85-89, quai André Citroën
75015 Paris Cedex 15
Telephone: (+33) 1 44 25 10 00
Fax: (+33) 1 44 25 12 34
Sales: EUR 3.29 billion (1999)
Stock Exchanges: Paris
Ticker Symbol: CNPLY
NAIC: 51321 Cable Networks; 51211 Motion Picture and Video Production
1984: Canal Plus begins broadcasting.
1987: The company goes public and its subscriber base tops two million.
1989: Subscriber base tops three million; Canal Plus Belgium is created.
1991: Launch of Premiere channel (Germany).
1996: Launch of digital satellite television in France.
1999: Joint-venture partnership with Vivendi to create V-Net.
With nearly 14 million subscribers across Europe and Africa, Canal Plus ranks as one of the world's premiere subscription-based television providers. In addition to its Canal+ pay-TV service, with operations in France, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Spain, until early 2000 the company held a nearly 70 percent stake in CanalSatellite, the French satellite television provider, as well as a more than 70 percent stake in Multithematiques, providing theme channels to the cable and satellite television markets. Aggressive investments in Hollywood and the creation of its own production companies have made Canal Plus an important player in both the American and European film industries, and especially in France, where the company has a hand in nearly 90 percent of all French film production activities, allowing the company to profit from its powerful involvement on both continents. Turning toward the future, Canal Plus has joined with former major shareholder Vivendi in the 50-50 partnership Vivendi-Net (V-Net), created to combine the two companies' Internet interests. Canal Plus has also stepped up development of its own Internet-access set-top boxes, planning to invest some 220 million euros in this project in the year 2000. In January 2000, Canal Plus announced that French arms and media conglomerate Lagardère Group SCA had purchased a major stake in the company's digital television wing, taking 34 percent of CanalSatellite and nearly 27.5 percent of Multithematiques, for a price of more than FFr 7 billion.
Pioneering Pay-TV in France in the 1980s
Canal Plus was the creation of André Rousselet, president of the French media and advertising giant Havas. While some observers were surprised that the top publicity group in France would become involved in a medium that needed no outside publicity, Havas hoped that the innovative move would open up a potentially profitable market. Rousselet decided to launch a subscription television channel in November 1984 to offer the French public an alternative to the comedies and variety shows typically featured on the three government-owned channels then in existence. Contending that no one would pay for television programming, critics dubbed the company 'Canal Minus.'
In fact, subscriptions were extremely low at the onset, and the company announced first year losses of FFr 330 million. Moreover, some politicians, including Laurent Fabius, France's prime minister, were not in favor of commercial television and petitioned for a retraction of the Canal Plus broadcasting license. Rousselet, however, was a personal friend, golf partner, and former chief of staff of President François Mitterand; he was able to acquire a government concession that gave Canal Plus an all but official monopoly on subscription television. In addition, Rousselet and Pierre Lescure, the company's director-general, put forth an aggressive spring schedule of blockbuster films, depleting all its programming for the next season, in an effort to attract viewers. Suddenly, subscriptions picked up. This initial success convinced Canal Plus that giving viewers what they were not able to get on government television--American hit comedies and French drama--was central to its future success.
In addition to Rousselet's effective political networking and the channel's innovative programming, Canal Plus benefited from lack of competition, high taxes on home video recorders, and a sluggish video market. The use of an existing broadcast channel and decoders allowed the station to avoid paying cable companies to broadcast shows and gave the station almost immediate national coverage. These advantages proved to be worth the expense the company incurred to improve early decoders, which were known for having technical problems.
Moreover, Canal Plus was exempt from regulations that required free channels to air films only three nights of the week and to wait three years to show a movie after its box-office release. Thus, Canal Plus was able to broadcast feature films only a year after their cinema releases. The channel also managed to use some restrictions to its own advantage. For example, the Socialist government's regulations required Canal Plus to broadcast a few hours a day with an unscrambled signal so that all television viewers could gain from the new service, and these unscrambled broadcasts were turned into ideal free promotion for the channel's regular programming. Two of every three subscribers first watched the channel during these free hours, according to Pierre Lescure. The government also required the channel to devote no more than 45 percent of its air time to films. This restriction encouraged Canal Plus to develop other interesting programming; as a result, sports programs became one of the channels specialties, with the network gaining exclusive rights to national soccer matches and top-quality coverage of boxing and American football. When the government succumbed to pressure from the film industry to ban the company's movie broadcasting during peak cinema-going hours, the station expanded its programming beyond films to interview shows, documentaries, and soft pornography.
