World: Medium of the Week - Discovery Channel aims to conquer French market

Discovery is bullish about its entry into a crowded TV sector, Mark Tungate writes.

The French have never been great globetrotters, preferring a cafe in the Cote d'Azur to a hotspot in Hanoi, but they do seem keen on the armchair view of the world. The audio-visual landscape is cluttered with documentary and travel fare, from the popular Friday evening maritime show Thalassa on France 3, to theme channels such as Planete, Escale, Histoire, Odyssee, Voyage and the National Geographic Channel.

This might make things tricky for the Discovery Channel, which is planning to launch in France on 1 September. But Arthur Bastings, the Discovery general manager for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, thinks it can differentiate itself from its competitors.

"We position ourselves as an entertainment channel, not a documentary or reportage channel," he asserts. "The difference is that, unlike with most entertainment channels, you can actually learn something from Discovery."

Bastings cites Zero Hour, a programme about the Chernobyl disaster. "The film recreated the scene inside the facility. It's the ability to show events and places from the perspective of the people experiencing them that marks us out from other channels," he says.

Bastings points out that most potential rivals in France screen "classical" documentaries and have an educational rather than an entertainment role. "They also attract an older audience. We will be positioning Discovery Channel as much younger, with a core demographic of 25 to 49, and 30 to 40 as our prime target."

French media buyers have given the channel a mixed reception. Emmanuel Charonnat, the director-general of Carat TV, says: "It is an extremely well-established brand in the US and, although it is up against a lot of competition here, Discovery has the weight and the budget to make an impact. Everything hinges on the quality of the programming."

He points out that the recent French screening of the British docudrama The Last Day of Pompeii on terrestrial TV achieved respectable audience figures.

Alexis Porte, the head of TV at Initiative, is not so sure. "Unlike National Geographic, which existed in France in magazine form, viewers don't know the Discovery brand," he says. "The market is already saturated and, unless it can come up with something really original, it will find it hard to interest viewers and advertisers."

A sales house has yet to be announced, although Bastings says there are two contenders. CanalSatellite will carry the channel. Bastings will not provide a target audience figure but says he expects the channel to become a category leader. To do so it will have to overtake Planete, established in 1988, which claims to attract three million viewers a week, or a 0.3 per cent audience share, according to MediaCabSat.

Neither Porte nor Charonnat consider Discovery's American heritage a problem, pointing out that MTV and Disney Channel have done well in France.

Bastings describes Discovery as "an international brand" and says the French channel will screen plenty of local content. "We have good relationships with French producers, thanks to our annual presence at the Sunny Side of the Doc festival in Marseille. Indeed, we've been buying French programming for quite some time," he says.

Launch date: 1 September

Audience: Aims to attract more than three million viewers a week

Cost of a primetime slot: Discovery says France is currently being sold

as part of a pan-European package.

Prices: 70/30 $2,025 (£1,114) Prime $2,419 (£1,331) Fringe $1,115 (£613)

Typical advertisers: Travel, automotive