HBO Europe: The Best TV You've Never Seen

Burning Bush Still 2 - Publicity - H 2017
Dusan Martincek

Netflix and Amazon may grab all the headlines, but when it comes to original content in Europe, the U.S. cable giant has been quietly carving out its own niche for years — and now it’s looking to expand.

Netflix, as usual, gets all the press.

The new season of Narcos, the streamer's blood-soaked Colombia-set drug epic, is regularly praised as a game changer in international television. And other, lesser international Netflix shows —French political drama Marseilles with Gerard Depardieu, say, or Spanish period drama Cable Girls — regularly attract critical attention and column inches.

But before Narcos, before The Crown, before Netflix CEO Reed Hastings ever thought of making series outside the U.S., there was another big American broadcaster already out there, digging deep in high-end TV. For the past seven years, quietly and almost unnoticed outside the industry, HBO Europe has been turning out ambitious, award-winning and, yes, game-changing drama in countries many American HBO subscribers would struggle to locate on a map.

They've included Czech political drama Burning Bush, set during the anti-Soviet uprising of 1969; Hungary's Golden Life, a sort of reverse Breaking Bad involving a veteran criminal trying to go straight; Polish police thriller The Pack; and Umbre, an acclaimed gangster drama from Romania with a charming, yet thuggish central character — a taxi driver who collects money for the mob on the side — that would give Tony Soprano a run for his money.

Since it started producing original drama in 2010, HBO Europe has delivered over 270 hours of fiction, in Polish, Czech, Romanian and Hungarian. With newly launched services in Scandinavia and Spain, and an expanded operation in the former Yugoslavia, it will soon add to that list series in Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Spanish and Serbian and Croatian. Almost without exception, HBO Europe's series have been critical hits and audience magnets.

“They've had a disproportionate impact on the audience, we see they get a lot of media buzz locally and win local awards,” says Antony Root, HBO Europe's executive vp original programming and production. “Most importantly, they drive viewership. Everywhere we do local programming — in Poland, Romanian, Hungary, the Czech Republic — those local shows typically outperform all acquired programming on our channels, with the occasional exception of Game of Thrones.”

It is a truism in the international TV industry that local programming outperforms imported shows. Only a handful of American series — Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, The Big Bang Theory — are true global hits. The bulk of primetime outside North America is dominated by home-grown drama.

“That's why you are seeing this trend of producing locally,” says Root. “The transnational streamers, Netflix and Amazon Prime, are in the business of making locals, Sony's Channels are making their own stuff in Eastern Europe, AMC is doing the same. I think it's because they know local audiences want to watch things that speak to them more directly and in their own language.”

Even within this elite group, HBO Europe stands out. Before the company began producing in Eastern Europe, there was no tradition in the region of high-end TV. Local drama was cheaply made soaps, cop and hospital shows. Root, taking a page from HBO's playbook in the U.S. (and in Latin America, where the network has been making local-language drama since 2004), recruited actors and directors from feature films and theater for the small screen. Agnieszka Holland, Oscar-nominated for 2011 Holocaust drama In Darkness, directed Burning Bush. Ildiko Enyedi, the Hungarian filmmaker who won the Berlin Film Festival Golden Bear this year with On Body and Soul, helmed the Hungarian version of HBO's In Treatment. Bogdan Mirica, who wrote and directed Umbre, won the film critics Fipresci award in Cannes last year for his feature Dogs.

“There's no comparison, really, with what HBO is doing here and the rest of (local) television,” Mirica says. Umbre is a completely different animal: the way it looks, the way it's written and produced, it's unlike anything else on Romanian TV.”

Initially, because as Root says, “there was no heritage of this kind of TV writing in these territories,” HBO brought in international series for local teams to adapt. Israeli psycho-therapy drama In Treatment got versions for Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Golden Life is based on a Finnish original (called Easy Living). Umbre started life as an Australian series, Small Time Gangster.

“The first season was based on the Australian show but already I changed a lot in the adaptation,” says Mirica. “The Australian show felt more like a soap opera, rather than a show with real criminals. I made it grittier, funnier, bloodier. Like a punch to the gut.”

