During the beginning of the pandemic, consumption of programming skyrocketed. This increase was not surprising given that so many people were stuck at home, uprooted from their routines. What was unexpected to Gilles Pélisson, the chairman and CEO of TF1 Group, was the number of young people who returned to linear television. Thanks to its mix of news, entertainment shows and dramas, TF1, the leading commercial network in France, saw significant increases in audience share—a trend that has continued through the first half of 2021. Among recent top-rated programs are Koh-Lanta, the French version of Survivor; the dramas HPI and Les Combattantes; and the daily soap Demain Nous Appartient.
Under Pélisson’s leadership, TF1 Group has made production one of its three core businesses. The other two are broadcasting and digital.
Newen, home to the group’s studios, has expanded its footprint by investing in production units in the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Spain, the U.K. and Canada. Newen Connect offers linear and nonlinear platforms outside of TF1 Group topical dramas, soap operas, TV movies, documentaries and animation. Production allows TF1 Group to partner with Netflix, otherwise seen as a competitor in the French market.
The group’s broadcasting division includes five free-to-air channels, four thematic channels and the streaming platform MYTF1, with more than 23 million users. TF1 is also a partner with the public broadcaster, France Télévisions, and the commercial broadcaster M6 in the French domestic streaming service Salto.
TF1 Group’s digital division consists of Unify, including 15 digital brands and services, and Unify Advertising.
As Pélisson tells World Screen, TF1 Group and M6 Group have announced their intention to merge. Both groups’ parent companies, Bouygues Group and Bertelsmann, respectively, support consolidation in the European broadcasting sector. The deal is awaiting approval from the CSA (Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel) and the French anti-trust authority and is not expected until 2022. The decision to merge is indicative of the need linear, ad-supported networks have for size and scale as they compete in a media landscape dominated by global tech companies.
Should the merger be approved, the new company will be better positioned to serve viewers and advertisers. In the meantime, Pélisson is focused on boosting production, establishing a one-on-one relationship with viewers, and transitioning to a new hybrid model that combines offering content on linear and AVOD and SVOD platforms.
WS: Viewers have so many entertainment choices. What is the role of a commercial network these days?
PÉLISSON: At TF1 Group, we believe that television’s ability to provide a social link and bring people together, especially in difficult times, is more important than ever. This was fairly obvious when we observed the high ratings we were getting during the lockdown. We saw the importance of commercial television, from a democratic standpoint, in fighting fake news. We have such a strong and balanced newscast, the leader in France. We have 5 million viewers for our 1 p.m. newscast at lunchtime. At 8 p.m., our evening news usually has between 6 million and 7 million viewers and reached 8 million during the crisis. This, for a country with a population of less than 70 million, is just amazing. We saw increases in our total audience of 4-plus and among viewers 25 to 49, where we have a share of more than 20 percent on TF1. Younger people are also watching TV and that was very encouraging. We saw this trend continue in the first half of 2021.
WS: What programming contributed to TF1’s ratings success?
PÉLISSON: I think we were able to reinvent the sexiness of television, much of this thanks to our series. We had an amazing first semester this year. We created unique content such as HPI [High Potential Intellectual], a series about an odd but extremely bright cleaning lady in a police station who solves cases during her shift at night. Across four evenings in prime time, HPI averaged 12.4 million viewers, with a 45-percent audience share in 4-plus on linear television and a 20-percent share on replay during the next seven days. This was just outstanding!
Our fiction deals with social issues. We addressed Down syndrome and a girl who, despite her condition, managed to take her baccalaureate exam. In the coming months, we will have drama about a transgender teenager—a boy who aspires to become a woman—and the struggle for him and his parents.
A couple of years ago, we co-produced Le Bazar de la Charité with Netflix. It was a huge hit in France. The same three actresses and Sofia Essaïdi will be the four heroes of a miniseries about a town in the east of France during World War I when the men are gone and the women are in charge.
We also offer a lot of entertainment. We are bringing back Dancing with the Stars and a special edition of The Voice with contenders from the last ten seasons, which should be a hit. Then we have an all-star season of Koh-Lanta [the French version of Survivor], with the stars from previous seasons.
