By Barry Flynn, Contributing Editor
US SVOD service Netflix found itself accused by a French consumer protection group this week of placing clauses in its customer agreements that were illegal under French law.
The most contentious of these is alleged to be a clause that allows Netflix to change its terms and conditions without telling subscribers.
The irony is that the number of consumers involved is likely to be small, especially on the three French TV platforms with which it has secured carriage deals since its launch on September 15th, where integration appears to be advancing at a snailâ€™s pace.
Bouygues Telecom, Franceâ€™s third-largest telco, was the first, announcing on the day of the launch that it would make Netflix available on its Bbox Sensation set-top box â€œfrom Novemberâ€, eventually also rolling it out to a future Android TV box.
Market leader Orange followed two weeks later with a similar announcement, pursuing an identical November time-line.
It was left to Franceâ€™s second-largest telco SFR, whose purchase by cable operator NumÃ©ricable from Vivendi was recently approved by regulators, to pip its two rivals to the post by quietly making Netflix available to its customers a week later, on October 8th, but without actually publicising the fact.
Given the high penetration of ADSL-delivered TV in France, distribution deals between Netflix and the countryâ€™s biggest phone companies were perhaps to be expected, although they have been the exception rather than the rule in other territories.
There is, however, a common feature to all three deployments: in each case, Netflix is only currently accessible on a subset of the operators’ installed TV set-top boxes.
SFR â€“ which boasts some 22m mobile subscribers and around 5m fixed-line ones â€“ is making Netflix available solely on its Android box, which the respected daily Les Echos points out has only been taken up by just under 100,000 customers.
Meanwhile, Bouygues customers must wait for a software upgrade to be delivered to their Bbox Sensation set-top box. While the Bouygues website says that â€œNetflix will arrive on your Bbox and be available between now and the beginning of Decemberâ€, Videonet has established that as recently as Monday (November 24th), the Bouygues online help-desk was telling customers that the service was â€œnot yet availableâ€, and that â€œunfortunately, we do not have any provisional date [for its launch].â€
Bouygues has 11m mobile customers, plus 2.3m on fixed broadband, of which 1.6m are business customers. The company had not responded to Videonetâ€™s requests for clarification at the time of writing.
Finally, Orange, which according to its latest financials has nearly 6m TV customers, is confining availability to its Livebox Play devices, and only once these have been upgraded to its new Polaris platform, a unified multiscreen user interface unveiled last month â€“ a process it expects to take until the end of the year.
According to Orange, Polaris was still being tested with subscribers at the beginning of October. Other ADSL and satellite decoders will begin receiving the Polaris upgrade at the beginning of 2015.
At the point at which its Livebox Play product was launched in January 2013, Orange already had 5.2m TV subscribers, so even assuming the 800,000 TV subscribers acquired since then were all given the latest box, it is likely that accessing Netflix on a TV set is something only a minority of Orangeâ€™s customers will be able to do in the near-term.
This could represent a hedging of bets by Orange, which has previously announced that it plans to launch its own, competing SVOD service in due course.
Meanwhile, Netflix has not revealed any figures for overall (i.e. non-TV access as well as TV access) French subscriptions so far â€“ although French press reports suggest that the â€˜one free monthâ€™ offer with which Netflix launched had been taken up by around 100,000 people by the end of October.
Since the competing Canal Plus service CanalPlay took three years to reach 500,000, that might appear to be an impressive performance, although it effectively represents responses to a free offer. Given current availability through set-top boxes, only a small proportion of sign-ups so far are likely to be live TV customers.
The three operators are taking different approaches to billing. Orange Netflix subscribers have a choice of either being billed through Orange, or paying for the subscription separately via a bank-card. SFR, on the other hand, will not handle the subscription itself, and it will therefore not appear on SFR bills.
Bouyguesâ€™ billing strategy remains unclear.