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We find ourselves in the office of Gilles Marchand, around the large wooden conference table that also serves as a desk, where some of SSR’s future is decided. In a corner of the room, two televisions are mounted high on the wall, both showing SSR channels. On Monday 27 January, tennis is playing with no sound. Rafael Nadal is sizing up Nick Kyrgios in the Melbourne night. "I brought this table with me from RTS," said the Lausanne native and former director of TSR (Télévision Suisse Romande) with a smile. Appointed Director General of SSR in 2017, he is now located in Bern, on the 10th floor of the group’s headquarters. Marchand is known for his sense of anticipation and his sharp knowledge of the media world in Switzerland and beyond. He describes the future of SSR, which is focused on streaming, and the digital challenges in the audio-visual landscape that are to come.
SSR will launch a large streaming platform in autumn 2020. What is the goal of the new service?
Viewers today are looking for more à la carte options and fewer traditional linear channels. With this project, we are meeting a strong demand from our audiences. It will be a big step forward, because for the first time in the history of SSR, programmes will no longer be organised by linguistic regions but instead organised by subject. They will be offered in original languages with subtitles for all of Switzerland. We believe that we have a lot of content that all regions can enjoy.
What will the content be?
Primarily fiction and documentaries. These two genres lend themselves well to on-demand viewing and thematic grouping. For example, if you search for the word "pandemic" – a current news topic (ed. note: at the time of writing) – you would be able to access reports from various language regions. We will also offer selected content from events with which we partner.
Viewers register for free to access the platform and will be able to choose the language of the interface so that we can suggest interesting content. The data collected will be secure and not sold. The goal is to use technology to serve public demand.
What about sporting events and news?
We will not include those on this platform. Linear broadcasting channels are perfect for this type of content. But you will still be able to watch tennis on rts.ch, for example. All of our regional portals will continue to be free to access.
Will the new platform offer exclusive content?
The idea is more about offering another way to watch our productions. All content will be broadcast via our traditional linear channels and then made available for streaming on demand. Viewers will be able to access the catalogue in various ways: via the internet, applications, and even traditional televisions. We’re currently talking with telecoms companies and everyone interested in carrying this offer.
In terms of producing fictional content, do you think the day will come when SSR could compete with the best Danish series?
That’s the goal! There’s also very high-quality television coming from Canada, Belgium and Israel. I think it’s possible to aim for that level of content. But until now in Switzerland, the production volume was too low to gain enough expertise in the matter. By increasing investments in fiction, as well as systematic dubbing and subtitling, we will become more knowledgeable as we broadcast the same series to all regions of the country.
Could SSR gain international fame? How would you achieve that?
When we are minority co-producers of a series with French or German broadcasters, the series is never filmed in Switzerland, and the casting is determined by the country that provides the most financial support. So to make a name for ourselves internationally, we have to be able to produce content in Switzerland. That’s also one of our goals: to showcase Switzerland in something other than the news. It’s a type of "soft power" that we’re trying to develop, which also corresponds to our international plans.
Will podcasts be included on this new platform?
It will primarily be a video platform. The user experience distinguishes between video and audio rather clearly. I’m not categorically rejecting a potential audio platform in the future. But we already have quite a challenge with video, so it’s hard to imagine a common entry point for all languages.
Within SSR, many digital innovations are coming from RTS. They include the show Nouvo, the Play RTS app and the new programme about video games that has just launched on Twitch, among many others. German Switzerland doesn’t seem quite as open to experimentation. Why do you think that is?
You’re right, Romandy is quite the pioneer. That’s the case currently in the fields of artificial intelligence and archive management. In terms of AV, I think it comes down to location. Romandy channels are more internationally-focused because of their ties to the French-speaking world. That said, German-speaking Switzerland has also achieved plenty of innovation in recent years. It is very cutting-edge when it comes to audio. In Italian Switzerland, RSI has a studio open to YouTubers.
Are listeners’ consumption habits very different in German Switzerland compared to Romandy?
Sometimes. For example, it’s interesting that Instagram is so powerful in German Switzerland and less so in Romandy. Conversely, Facebook remains very popular in Romandy, but is losing ground in German Switzerland. It is possible that cultural influences from France and Germany, respectively, are playing a role here.
Getting back to SSR platforms, what segment of your viewers watch your channels on your website?
It’s increasing all the time. Our penetration rate via linear channels is decreasing, which is the case all over Europe, and on-demand viewing is on the rise. This situation is problematic because our financing model is mixed – historically 75% of revenue is from royalties and 25% from commercial revenue. As it’s illegal to run advertising on digital channels, we are losing revenue. So we are blocked on this point.
Does this situation seem unfair, given that most media also produce video and sound?
I’m not saying it isn’t (laughs). This is actually a current topic. The bigger overall question is how will various national media coexist in a minuscule market that is under attack by various international players? Some publishers believed – maybe they see things a bit differently now – that SSR’s digital development would make them lose even more money, so they shut down that possibility. We tell them: we’re not your competition. The real danger is international platforms coming from the United States.
To compete with GAFA which have massive advertising revenue, have Swiss media outlets decided to bury the hatchet and work together?
I’ve been calling for cooperation like this for a long time. It would put us in a better position to defend Switzerland’s media positioning. We’re too small to tear each other down. By bringing together digital content creators from SSR and other publishers, we could attract more Swiss advertising.
But this doesn’t seem like it’s on your roadmap...
Publishers need to recognise that this is an attractive potential gain for them. That’s not entirely the case yet.
Nevertheless, aren’t there some technological projects that you could lead together? Or some potential shared goals?
Of course. For example, SSR is part of a Swiss digital group that includes NZZ, Ringier, Tamedia and CH Media. The goal is to develop a single subscription system where users can access content from the various participants.
"Take the Disney catalogue, in my honest opinion in order to compete with such an avalanche, it’s in your best interest to consolidate the best national content"
Another very concrete example: Swiss Radioplayer launched in 2018. This app is a hub for many Swiss public and private radio stations. It creates a critical mass – useful for convincing auto manufacturers to use our audio station as the default programme in their vehicles.
We are also partners in the Initiative for Media Innovation (IMI), a centre of excellence at EPFL that works with various publishers and universities, as well as RTS. We have several ongoing projects, particularly a very interesting project about algorithms that can track fake news. This innovation will be of interest to both print and AV media. It will be available to all partners.
Is SSR involved in any international digital projects?
TV5 Monde will develop a sizeable à la carte digital offer called TV5 Monde+, and we will be closely tied to that. This platform will host programmes for which the global rights are free. Canadian groups in particular are very involved in this project. In terms of heritage, it is a way to showcase the best Francophone content in an on-demand format.
What do you think of the Salto on-demand video service, including the French broadcasting groups TF1, M6 and France Télévisions, due to be launched this year?
I think that for national operators, whether public or private, it is in their best interest to band together to resist the advances of global catalogues. Take the Disney catalogue that’s coming now, in my honest opinion in order to compete with such an avalanche, it’s in your best interest to consolidate the very best national content.
In terms of increased competition between broadcasters, what do you think the future of sport will be at SSR? Will the Swiss public service broadcasters still show high-level competitions in five years?
It depends on the type of sport. Yes for the Olympic Games, the World Cup and very Swiss sports such as skiing. But it will be very difficult for the UEFA Champions League, for example. Now, there is an incredible bidding war to acquire TV rights, due to new players on the scene, including Swisscom.
In my view, the rights holders are wrong to think in the very short term. If people ever have to pay to access every single match, the audience will fall. Rights holders will then have a problem with their sponsors, who will complain about not reaching a big enough audience.