French TV Executive Aims to Entertain North Africa, Too

10:19 PM Aida Alami 0 Comments

By Aida Alami

PARIS — Bouchra Rejani’s parents had planned her career for her: She would pursue medical studies and become a doctor. At 18, Ms. Rejani responded by lowering herself out a window of the family home in Cholet, a small town in western France, and leaving. For good.

She has been on her own since, and perhaps that is one reason Ms. Rejani, now 42 and one of the most successful television production executives in France, never bothered to consider that being an Arab immigrant could be an obstacle in a country that has had a troubled history of integrating people from her background.

“Since I was little, I’ve never felt different,” Ms. Rejani said. “I never ask myself how an Arab woman can be successful, or that I have to work twice as hard as others.”

Ms. Rejani is the chief operating officer of Shine France, a subsidiary of Shine Group, a News Corporation company run by Elisabeth Murdoch that has produced “MasterChef,” “The Voice” and “Ugly Betty.” Ms. Rejani was involved in the formation of Shine France in 2009, and it has since become the biggest production company in the country, with more than two dozen programs, including reality shows, scripted series and documentaries.

Five years ago, she was an executive with FremantleMedia France, one of the production companies that had long dominated the French market, when Thierry Lachkar, who had been involved in producing reality shows in France, approached her with the idea of starting a new venture. She said it took him two hours to persuade her to quit her comfortable job and join a start-up with fewer than 10 people.

“We didn’t want to produce futility or programs that didn’t make any sense,” Ms. Rejani said in her office, which has an expansive view of the Eiffel Tower and is in walking distance of the headquarters of her customers, the major networks. “I liked the idea of producing feel-good programs that were about surpassing yourself and transmitting knowledge.”

With Mr. Lachkar as chief executive, Shine France began positioning itself to compete with Fremantle and the country’s other television production giant, Endemol France.

“Everyone thought we would fail,” she recalled. “It was our baby, and I always believed it would work.”

In 2010, they had a shaky start with a French version of “MasterChef.” That was chiefly because it started in August, a month when fewer French can be found in front of their television sets. Yet this is also a country where chefs and cuisine have long been held in high esteem. Eventually the show caught on, and the company went on to produce other successful transplants, like “The Voice.”
Born in a working-class neighborhood in Casablanca, Morocco, Ms. Rejani moved to France with her family when she was 6 months old. Her parents, who kept Moroccan traditions at home and spoke Arabic to her, sold produce in Cholet.

After leaving Cholet at age 18, she moved to Nantes, where she rented a studio with the help of a few friends and began attending the University of Nantes. To support herself, she took three jobs simultaneously: teaching English, which she had learned in school and by watching movies; babysitting; and working at a tobacco store. Working hard was not a challenge, she said, because she had helped with the family business every weekend since she was 9.

She then enrolled in business school in Nantes after getting a loan — co-signed by her dentist — to finance her studies. One of her fellow students later became her husband. She also spent a few months at Ohio State University as part of an exchange program where, she said, she developed a strong affection for American culture. After graduation in 1996, she began working in the Paris office of the auditing firm KPMG.

In 1999, she got her first job in the media industry, as a project manager for Fox Kids Europe in London. “I wanted to go to television hoping to be one day a cinema producer,” she said in a text message. “I like to be at the service of storytelling. Cinema takes a lot of time; I like to see projects quickly come to life.”

In 2004, she joined FremantleMedia France, where she became chief operating officer before being appointed as chairwoman of TV Presse Productions, a news agency and Fremantle subsidiary.
Emboldened by the success of Shine France, Ms. Rejani decided to take her experience to northwest Africa, or the Maghreb. Until now, when a network received the rights for a program in the Arab world, it bought the rights for the nearly two dozen countries of the Arab League. For instance, viewers throughout the Middle East and North Africa see the same “Arab Idol,” which has the same basic format as its American counterpart.

But in the fall, there will be a version of “MasterChef” for Moroccans alone. It is produced by Shine France in partnership with a local production company for the Moroccan network 2M. The programs were shot during nine months and will feature Moroccan chefs and judges.

Soon, Algeria will have its own version, as well.

“There was no justification that shows like ‘Arab Idol’ should be shown across” the entire Arab League, Ms. Rejani said.

“We don’t have the same culture, language or food,” she added. “Audiences and advertisers were waiting for this. We found the right formula. With ‘MasterChef’ in Morocco, we open the door to adapting international formats in this region. In these countries, there is a duality between tradition and modernity. But everyone wants entertainment. The themes of these programs are universal, and they find their place everywhere, under all formats.

“After the Arab Spring, there is more freedom of speech, but speech is not completely free yet.”
In May, the far right, in France as well as other countries, won a stunning victory in the European parliamentary elections, worrying many about the consequences for the country’s immigrant population. Ms. Rejani says that concerns her, although she quickly adds that her personal experience has been extremely positive — working for foreign-owned companies may also have made that easier.

“Maybe it’s related to the place where I grew up,” she said. “There were no differences between the French and myself. If I had grown up in difficult neighborhoods, my experience may have been different.”

Ms. Rejani, whose marriage ended in divorce in 2009, tries to go home early when her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah, stays with her, to have dinner and help with homework.

Though she has been involved in organizations that promote better relations between Europe and Africa, she says she does not push for affirmative action on the job. Her assistant happens to be Algerian-Tunisian; Ms. Rejani remarked, “Hafida? I hired her because she’s good.”

Still, she realizes that her life has been exceptional.

“If I were veiled, my experience may have been different — I may have encountered obstacles,” she said. “One of my teachers once said his best student was African. I only realized I was African at the age of 8.”

However, she worries about the attention that far-right groups are getting in France.

“There is a complete political failure in France in integrating its immigrant population,” she said. “One day or the other, they will have to accept them. But I don’t think it will happen any time soon.”

You can read the article on the New York Times' Website

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