In 1985, Mitterand announced the opening of private commercial television stations. While these new stations offered serious competition to Canal Plus, the company managed to break even the following year. Growth since then remained around 25 percent annually, as each new subscriber added about FFr 2,000 in annual turnover, but required far less additional cost. Aggressive advertising and competent management of the viewer base kept subscriptions high. A policy of debiting fees from subscribers' bank accounts contributed to the extremely high viewer subscription renewal rate of around 95 percent. Canal Plus's financial stability was thus greatly increased, as subscriber fees accounted for almost 90 percent of all turnover. By the time the company's stock went on the market in 1987, and soared from FFr 275 to FFr 575 per share in just one year, the station was thriving, with profits at $100 million in 1988. The channel had penetrated 15 percent of the 18 million French households. By 1989, Canal Plus had almost three million subscribers, representing a comparable penetration rate in France as Home Box Office Inc. (HBO) had accomplished in the United States, without HBO's 12-year head start.
With a secure base in France, Canal Plus was looking to expand internationally. Its attempts to link up with Lausanne-based Telecine Romandie were thwarted by the Swiss government in 1988. However, the next year, Canal Plus launched a channel in Belgium, of which it controlled 33 percent, and entered into a consortium with Prisa, a media group, which gained a license to begin a private television station in Spain. In partnership with Bertelsmann and the Kirch Group, Canal Plus launched Germany's first national pay TV service, the Premiere channel.
While Canal Plus faced increased competition and had fewer political connections abroad, its local partners helped tailor its programming of films and sports to match local tastes. In France, as well, Canal Plus created new theme channels featuring specialized programming, including children's shows and classic movies. While these new foreign and domestic channels initially lost money, they proved sound investments by edging out local competitors. By the time Canal Plus had expanded to Africa in 1990 with Canal Horizons, the channel had become the most successful subscription channel in Europe and was second only to HBO worldwide.
In the mid-1980s, Canal Plus began trying to acquire television rights to popular American television shows. Initially dismissed as a newcomer, the French channel soon won over Hollywood with its success and its international expansion, but remained very dependent on American film studios for the blockbusters, which were essential to its programming. In fact, by 1991, Canal Plus was paying $100 million a year just to acquire American movie rights. Hoping to avoid paying Hollywood's high prices, Canal Plus moved directly into film production itself, acquiring a five percent stake in Carolco Pictures, an independent U.S. studio, for $30 million in 1991. That year, the company also launched Studio Canal Plus, its own Hollywood production company, which had a working capital of $200 million and which later joined with Universal Pictures to co-produce films. Canal Plus also entered into a deal with Warner Brothers and the German media outfit Scriha & Deyhle to help finance Arnon Milchan's independent production company, Regency International. Through these various investments, Canal Plus contributed to the production of such hit movies as Terminator 2, JFK, and Basic Instinct.
The company's attempts to secure its position in the cinema industry did not all go smoothly, however, as it had to write off the $20 million it had invested in Carolco to help that company out of bankruptcy. This loss was not received well by investors, and Canal Plus stock prices fell. During this time, Canal Plus also gradually withdrew its equity partnership with Milchan, producer of the hit film Pretty Woman. Still, Canal Plus continued its investment in Carolco and did not stop buying the European rights to most Milchan films. The company, in fact, undertook another production venture in the form of Hexicon Films, a wholly owned production company, which released a film called Money Men.
The important role of Canal Plus in both the American and French film industries became especially evident in the early 1990s. In 1992, Canal Plus was Europe's biggest purchaser of American movie rights and remained important to U.S. studios wishing to have access to the European Community market, in light of the increasingly protectionist attitude of the European film industry. At the same time, Canal Plus's management expressed the desire to play a leading role in modernizing and strengthening European film production. The company's obligations to spend ten percent of its revenue on French-made films increased its clout in the ailing French cinema industry, which had at first regarded the subscription channel as a competitor. With the increasing number of Hollywood movies entering the European market, Canal Plus came to be regarded as a savior for the French film industry, with its significant investments in French movies.
Canal Plus began to broadcast by satellite in 1992 to reach parts of France not hooked up to the cable network, developing subsidiaries to build satellite antennas and decoders. However, this venture produced conflicts with the government over the use of the D2-Mac standard for satellite broadcasting. The government's support of this standard broke the monopoly that Canal Plus had enjoyed in the decoder market. Nonetheless, Canal Plus was still reaching more and more viewers, passing the four million mark in France, which was long thought to be the saturation level.
