Announcing M6 Group’s bid for much of Lagardère’s TV business last year, the French media company’s chairman, Nicolas de Tavernost, called it a “significant milestone” for the group, “cementing M6’s position in the audiovisual market, making it the leader among younger viewers, while bolstering its status in on-demand TV and providing it with international exposure.” The crown jewel in the acquisition was Gulli, the leading free-to-air digital channel for kids in France, which has been serving its audience with local originals and imported hits for 15 years. M6 also took control of two well-established pay-TV brands for kids: for the 6-to-12 set, Canal J, which is marking its 35th anniversary this year; and TiJi, which is celebrating 20 years of catering to French preschoolers. The acquisition also brought to M6 a popular catch-up service, Gulli Replay; the SVOD platform GulliMax; and an international presence with channels in French-speaking Africa. Philippe Bony, the head of thematic and youth channels at M6, talks to TV Kids about how the company is building on the success of this market-leading kids’ portfolio.
TV KIDS: Tell us about the acquisition of the Lagardère kids’ channels. Why did you feel they would be a valuable addition to the M6 Group?
BONY: We have three free-to-air, general-entertainment channels. They are already quite family- and women-oriented, especially with regard to M6 and 6ter. Gulli, as a free-to-air channel, was an opportunity to add a new type of programming to cover the whole family. The combination of Gulli with M6 and 6ter allows us to address the entire family with the very positive positioning we have. To be honest, at the time Gulli was selected to be the children’s free-to-air channel in France, M6 also had a proposal to the CSA [for DTT licenses]. We’ve had a couple of discussions in the last 10, 15 years, to try to [acquire] Gulli, so this was not our first try. [The acquisition] was a great opportunity to have these channels in our portfolio.
TV KIDS: How has the integration process gone since announcing the deal last year?
BONY: It was quite simple. We closed the acquisition in September 2019. As of last December, we had moved all the teams to the M6 headquarters in Neuilly. Now all the teams are working together. It’s going well. What is interesting is that Gulli is really focused on children, so we are adding a specific block of programming and type of channel [to our free-TV offer]. Of course, we had kids’ programming on M6 in the morning, but only two hours a day, five days a week. We haven’t had any significant issues in terms of integration.
TV KIDS: This portfolio is very well established—Canal J has been in the market for 35 years, TiJi for 20 and Gulli for 15. How have they been able to maintain their leadership positions?
BONY: It’s a very competitive market. When Canal J launched 35 years ago, it was the first pay-TV children’s channel in France, maybe even in Europe. And now, there are 18 children’s channels on cable and satellite. It’s fierce competition. What is [beneficial] is the fact that Canal J and TiJi are connected to Gulli, and, of course, to the M6 Group and all of our other pay-TV channels and digital services. That helps to try to create a [complete] offer for kids. Gulli is more a general entertainment kids’ channel, so it’s addressing all ages. With TiJi and Canal J, we have the opportunity to address more specific targets in children’s programming. The combination of all these services is doing well, and I think it helps to maintain Canal J and TiJi in the market.
TV KIDS: I know there are requirements to commission local programming for the channels. How crucial are French shows in strengthening the bond with your audiences?
BONY: It’s major for us. And it’s a real opportunity in France because we have great producers and great talents in terms of animation. For a long time, art schools have been focused on drawings and animation. We have a lot of creativity in France. We are also quite successful on the technological side, so we have been able to create a French touch in animation. We have a lot of French productions on our channels. They give a specific flavor that helps us in France and in our developments abroad.
The COVID-19 crisis has gone through and disrupted audiovisual projects. The animation sector has suffered less from the crisis than the production of fiction. The studios have done everything possible to ensure continuity despite this exceptional situation. At Gulli, we have maintained an ambitious program—a quality schedule. In May we launched Boy, Girl, etc., the new French series from Watch Next Media. Despite the increased competition during this period, and thanks to well-anchored values, the children remained faithful to their favorite channel. The audiences have been held and it continues! We had our best market shares for two years this summer.
We managed to maintain production to offer a rich and joyful comeback with around 15 new releases. The French studios with whom we are co-producing more than 20 series at the moment have been responsive and efficient despite the crisis. In September, we launched The Sisters [season two] on M6Kid, The Adventures of Paddington and Ricky Zoom season two on Gulli. We still want to increase and enhance the level of production and diversify the programming we’ll have on all our channels and also on digital.