All of these shows give us a very powerful lineup. In our group, we believe more than ever that content is king. We want to go premium and play on the fact that our programming is unique. We have great talent from the movies as it’s now one big world between television and movies. We are also partnering whenever possible with the platforms. They are competitors, but they can also be partners.
WS: What is the focus at Newen?
PÉLISSON: Since 2016, we have transformed Newen from a France-based group to an international production house. We are now established in seven countries.
In France, the Netherlands and Belgium, we are strong in drama. We produced Versailles in France and will have another drama, Marie Antoinette, with the same Banijay team. We are producing L’Opéra for OCS, Orange’s private cable channel. We are doing a lot of drama for France Télévisions. Plus Belle La Vie has been on the air for 15 years and is still in production in Marseilles. Four years ago, we introduced the first daily soap for TF1 called Demain Nous Appartient [Tomorrow Is Ours]. Two years ago, we added a new one, called Ici Tout Commence [Here Everything Begins], about a culinary school in Camargue in the southeast of France. These shows air before the news and are very popular, with 3 million to 4 million people watching every day. We have created about 300 jobs with the first soap and 250 with the second, offering opportunities to new actors and actresses, showrunners and producers.
In Belgium, we have Undercover, starring Tom Waes, which has been sold in many countries and to Canal+. Netflix also picked up Undercover and asked for a feature movie, which De Mensen produced. Leonis Productions captured the attention of Apple TV+ and Ringside Studios is co-producing with Apple Liaison, with Vincent Cassel and Eva Green.
Recently, we acquired a couple of companies in Spain. One is iZen, which has been producing The Legend of El Cid for Amazon. It stars Jaime Lorente, the actor who played Denver in La Casa de Papel. Then we have Reel One Entertainment, out of Canada and the U.S., which produces more than 80 TV movies a year.
Also, the animation studio Blue Spirit is creating all kinds of animated stories for Disney, Marvel, TF1, Canal+ and France Télévisions. And Newen is also producing documentaries.
With this mix of programming, Newen represents around €400 million ($470 million) in content production, as well as worldwide distribution through its sales arm, Newen Connect.
WS: Tell us about establishing a one-on-one relationship with viewers.
PÉLISSON: It was one of the most significant decisions we made in the last four or five years. We moved toward establishing a direct relationship with viewers—when we were coming from a culture where we were talking to millions of people and that was all that mattered. If there is one thing that we have learned from the platforms, the web and digital consumption patterns, it’s that you need to talk to your audience on a one-to-one basis. We have invested heavily in our platform, MYTF1, which has more than 22 million subscribers. It’s number one in France. The consumer experiences are now very similar to Netflix or Amazon. It gives us high credibility and the belief that in the French-speaking market—because we will never have the power, size or scale of the hyper-scalers—we can be credible competitors.
We are also now looking at having premieres on Salto, in which we participate with France Télévisions and M6. Salto is the local Hulu, let’s say, which was created between competitors to have a national platform. We put HPI, the drama I mentioned earlier, on Salto for 30 days as a premiere. Then there was the linear broadcast, then the replay and eventually, it will go to another platform. This is how we think of what I call the lifetime value of our content, which is a new way of looking at programming from end to end.
WS: You mentioned M6. The proposed merger still needs regulatory approval, but how would TF1 and M6 benefit from it?
PÉLISSON: It’s a combination of two stories. On the one hand, the successful transformation of the TF1 Group in recent years has strengthened the confidence of our main shareholder, the Bouygues Group, in our business. On the other hand, an opportunity: the decision by Bertelsmann to participate in the consolidation of national champions throughout Europe and therefore to sell their 48-percent stake in the M6 Group in France. Of all the candidates, their choice fell on the Bouygues Group. Bouygues will ultimately own 30 percent of the new entity and Bertelsmann 16 percent.
