between producers guilds and TV groups, French TV networks like Canal Plus are allowed to dedicate less than 15% of their investment obligations to series produced in-house, which forces them to rely almost entirely on third-party productions. For France Televisions, M6 and TF1, the limits are set at 17%, 25% and 30%, respectively. This has allowed French independent producers to thrive: They deliver 80% of the fiction productions in France, which generates €800 million ($880 million) yearly, according to the USPA producers guild.

The French system also limits broadcasters’ rights ownership to three years (for linear, catchup and SVOD), even for series that they almost fully finance. This has forced TV networks to repurchase rights to these shows from producers and limits their ability to stack series for binge viewing. For instance, Canal Plus had to repurchase rights to the first three seasons of its flagship spy series “The Bureau” from its producers to make all four seasons available on its streaming service MyCanal. As for Salto, the upcoming subscription-based platform jointly launched by TF1, public broadcaster France Televisions and M6, its library will be pretty bare compared to other local services like the U.K.’s BritBox. Each TV group will have to keep repurchasing rights to feed the service.

By contrast, global streaming services operating in France, such as Netflix and Amazon, are not subject to these restrictions and have been commissioning original series from local producers, with no limitations on their rights ownership.

A decree in the broadcasting reform bill set to be unveiled Dec. 4 would put broadcasters and streaming services on a more equal footing by allowing TV networks to invest about 50% of their funds in in-house productions. The exact new percentage will be determined following discussions between producers and TV channels.

But those talks promise to be stormy. For French TV channels, being allowed a 50-50 split of independent and in-house productions would be a great improvement. But Nicolas de Tavernost, the president of M6, told Le Figaro newspaper last week that rights ownership would wind up being even more restrictive than before, both in scope and duration, under the proposed changes. That trade-off is unfavorable enough that Delphine Ernotte, the president of public broadcaster France Televisions, said recently that France Televisions would maintain its current agreement with producers guilds, which sets the minimum proportion of independent productions at 83% of investment obligations until the end of 2022.

Some producers are concerned as well about the suggested 50-50 split. “TV groups are unhappy about this prospect and so are we because we face the risk of losing €150 million worth of business, and broadcasters will obviously want to keep the long-running and exportable series to themselves” if the bill is passed, USPA president Thomas Anargyros told Variety. But Emmanuelle Mauger, the joint managing director of French independent producers’ organization SPI, said the fact that Ernotte wants to maintain France Televisions’ current deal instead of embracing the proposed changes indicates that the bill will be more favorable towards producers than TV groups.

As for how much of a TV group’s investment budget must be devoted to content production, the decree is expected to require that a minimum of 16% of a company’s annual revenues in France go into the financing of French-language series and films. This investment quota would apply to all streaming services and TV channels, not just France-based ones, which would mark a huge change for Netflix, Amazon, the upcoming Disney Plus and AppleTV Plus. Until now, those foreign companies have not had to abide by any quota for investment in French-language production. Anargyros said producers will seek a 65/35 split and will ask that streamers invest at least 30% of their revenues – two times more than traditional TV groups — because their programming slates are made up of films and series.

The French broadcasting authority (CSA) has suggested that non-compliant streamers would have their services suspended by French internet providers. But French culture minister Franck Riester told journalists that discussions with Netflix were going smoothly, more so than with French TV channels.

The skyrocketing demand for premium content and the competition from deep-pocketed global streamers are putting unprecedented pressure on traditional TV networks, TF1 president Gilles Pelisson recently told radio service France Inter. TF1 owns leading production group Newen Studios but has seen limited synergies with the company because of the current investment restrictions.

Maxime Saada, the CEO of Canal Plus Group, has also been highly vocal about French TV groups’ need for more flexibility. Canal Plus is a driving force behind local drama and has been financing most of the country’s biggest hits, from “Braquo” to “Versailles,” “The Returned” and “The Bureau,” but it hasn’t been able to profit from these shows’ international success and exploit them on its services outside of France because of  the current restrictions on rights ownership, Saada previously told Variety. It’s a timely issue since the company is preparing to launch MyCanal in about eight territories.

Canal Plus created its own Paris-based TV drama series production company a couple years ago but has only produced one series so far, “Mouche,” the French adaptation of “Fleabag.” Vivendi-owned Canal Plus boasts a network of productions companies in the U.K., Germany, Spain and Denmark, where it does not face any limitations on rights ownership. An executive at Canal Plus Group said that if the government doesn’t lift some of the restrictions on French TV groups, it will drive them to invest more outside of France.

After its presentation before the council of ministers, the broadcasting reform bill will be presented to the French parliament and senate within the next few months. An agreement will then have to be reached by producers and TV producers as well as streamers by the end of 2020, when the European Commission directives, including the 30% European content quota for on-demand players, will kick off.

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