TV KIDS: The portfolio is also beloved by the international kids’ community because your channels have been great homes for some big brands over the years. What role do acquisitions continue to play on the channels?
BONY: We make a lot of acquisitions with great partners like Nickelodeon and DreamWorks. We have some great brands coming from international producers that are important for us on the channels. The new school year was also made with successful licenses like My Little Pony: Pony Life and the new seasons of The Loud House, The Amazing World of Gumball, Power Rangers and Pokémon.
TV KIDS: How are you keeping up with where and how kids are watching content today?
BONY: There have been a lot of major moves in kids’ consumption. We believe in the combination of both linear and nonlinear offers. That’s what we’re doing on our general-entertainment channels. M6 was the first channel in France to launch a catch-up service with 6play. That was 12 years ago. We’ve been developing a lot of great platforms and services. Of course, our channels will benefit from these platforms to enhance the look and feel of our services for children and families. We think that on the linear side, there will be more and more co-viewing. That’s a trend for our linear channels. We see more individual viewing on the digital side for kids. On the linear channel, we also have a lot of single viewing, but there’s more and more co-viewing with the parents and families, or brothers and sisters watching the same programs at the same time. So it’s two different evolutions: first, more co-viewing, and at the same time, more individual viewing on the digital. With our various services, we can combine these two ways of viewing.
TV KIDS: Tell us about GulliMax, your SVOD service.
BONY: The deployment of our SVOD offer has been a priority in 2020. Since this summer, we have been present with all the main distributors (SFR, Orange, Amazon, Canal+, Bouygues Telecom). With 3 million subscribers, GulliMax is the first French SVOD offer for children.
TV KIDS: That’s a lot of progress in a short space of time!
BONY: We had some competition arrive a few months ago with Disney+ and other services coming from abroad, so we thought it was necessary to go fast. The programming and the focus we have on the different targets is [advantageous]. We are in good shape to face the competition.
TV KIDS: What impact do you feel Netflix has had on the kids’ landscape in France?
BONY: In France, Netflix is important. It seems to be more aggressive [targeting] the youngsters than the kids. Of course, they have a big offer, but until now, we haven’t seen a significant impact on our viewing. It’s part of the competition. Disney+ launched in [April]. We see the competition moving a lot. This will also give us some opportunity [to increase our] ratings and viewing. The landscape is changing quite quickly, so we have to adapt very quickly. We have to focus on local production because we have a lot of opportunities there. That’s why we have revamped and increased our investments in new programming. That’s the best way we can cope with this new competition coming.
TV KIDS: What international opportunities are you pursuing for these brands?
BONY: Maybe there will be some opportunities for GulliMax, in combination with our channels. We also have a strong presence in Africa. Gulli Africa is the number one kids’ channel in French-speaking Africa. We will launch GulliMax in these territories together with Canal+. During the summer, Gulli Africa became a member of the world coalition for education organized by UNESCO. We worked on a program promoting the return to school for young girls and supported the UNESCO campaign. Finally, in order to strengthen our position as the first French youth animation channel in the world, we launched Gulli Brasil in early August.
TV KIDS: What are your other critical priorities for 2020?
BONY: Our main focus is on programs, programs, programs. That’s the main point. Of course, Gulli will benefit from all the technology investments that have been made by the M6 Group in digital services. Using all these assets helps to develop our digital offer. And we also have a lot of opportunities to develop our brand. Gulli is more than just a channel. It’s an entertainment channel with great shows, but it’s vital for us that Gulli is much more than that. It’s a brand that families and children can rely on. We need to be present everywhere the kids are. There are all the developments we have made with the Gulli parks, for example. We have indoor parks all over France where kids can go to play or celebrate their birthday parties. The brand is also engaged to help children and families understand and feel confident in the world they are living in. That’s our main priority. The fact that we are local and close to our viewers is also a way to be stronger; I think all the families that are watching Gulli prefer TV channels [that are made for] French kids. It’s a reassuring brand for families. That’s important to us. Moreover, we have been reelected by the parents as “favorite channel of families” for youth programs [according to L’étude Marques et Enseignes 2020].