When you start thinking about the evolution of the market, we are competing with the global streamers every day, not only in drama and movies but also for sports rights. Amazon has bought the Roland-Garros night matches and the French soccer league—eight games out of ten every weekend. These players are very significant, and they also happen to be present in French consumers’ homes. So, the merger makes more sense than ever, and this is why both shareholders, Bouygues and Bertelsmann, have embarked on saying we should join forces and try to build a stronger group. We will never compete with Netflix, Google or Amazon on a worldwide level. However, on a French-speaking territory level, we can be a solid contender. The French audience knows us. They like what we do. They have given us a lot of success and credibility over the last years, and we can capitalize on that. But we need a stronger base for acquisitions, tech investment and a large base for data. By uniting our forces, we believe we can achieve that. And if you look at the future company as a streaming player, having this larger, stronger base will be an asset.
WS: How are you working with advertisers, both across linear channels and digital offerings?
PÉLISSON: We try to combine what I call “the best of both worlds,” which are the power and reach of linear television and digital targeting. When I speak to most of our top clients and the largest advertisers in France, they recognize that television is unique in its reach and power for brands and brand-building.
However, we have seen over the years that the French advertising linear market has remained flat. It’s around €3.2 billion ($3.75 billion), while, as in most countries in the world, the digital advertising market has inflated in a very steep way. In France, five years ago, it was about equal to linear television advertising. Now, we’re at about €8 billion ($9.4 billion) for digital advertising, implying that the bulk of the advertising money is going in that direction. Furthermore, with addressable TV, advertisers will be able to fine-tune the targeting of their television spots. So, the ability to combine the targeting of the web with the power of television—this is addressable advertising—represents a new era. We received authorization to implement this in France last summer. We are now developing it with the French telcos, especially Orange and Bouygues Telecom, and we are looking forward to seeing how advertisers will be able to use this as a new tool. During the same advertising break, the family on the fourth floor of a building will receive a different spot from the family on the first floor or the house next door. From a socioeconomic standpoint, these families are different and we will be targeting them differently.
WS: Where do you see growth in the next 12 to 24 months?
PÉLISSON: We see growth through streaming, and therefore, addressable TV. Of course, Newen’s development will continue. There are quite a few countries where we could go. Then there’s the acceleration of partnerships, the ideal one being the merger with M6, but there could be others. Our priority is making the merger possible, but it’s not only up to us; it is in the hands of the regulators. The CSA and the anti-trust authority in France will look at what the relevant market is and define what the conditions would be for the two groups to merge. I think our future, from an almost patriotic and nationalistic standpoint—given that France is unique in terms of culture, history and creativity—is of national interest.
WS: Were there lessons learned from these past 18 months dealing with the pandemic?
PÉLISSON: I was very happy to see how agile our teams were in addressing the very sharp drop in advertising revenues, adjusting and managing our cost base very smartly. Especially the programming costs, where we were opportunistic and changed our model.
We implemented some exceptional measures during the pandemic. We organized ourselves differently. We struck some deals with the French and Hollywood studios in a very helpful manner. That was good for everybody because movie theaters were closed. The studios couldn’t release their new films, so they gave us the full possibility of using their catalogs, and we did. We bought, for example, the eight Harry Potter and three Lord of the Rings films, and so forth.
Then we had highly entertaining content like Koh-Lanta, which achieved excellent ratings. We happily had a couple of seasons pre-recorded, which we were able to broadcast. During the last three to five years, the younger generation had shifted to watching Netflix and other platforms. We saw them coming back to television.
The company had to adapt to work from home, which has been a challenge for all companies in the world. For us, it meant protecting, first and foremost, our news teams because these people had to be located in our offices and produce the news from the studios, travel and work in a different and difficult environment. The rest of the company, as much as possible, had to work from home. Bringing everybody back now is a challenge, like in every country, with everybody wanting to come back but maybe in a different manner. Our management style has to change. Like every other company, we are going through those learning curves, trying to adapt. It’s rewarding, but it’s a challenge. So is understanding—and this is one of the essential parts of making the merger a success—that little by little, our traditional linear model has been weakening. Therefore, we should evolve toward a hybrid model offering linear programming, AVOD and SVOD in a combined way. I think this is what is at stake when we are trying to imagine the future.