How France’s Broadcasters Are Serving Audiences in Lockdown as Ad Revenues Falter

Elsa Keslassy

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As France surpasses one full week in lockdown mode, TV audiences have jumped by 30% on French public broadcaster France Televisions. However, while production on newscasts and select talk shows continues despite restrictions on contact, one question begins to emerge — is there enough to go around?

French shoots have been halted for new drama series, TV movies and game shows, as well as sporting events during the coronavirus pandemic, leaving local networks to rely on pre-shot content, as well as movies, reruns of programs and re-packaged archive shows.

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Meanwhile, a few popular news-driven daily shows that are filmed live, such as “Quotidien,” produced by Bangumi for TF1-owned channel TMC, as well as “C’est à vous,” produced by Troisieme Oeil for France Televisions’s channel France 5, have also remained in production.

Takis Candilis, managing director and head of programming at the multi-channel broadcaster France Televisions, says continued production — which could be perceived as controversial during a lockdown — on “C’est a vous,” “C’est dans l’air” and “Les Maternelles,” another of the broadcaster’s popular talk shows, have managed to continue because they are third-party shows.

Owned by Pierre-Antoine Capton, who is also chairman of Mediawan, producer Troisieme Oeil has been shooting the show in its own studio and post-production facility. Capton, however, admits it is “very difficult to produce a show right now.”

“Our hosts and crews are continuing to come and do extraordinary work on a voluntary basis, we are checking the temperature of every single person who works with us, and we’re doing more and more interviews with guests or journalists through Skype or Facebook,” says Capton, although he notes that reduced video quality for services such as Skype are set to complicate broadcast interviews.

“We’re working differently with lighter, rotating crews, fewer guests and doing meetings and brainstorming sessions via (collaboration platform) Microsoft Teams like many in the industry,” says Capton, who adds that the show’s ratings have been up between 20% and 30% for the past week.

“It’s tough for our journalists and crews but they all feel the show must go on to preserve some live, human connection with people who are isolated and forced to stay home due to the pandemic,” says Capton.

Candilis says the France Televisions’ programming slate is adjusted daily, and sometimes even on an hourly basis.

“We’re having meetings twice a day right now. Sometimes we have to replace a program with another to make sure we have the most sensible program at any given time. We’ve postponed certain shows that weren’t appropriate to the current climate,” says Candilis.

France Televisions has also been ramping up its cultural offering with plays and operas, as well as educational shows for kids who are being home-schooled, along with movies every day. The country’s broadcasting authorities usually limit the number of days TV networks are allowed to air movies but this regulation has been temporary paused due to the exceptional circumstances.

Meanwhile, for sales agents and right-holders of films and TV series, business has been strong due to the high demand from TV channels.

TV networks in France have even obtained permission from broadcasting authorities to air programs they had purchased slightly before their permitted second window technically begins, says one TV sales executive.

But in spite of these initiatives, Candilis fears France Televisions will start running out of content around mid-April. “The supply is slowing falling like a house of cards,” he says.

For commercial networks TF1 and M6, the current lockdown has also boosted ratings significantly, although advertising revenues have been dropping day after day.

“Both TF1 and M6 are in a tough situation where advertising revenues no longer sustain the cost of their programming roster,” says one high-profile media executive.

“In this context, they’re trying to save as much of their fresh content and opting for a lot of reruns because it’s cheaper, or airing episodes of series one by one, instead of two,” adds the exec.

TF1, which is listed in the Paris stock exchange, said Monday that the group was withdrawing its financial forecasting for the year due to the drop in advertising revenues.

“(The decline) is significant for March and will be even greater for April. To this day, we have no visibility over May and the following months,” said TF1 in a release.

In this difficult financial context, it’s not surprising TF1 and M6 were up in arms when pay-TV group Canal Plus said on March 16 that it would be free for all during the lockdown, and begin offering movies that both free-to-air networks had bought to air in 22 months.

Hit by widespread protests, Canal Plus, whose window for fresh movies is set at four months, was required to call off its free offer in four days.

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