France strikes back against Netflix to protect its ‘cultural exception’

 

France has long defended its ‘exception culturelle’  with subsidies, quotas and tax breaks to protect French films, music and television from the ravages of a market economy.

Now it is arming itself to fight the digital dominance of Netflix, the £100 billion American film and television streaming service.

France’s three biggest broadcasters have set aside their rivalry to form an unprecedented alliance to take on the American colossus with encouragement from the government.

France Télévisions, the state-owned public service network, is joining forces with the main private network, TF1, and M6, the country’s most profitable private channel. Together, they are to launch a subscription service called Salto next year, offering a back catalogue of French TV shows and original content. 

“The time has finally come to rebel against the Americans, Netflix and also Google, Amazon and Apple,” the weekly news magazine L’Express said.

It will be a David versus Goliath battle. Despite a hostile reception from state-subsidised local media when Netflix launched in France four years ago, it has gained 3.5 million subscribers in the country.

Salto’s initial £45 million budget is dwarfed by the £6 billion Netflix is spending on content this year.

Some French commentators say the project is too little, too late, but others argue that France needs a platform for a distinctively French digital offering.

Maxime Guény, a media journalist, said: “Salto can work provided it doesn’t position itself as a competitor but rather as an alternative to Netflix, to sit alongside it.”

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Mr Guény said the service could win French viewers with popular local TV shows, as Netflix has done with series such as ‘Call My Agent!’, a drama about Paris talent agents representing France’s biggest stars. Many of them, including Juliette Binoche and Isabelle Adjani, appear as themselves.

“This is a show made by France Télévisions, it’s hugely successful, made for a French audience, but to watch it online, you’ve got to go to Netflix. That’s why France needs its own service. Better late than never.” 

Netflix is also trying to attract French audiences with original content. Its locally-produced series ‘Marseille’, starring Gérard Depardieu as a cocaine-snorting mayor, is a drama of political intrigue, corruption and gang warfare.

It has had a mixed reception in France. The influential magazine Télérama described it as “a failure on an industrial scale.”

Nevertheless, the series has imprinted its mark on the city. Visitors are now greeted with a Hollywood-style MARSEILLE sign on a hillside, a gift from Netflix, which is based in California.

Even that was not enough to save Netflix from being banned from the Cannes Festival, which ruled that its films could only compete if they had first been shown in French cinemas. The decision followed vehement protests by local cinema owners, filmmakers and unions.

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Undaunted, Netflix is producing more French-language series. Three are now in the pipeline — one set in Paris of the future, a romantic comedy and a superhero drama.

By contrast, the French service has yet to unveil details of its original content.

Florent Peiffer, a former television news presenter and the founder of a live digital production company, said: “It’s difficult to see the broadcasters working with each other to make a lot of new programmes. They’re more likely to do that on their own. What makes Netflix strong is original content.”

Salto will also have to clear another hurdle. Before it launches, it will need the green light from Brussels, to ensure that it does not breach EU competition rules.

In the past, national regulators have blocked attempts by both British and German broadcasters to join forces, but television companies now argue that teaming up is the only way to compete with the likes of Netflix and Amazon.

In Britain, the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 are together investing £125 million to take on Netflix and Amazon by giving the Freeview platform a broader range of free-to-view live and on-demand TV.

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