TF1 remains the leading commercial broadcast group in France, but as with its counterparts elsewhere in the world, content production and ownership have become paramount. Beginning with its acquisition of Newen, TF1 Group has expanded its footprint of production companies in Europe and, most recently, in Canada. Gilles Pélisson, chairman and CEO of TF1 Group, tells World Screen about how the company is well positioned to grow and compete in an ever-changing media landscape.
WS: What programming strategies have led to TF1’s strong performance?
PÉLISSON: We are strong believers, especially as a historical market leader, that content is king and we should provide our audience with unique experiences that we can renew and regenerate through the years. So, we offer a combination of programs that our viewers know and like, which are rendez-vous, appointment viewing, and novelties that viewers will discover and [be taken] to different standards in television.
Our ability to program several channels as a group is a plus. We work on what we call a multichannel strategy, to make sure that each channel brand is well positioned and differentiated from one another. We have TF1, the admiral ship, and then we have TMC, more targeted to young adults. It’s very trendy, a little chic and fairly upscale. TFX is more for millennials and the younger generations and offers reality shows and series targeting that age group. And then TF1 Séries Films provides reruns of the best of what you may have missed on TF1. And then, of course, we have LCI—La Chaîne Info, an all-news channel, which capitalizes on the fact that TF1’s newscasts, whether at 1 p.m. or 8 p.m., are market leaders. Having an all-news channel complementing this strength is also a big plus for the credibility of our news teams, especially in today’s environment of fake news and social media and everything, which may play against the flow of regular news broadcasts.
So you should look at us as risk-takers, as a group that can anticipate trends and identify new formats. And building on this, we strive to optimize the exposure of those formats and present them to the largest audience possible.
WS: Would you give an example of how you have taken a show and given it maximum exposure?
PÉLISSON: This may evolve over time, but let’s take as an example a miniseries. It will first air on MY TF1, our replay platform. And through the agreements we have with some operators, a couple of episodes will be made available in advance to subscribers. Then the miniseries will have its premiere on TF1. It will have a lot of replay on TF1 and MY TF1. Later, it may air on TF1 Séries Films. And we are working on how we can extend the exposure. We are working with our colleagues and competitors from France Télévisions and M6 on an online service along the lines of Hulu, a French version called Salto. You can imagine that some of our programs will also be played on the Salto platform.
WS: What can you tell us about Salto?
PÉLISSON: At this stage, I cannot say much, since the deal recently got authorized. We want to get as many people as we can on board for the pre-opening strategy and hopefully be able to launch in the first quarter of 2020. As you can imagine, we won’t talk about it much before it’s on the air!
WS: What can advertisers gain from what TF1 Group offers?
PÉLISSON: First of all, we want to offer the best of French television with the power and diversification of our group. By that, I mean an advertiser’s campaign can get the largest exposure between TF1 and the other channels in the group. And depending on its target audience, an advertiser can address just about every member of the French population. Then it can also diversify its campaign on our digital replay platform, MY TF1, in a safe environment. A lot of advertisers have been very disappointed by their experiences, whether on Facebook or YouTube, [given their concerns with] brand safety. [We can also provide] independent measurement of the audience and the performance of a campaign. Advertisers are much more demanding in today’s world, and we can offer both unique content and a very safe environment. We can provide data and analysis about who is going to watch a program. And advertisers can adapt their campaigns and position them for the attributes of the audience that is going to watch it.
Then, about two years ago, we complemented our linear offerings with the acquisition of a fairly diversified digital group. It has some major verticals which are centered around a major brand called aufeminin, which we bought from Axel Springer. It is the leading portal for women and provides all areas of interest for women. It has been up and running for some 15 years and has a vast audience in France and several other countries in Europe. In addition, we acquired marmiton, the largest cooking site in France. With 17 million app downloads, marmiton offers a large and significant audience for advertisers interested in home cooking and food content. We then acquired Doctissimo from Lagardère. Doctissimo is not only about doctors but also well-being and health-related issues people care about these days. These are a few of the verticals we have, and L’Oréal or LVMH or large consumer-goods companies favor them. They say, We enjoyed being able to advertise with your linear TV channels, but you bring us additional opportunities through these digital channels.
WS: Is there still a role for U.S. product on TF1’s channels?
PÉLISSON: Yes, very much. The Good Doctor has been performing wonderfully for us, with more than a 45-percent market share among women younger than 50. We had up to 7.9 million viewers, which for France, with a population of 66 million, is amazing. Lethal Weapon is still doing well. Manifest did very well last year. We are in the second season of S.W.A.T. Then we did the miniseries The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, which was the adaptation of a best seller about an American professor on the East Coast. We have bought New Amsterdam, and the new season of The Good Doctor will be on air soon. Hospital dramas are still working very well. I would say it’s true that U.S. series are maybe less powerful than they used to be, but the few that we have been able to keep and nurture are doing very well for us.