The company continued its policy of European expansion, investing in such cable channels as European Sports Network and entering the market in Britain with a ten percent stake in TVS. In 1992, the channel joined with BSkyB, another powerful European subscription television service, to offer digital, multichannel pay-TV to Europe. Canal Plus also teamed up with Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation to develop new television services throughout Europe in 1992.
Between 1988 and 1993, Canal Plus stock increased 378 percent, and sales rose to $1.5 billion. While the channel's earnings growth and return on capital were expected to decline slightly throughout the 1990s, due to its investment in cable television and foreign channels, continued growth patterns were expected to bolster profits once the company passed the break-even point in its new investments. Indeed, by the late 1990s, most of the company's operations proved profitable. However, continued international expansion--particularly into the underdeveloped Italian market--kept the company's net earnings in the red.
In February 1994, Rousselet quit the board, citing disagreement with equity moves, but also reportedly because of a disagreement over government intrusion into the company's operations. Rousselet was replaced by Pierre Lescure, who kept Canal Plus on its course to build one of Europe's dominant media networks. Meanwhile, Canal Plus had begun to face new competition, at home in the form of satellite broadcaster AB Sat and a pay-per-view initiative from Lyonnaise Communications, and abroad as well from the six-channel satellite service, Taurus Programming, in Spain, and the expansion onto the continent of the United Kingdom's BSkyB satellite service.
In the late 1990s, Canal Plus nevertheless held its lead and continued to set the pace for television broadcasters. In 1996, the company was the first to launch digital satellite transmissions. At the same time, the company boosted its programming stock by buying up the library from Carolco Pictures, as well as that of UGC DA, one of Europe's largest. The following year, Canal Plus bought up Nethold, based in Holland, making the French group Europe's largest digital television provider. Canal Plus also took majority control of France's NC Numericable (formerly CGV), giving it one of the country's largest cable television networks. The following year, the company added digital television services to Scandinavia and Poland.
Canal Plus, which had launched its own web site in 1995, joined the rush to the Internet for the new millennium. After reaching a content-provision agreement with AOL (America Online in Europe) and Bertelsmann AG, the company formed, with then-major shareholder Vivendi, a 50-50 partnership called V-Net (Vivendi-Net) with the intent of providing content to the array of new information transmission markets, and especially the mobile telephone market, which, with the development of WAP (wireless application protocol) was expected to become the chief means of accessing the Internet within the first decade of the new century.
Canal Plus continued to explore new partnerships. After aborting merger talks with BSkyB in 1999, the company announced an agreement with mobile telephony giant Vodaphone to join V-Net in the launch of Vodaphone's MAP, a Europe-wide interactive content portal service. Then in January 2000, Canal Plus announced that French arms and media conglomerate Lagardère had acquired a major shareholding position in two of Canal Plus's subsidiaries--CanalSatellite and Multithematiques-a move that would serve to boost Canal Plus's content offering. At the same time, Canal Plus strengthened its upstream arm, announcing the merger of its Ellipse Programme television production subsidiary into major French programming provider Expand, a move announced in February 2000.
Despite posting a loss of EUR 136 million in 1999, due almost entirely to the company's efforts to establish its Italian operations, Canal Plus continued to mark strong growth, boosting its sales to EUR 3.3 billion. In that year, the company's total subscription base topped 13.7 million, marking an increase of 17 percent over the previous year. Its early investment in digital television, however, looked to become its strongest growth market; with four million subscribers in 1999, the company posted a subscriber growth rate of 58 percent in a single year. With a relatively undeveloped subscriber-based television market across Europe, and the company's strong moves into the Internet and multiaccess content markets, Canal Plus looked likely to maintain its leadership position.
Principal Subsidiaries: Antennes Tonna (51%); CANAL+ Finance; CANAL+ Image (97%); CANAL+ Nederland; CANAL+ Television (Sweden); CanalSatellite (70%); Expand (35%); Le Studio CANAL+; Mutlithematiques (27.42%); NC Numericable (85%); Sogecable (25%; Spain); TELE+ (Italy; 90%); Tobis-Studio CANAL+ (Germany; 60%).
Principal Competitors: Audiofina; Bertelsmann AG; DirectTV; France Telecom Group; Groupe AB; Liberty Media Corporation; Mediaset; News Corporation Limited; Pathé SA; Télévision Françse 1; Time Warner Inc.; United PanEurope.
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Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 34. St. James Press, 2000.