Should France Prepare for a Netflix Revolution?

To break a series of political scandals dominating newsrooms for the past few weeks, the French media have been recently focusing on the arrival of Netflix in France. Some have announced it like a digital Messiah and others with a mixture of fear and excitement.

Netflix is now omnipresent on the American TV landscape and has partially revolutionized what broadcast has always meant. While traditional channels still maintain their strict schedules, Netflix has made these schedules irrelevant, allowing its viewers to completely personalize their evenings, mornings or afternoons.

So does France have space for Netflix as well?

The French have already become heavy consumers of shows produced abroad, especially those from the US. Some would blame this on what is widely considered to be the poor quality of nationally-produced programming. The French have made known their openness and taste for foreign television, of which Netflix would only provide more.

However, French traditional channels only broadcast America’s biggest hits, sometimes with a delay of a year or two. As a result, many French must download shows illegally or stream them online. As in many other parts of the world, the TV itself has become irrelevant as television consumption happens more on computers.

These habits are unlikely to disappear quickly. Too many French have become accustomed to having their shows immediately and for free. For Netflix this bodes both well and poorly. There is a fee, and there are often months of delay between initial broadcast and release to the library. However, once in the library, all the programming is unlimited and instantaneous.

The French might be ready to pay for a consistent amount of shows available, free of the unreliability of downloaded content. But beyond the consumers, Netflix faces challenges from its French competitors who have been developing their own offers, with “TV on demand” services, namely Canalplay, FilmoTV and Jookvideo. Consequently, unlike what some of the French media announced, Netflix has nothing really new to offer, except for international renown and the curiosity it has aroused.

As Thibault Daudé, who has been working in telecommunications for two years, explained, Netflix will certainly become a threat for them but will not likely acquire a monopoly on the French market.

To him, Netflix is actually more of a threat for the main TV channels, which remain mostly free, because these don’t offer innovative programs. However, the channels were already in crisis before Netflix’s arrival, and their problems seem more linked to a long-term evolution in viewers’ habits.

Internet and phone service providers already provide many additional channels to their viewers at no extra charge. According to Daudé, if Netflix wishes to move into French homes, it will probably have to use those service providers as partners.

To find its place, Netflix will thus have to adapt to a complex and competing market that has “nothing to do with the American market,” as Daudé said. One of the major service providers, Bouygues, has already announced that Netflix would be available for its users in November. The main service providers usually take a 30% commission from the profit services like Netflix make. But, it accepted a 10% commission from Netflix. (Other providers like Orange or SFR have not yet publicized their decisions.) Daudé believes that ultimately Netflix will “popularize” on demand offers but not conquer a new market.

Nonetheless, the closest thing to revolution might come from an unexpected angle. Unlike many other countries,’ the French cultural sector is highly regulated. The “French Cultural Exception” is the title for a laundry list of rules and policies that impose some quotas on French programming. Notably, there must be a certain number of French movies on air, on TV and in the cinemas.

According to Daudé, since Netflix will be based abroad, it won’t have to comply with those regulations, and could also for example disregard the “media chronology,” a set of rules that impose a specific delay between the appearance of a movie in theaters and wider release. Still, according to him, studios and networks have no interest in letting Netflix broadcast their content outside these time regulations yet, but this may change in the future.

Because of the French viewing habits and an already growing sector, it is thus unlikely that Netflix will trigger a “digital revolution” in France. It might however, upset the frail balance of the “Cultural Exception” and open the market to previously less threatening international competition.

A positive and expected consequence of Netflix’s arrival in France is the upcoming production of Marseille, which has been described as the French version of House of Cards. It is true that the French production of quality series remains poor, but it has risen. Maison Close and Les Revenants (The Returned in English) for example, are the first ambassadors of a new French potential exported abroad.

So, despite what the headlines might be saying, Netflix seems more likely to bolster a market with many potential customers, rather than create a new niche. But it will certainly not spark a full-blown revolution.

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