WS: Newen has been broadening its footprint. What has been the strategy behind the investments in these production companies?
PÉLISSON: Today, owning a studio and production house makes a lot of sense, especially at a time when all over the world, and this is thanks to Netflix, people are more and more used to watching content that didn’t originate in their own country. Newen had a strong base in France. They produce a lot of original content for Canal+, France Télévisions, M6 and ARTE. First of all, we managed to make them work for TF1, too, because we were not a very big client of theirs. Now Newen is producing a daily soap for TF1 that airs before the 8 o’clock evening news. And then with Bibiane Godfroid, the CEO of Newen, we embarked on acquisitions throughout Europe. [We bought] Tuvalu in the Netherlands, which has been quite successful with entertainment programming. We bought Nimbus in Denmark, and at the beginning of the year we acquired De Mensen, in Dutch-speaking Belgium, a very successful production house in both fiction and entertainment. They produce Undercover, which is running in France on Canal+, and they are selling it around the world. Over the summer, we announced the acquisition of the studio Reel One, and the deal is under the review of Canadian authorities. It specializes in TV movies, which is a popular genre, with a lot of romance, thrillers and Christmas movies shot mostly in Canada and the U.S. that sell throughout North America and Europe. Major channels in Europe use TV movies, mainly in the afternoon or late morning. So we felt very good about being able to acquire such a company that will bring an additional highlight to Newen’s catalog.
WS: How is TF1 Group working with Netflix? On the other hand, are international streaming platforms disrupting the French market?
PÉLISSON: I always say with the American platforms, and especially Netflix, it’s a combination of mixed feelings. On the one hand, it can be our worst enemy, and sometimes Netflix likes to say they are here to replace television. On the other hand, the way Netflix [has generated interest in] international content and non-domestic content is exceptional. When I wear my producer hat, I see tremendous opportunity to export our content. You should always look at it both ways. So the way we see it from the broadcasting standpoint is, How can we cooperate with platforms? How can we produce or co-produce content in a win-win way, whereby they will provide some investment costs?
Le Bazar de la Charité is an example. TF1 will premiere the show, and it will go to Netflix after it has been on our replay platform for the whole linear broadcast period. As this is a fast-changing world, the relationship with Netflix is also evolving. [Netflix was] a dominant player that a few years ago may have wanted to buy everything with unlimited constraints on rights, either wanting rights for the whole world or for an unlimited amount of time, and so on. [But more recently] Netflix negotiated with us and got Le Bazar de la Charité for four years. We are seeing some more rational behavior as competition is coming up and the world is changing. We also have alternative buyers for our product as a producer. It’s good for TF1 as a channel to be able to partner on such deals because it lowers the cost of our production. As a producer, Newen has been able to produce with Netflix in the Netherlands through Tuvalu. We have been able to produce for Amazon. And we see some shows, like The Mantis [La Mante], starring Carole Bouquet, a former James Bond girl, running on TF1 first as a miniseries and then having international exposure on Netflix. So it is a new evolving model, but a very interesting model.
WS: French broadcasters are required to invest in programming and film, and as French companies, they are required to pay taxes. Do you feel international platforms present in France should have the same obligations?
PÉLISSON: Yes, we do. It’s the whole idea about GAFA [Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple] being taxed on turnover in France, and not necessarily just an optimized corporation tax. In most countries in Europe, the two dominant players, Facebook and YouTube, capture close to 100 percent of the growth in digital advertising budgets, while most of the local digital players are limited to a very tiny piece of the pie. We believe it is time for the government to enforce some participation and tax contribution [on digital companies] so that there is financing for local content. The whole idea is to have a more balanced game between the domestic players, who are under such historical obligations of financing content, and the new players, who use content in a publisher or an aggregator model. Even though they are not based in France, these digital companies should also participate, since they have millions of subscribers in the country and are taking a large share of the consumer’s attention and data. As Netflix is not participating in the funding of local French content, when a French consumer subscribes to Netflix, his payment doesn’t contribute to the funding of local French content.
WS: In what areas of the group do you see prospects for growth in the next 12 to 24 months?
PÉLISSON: The way we are positioned, I like to say, as in the America’s Cup, we have moved from a 12-meter monohull sailboat to a trimaran flying over the water. They go faster and take the wind much better, however little wind there is. We have diversified our group, in one direction into production and content with Newen, and in another toward the digital world for the advertisers. [We have a better] one-to-one connection with each individual and consumer compared to what we used to be, which was a mass medium. This has transformed the group in a more balanced way and made it more capable of facing competition and challenges in the future. We have seen this recently with MY TF1, which has been completely revamped as a platform. We can now address each consumer, and not just millions of consumers, as we used to think in the television world.