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TV Programme Market Report: Growth of French TV drama highlighted at Series Mania Festival

Now in its third year, the Séries Mania Festival has become a major industry forum for international TV series. Ross Biggam reports from this year’s event in Paris.

April saw an interesting rehearsal of some of the issues around production and distribution of content at Séries Mania, a conference and organised pitching session in Paris, co-hosted by the Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC). There was firm evidence that the event is a success, with a screening of the first two episodes of Jordskott, the Swedish series whose financing had apparently been secured at the first pitching session of Séries Mania in 2013.

Series ManiaThe importance of long-running TV series has been recognised for at least a decade, since the first wave of HBO series (Sopranos, Sex and the City, Six Feet Under) showed the possibility of marrying commercial success and critical acclaim, overturning the inbuilt assumption that cinema productions were artistically superior to television.

In Paris last month, the focus was on how the European TV industry could compete with the seemingly endless supply of great US series. The mood was cautiously optimistic – obviously the Nordic drama phenomenon was an inspiration, although UK series such as Downton Abbey and Broadchurch were also doing well outside their domestic market.

What was new (to me at least) was the strong performance of French series. France had for many years been an outlier in European markets in that US series have dominated the peaktime schedules of the main free to air networks – for example, The Mentalist played on peaktime TF1 for many years, while more usually being scheduled in shoulder peak or a secondary channel in other European markets.

The French media regulator, the CSA, regularly produced studies showing that the top 20 programmes in the UK, Italy or Spain were all domestically produced, whereas in France around half were US imports. This of course was particularly anomalous (maybe embarrassing?) given the enormous political and regulatory effort and public funding channelled into supporting “l’exception culturelle”, where France has long led Europe’s opposition to Hollywood domination.

But the renewed political importance of domestic television drama was made clear as, across the city, the performance of public broadcaster France Télévisions in commissioning new drama was a key question mark over the candidacy of its director-general for another term in the role. (He was unsuccessful, although this is probably as much due to his having been appointed by the Sarkozy administration as anything else.)

Strong overseas sales

There was now clear evidence that French viewers were turning to domestic content, as their European counterparts do. Engrenages/Spiral, les Revenants/The Returned and les Temoins/Witnesses (the last-named sold to Channel 4 UK before broadcast) were all examples of this trend, with the forthcoming Canal + production of Versailles eagerly anticipated as the next potential hit for a French series.

Overseas sales were also strong, around 80 countries having acquired one or more of the above series, though it was pointed out that French overseas sales are around 10% by value of the UK figure, indicating there is still room for growth in French international sales, with Asia, North and South America mentioned as priority areas. 55% of French sales were to Western European territories (Germany, Italy, Belgium) whereas the UK sales were, unsurprisingly, much stronger in the US and Australian markets.

In terms of importing content, the French market was pleasingly open both to acquire foreign series and give them decent slots – Broadchurch, for example, gets an audience of up to 8 million on France 2.

The CNC, responsible for administering most of France’s elaborate cinema support schemes, had recognised the increasing importance of series a couple of years ago and would adapt its support policies accordingly. In particular, while the CNC has around 50 co-operation agreements in place for the cinema sector, it is about to sign only its second such deal with four German Länder (cultural and media policy being a devolved matter in Germany).

Once such a deal in place, this opens up all sorts of exchanges and support for producers in the respective territories.

Market trends

Among the more detailed themes discussed in Paris:

Overall, the Paris screenings were characterised by an upbeat mood and evidence of a shift from cinema to television series production which would make French television more competitive and more in line with its European counterparts.

One note of caution, though. From the entirely unscientific means of counting how many people were using the interpretation into English, I would estimate that the audience was around 80% French-speaking.

Europe still needs to create a forum which also takes into account the very different challenges of smaller national markets as well as the bigger, better resourced ones.

Ross Biggam is the Director General of the Association of Commercial Television in Europe. He also a Associate Partner on the MeCETES project.

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