Romanian audiences, he says, responded.

“People recognized the world in front of them onscreen. The liked the fact that it is realistic...because the criminal world is something you see in Romania every day, on the streets and in the news, but it's not something you usually see on Romanian TV series or in Romanian movies. Umbre was a slice of life: gritty, funny, violent, sexual.”

The second season of the show, which has just begun in Romania, is completely original (the Australian series was canceled after one season). In fact, across Europe, HBO has shifted away from adaptations. Adapted shows still on the air will continue through the end of their run but all new HBO Europe commissions will be originals.

There's a business reason behind this. HBO Europe used to be a largely disconnected series of local channels, but increasingly the company is operating like a pan-European network. Every new HBO Europe original series now premiere day-and-date everywhere across the company's 19 territory footprint. So it helps if HBO owns all the rights.

And while some of HBO's European dramas sell aboard — Hulu picked up Golden Life, British streamer Walter Presents has The Pack in its lineup and Acorn Media streams Umbre — Root admits gritty East European drama can be a tough sell.

“The buyers going to (international TV market) MIPCOM are really excited about what's coming out of the U.S., of Britain and Australia, maybe out of Scandinavia, and what's coming out of CanalPlus,” Root says. “If you say, 'We have this great new Romanian show,' well, I'm not saying their eyes glaze over, but you have to get them used to the idea that there might be a great show coming out of Romania. But I am an absolute believer that in Central Europe there will be a show that pops one day and that will open the doors like a tidal wave.”

HBO is betting U.S. audiences are ready for that wave. Speaking at MIPCOM, HBO Chairman and CEO Richard Plepler announced that the company would start introducing its original foreign-language series to U.S. subscribers. Starting in December, HBO will bow two of its original international series from each of its global operations: HBO Europe, HBO Latin America and HBO Asia, to its U.S. streaming services HBO GO and HBO NOW as well as for HBO On Demand. They'll include HBO Europe's Czech drama Wasteland and Polish's The Pack.

But the main audience for these shows remains within Europe — and now HBO is targeting Western Europe. Late last year the company launched in Spain, its first stand-alone channel in a top-five European country (in the others, HBO has lucrative exclusive rights deals with local pay-TV giants, including Sky in the U.K., Germany and Italy and CanalPlus in France).

The company is also boosting its presence in Scandinavia, one of the most competitive television markets in the world.

HBO has already greenlighted its first original series out of Sweden, the dramedy Gosta from award-winning feature director Lukas Moodysson (Together, Lilya 4-Ever). Moodysson, who will make his TV debut with the project, describes the series, about a 28-year-old child psychologist who gets his first job in a small rural town, as “a mix of comedy and Dostoyevsky.”

Hanne Palmquist, commissioning editor and vp original programming for HBO Nordic, admits producing out of Scandinavia, home to global hits like The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen, will be a challenge, but she believes HBO “can still go places other broadcasters can't. We have the opportunity to redefine genres and be more bold and more edgy than our (Nordic) competitors, who have to appeal to a broad local audience.”

Gosta is set to go into production next year, likely for broadcast in 2019.

HBO's first Spanish original series will take a bit longer. Currently, HBO has only confirmed it has one project in development: an adaptation of Fernando Aramburu’s epic novel Patria, which traces the experience of a family divided by the Catalan separatist movement. The subject could hardly be more topical, given the current unrest in the Catalan region, which has threatened to defy Madrid and unilaterally separate from Spain. Aitor Gabilondo, one of Spain’s best-known showrunners and a Basque native, is writing and producing Patria.

Miguel Salvat, a former director of content at CanalPlus in Spain who was appointed commissioning editor of original programming for HBO Espana late last year, says the network is in no rush to get the series to air.

“We only want to do a very limited number of projects in Spain but we need them to be good, to be HBO-quality,” he says. “We're not going to put anything into production before we're 100 percent sure. There's no time pressure, just quality pressure.”

Root agrees.

“Netflix has said they want to do 80 or 90 new shows a year. That's not us. We aren't in the volume business,” he says. “We don't need to throw a lot of darts at the board, we just want the darts we throw to hit.”