Tuesday, 3 March 2009


2700 m2 of sets at Bry sur Marne (one of the most prestigious French studio facilities) with 450 professionals rotating on this one site (150 alternating on the sets), 15 writers working there for a 22 minute format shot in HD, a title song performed by a former candidate of Star Academy – a musical talent Real tv contest, a viral marketing campaign, catchy promos and a much talked about 28 million euro budget. TF1’s Seconde chance, a daily soap launched on September 29 2008, had all to be considered as one of the most ambitious gambles of the History of French television.


Why would Europe’s first TV channel (and leader in France) believe a soap opera could be the ticket to restore its leadership on a time slot conquered by hertzian rivals and Digital terrestrial television (5.40pm initially) in a country where viewers have not the slightest notion of who Luke & Laura can be? The answer is simple: Plus belle la vie, the French equivalent of the UK’s Coronation Street or Eastenders, or of Germany's Gute Zeiten, Schlechte Zeiten (aka GZSZ). Launched in 2004 by public France 3 at the most strategic 8.20pm slot, right versus these institutions that are the 8.00pm news sessions of TF1 and France 2. PBLV began with lacklustre ratings but France 3 believed in its investment, and after hard retooling, le feuilleton quotidien became one of the most watched programmes in this country, and raised appetites.

Then TF1 had the flair to buy Sat.1’s Verliebt in Berlin (2005-2007) the German adaptation of Columbian global phenom format Yo soy Betty la fea. And viewers made a triumph to the romance between Lisa Plenske and David Seidel, which became the N°1 guilty pleasure of 2007. Public channel France 2 and private TF1’s rival M6 tried to launch their own daily soaps in 2008. But both Cinq soeurs and Pas de secrets entre nous, conceived by the same production company (Marathon, producer of St Tropez or Totally Spies!), failed to attract the public.

In such a context and with a budget twice the production cost of Plus belle la vie, TF1 had to be careful and tested 10 episodes of Seconde chance with panels before an order of 180 episodes to Alma Productions, the TF1 subsidiary behind RIS (adapted from an Italian format), and the French version of Law & Order Criminal Intent, but also L’Hôpital, involuntary laughing stock of the previous season, which even won a Gérard (the French Razzies).


Alice Lerois, 35 years (Caroline Veyt, a Belgian actress), two children, is dumped by her hubby, and needs to get a job but her résumé is a catastrophy. When she goes to her last chance interview, for advertising agency Broman & Barow, she is engaged by female exec Laetitia (Isabelle Vitari), a former high school friend. But Laetitia has an hidden agenda and scores she wants to settle. So what? Seconde chance borrows the codes (clichés?) of Ugly Betty and Verliebt in Berlin reunited, from the Über bitch figure to the fiftysomething boss a la Alan Dale, plus tics from RIS and L’Hôpital (a voice-over, split screens, incidental songs in English, etc...). Add surreal sequences inherited from Ally McBeal and an annoying incidental “Elfmanian” music right from Wisteria Lane. Not to mention terrible lines such as « I'm an ordinary woman ».

TF1 cancelled the second season of Verliebt in Berlin (Le Destin de Bruno, centered on Lisa’s brother) halfway because of the lack of interest of viewers after the departure of Lisa Plenske. Could it mean that TF1 and Alma's executives thought that the recipe is tasty only with an heroine? The prime target of TF1 is the mythical Ménagère de moins de 50 ans (50- housewife) and teenagers. But teenagers watch Alles was zählt (Le rêve de Diana), a German soap from Grundy UFA, on M6. The first two back to back episodes of Seconde chance did rather well in Belgium (where the soap is aired some days in advance because TF1 is received in this country) and France. Words of mouth were at first favorable amongst the core audiences and the network seemed satisfied of the beginning of its daily show.

Six months later, ratings have never reached what you can expect with such a budget and logistics but no one wanted to bury the soap too soon because of the Plus belle la vie precedent. Plus TF1 had to cope with the pregnancy of its star and therefore replaced Caroline Veyt by Pascale Michaud as Emilie Marceau - starting on episode 100 (and with a revamped theme intro). Now, approaching the end of the season, Seconde chance will likely rejoin the memorial of hazardous soap opera experiences, with campy gems like Riviera (1991, a costly USA-France venture), Foreign Affairs (1992, a co-production between The Netherlands, Canada and... Argentina!), Secrets (1992) (1) or the infamous Eldorado (1992-1993).

The keys to a good soap opera are strong characterization, virtuosic actors (2), identification factor but larger than life, if not exaggerated intrigues contained inside the environment of the show... for a reasonable cost. TF1 should stick to the formulas of their hit dramedies: the uneven Joséphine Ange gardien and the lighthearted, funny and effective Père et maire (ABC or NBC should consider the idea of buying the format of this show), rather than trying to duplicate Ugly Betty, Grey's Anatomy or CSI one way or another.

(1) Sky du Mont on Secrets: http://tattard2.blogspot.com/2008/05/sky-du-mont.html.
(2) In the universe of French soaps, the charismatic Alexandre Fabre - Charles Frémont in Plus belle la vie - is the incarnation of the virtuoso. Physical considerations apart, he's the French equivalent of Joseph Mascolo.

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