International Television in 2018: 10 Small-Screen Surprises

LAS VEGAS, NV - MAY 20: Music group BTS performs at the 2018 Billboard Music Awards-Getty-H 2018
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Russian spies, French politics and the T-shirt that got BTS banned in Japan: The biggest and most surprising moments of the year on global TV.

From the melodramatic to the bizarre, the politically charged to the purely entertaining, global television had a lot to offer audiences in 2018. The Hollywood Reporter's foreign correspondents picked out their 10 top TV moments from outside the U.S., including the return of the Mexican Telenovela, the party of the year in France and an on-air ban in Japan for one of the world's biggest bands. 

BBC's ‘Bodyguard’ Smashes British Records

It’s taken 26 years, but 2018 finally saw the arrival of an onscreen bodyguard to rival Kevin Costner. On Aug. 26, the BBC broadcast the first episode of Bodyguard, created by Jed Mercurio (best known for procedural series Line of Duty) for the ITV-owned World Productions, and starring Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) as the titular hero, a troubled yet heroic Afghan war vet assigned to protect an ambitious and controversial British minister, played by Keeley Hawes.

Out of relative nowhere, the series became an overnight smash, the will-they-won’t-they relationship coupled with a high-stakes terrorism storyline giving the BBC its highest viewing figures since 2008 and highest numbers for a new drama in the multichannel era. It soon became headline news across the U.K., with Madden quickly racing up the list of potential Bonds (although the same happened with Tom Hiddleston thanks to The Night Manager). For the nail-biting finale, a peak of 11 million tuned in watch, a figure that rose to 17.1, including consolidated viewers (making it the most-watched episode of any drama in the U.K. since records began). Netflix quickly announced it had acquired the drama for the rest of the world (although it had come on board as a partner in the production process), and two Golden Globe and a Critics Choice nominations have since followed. Thankfully, the success of the Bodyguard ensured that the biggest TV news out of the U.K. for 2018 wasn't the trashy reality series Love Island.

A Year After Netflix Bow, German Noir Babylon Berlin Delivers on Free TV

Nearly a year after its premiere on European pay-TV network Sky and on Netflix worldwide, epic German period series Babylon Berlin finally debuted for its most important audience: free TV viewers in Germany. Public broadcaster ARD put up the bulk of the financing for the $45 million noir drama, making Babylon Berlin the most expensive non-English language series of all time.

But judging by the ratings for the show's free TV premiere, German viewers thought it was worth it: 8.5 million tuned in to watch the first three episodes of the series, aired back-to-back-to-back, for an average 24.5 percent market share, the best start for a series in Germany this year.

China Bans Foreign TV During Primetime

China's President Xi Jinping tightened his grip on power in 2018 — and on the country's television programming, introducing new rules that sharply limit Hollywood participation in China's massive television market.

Beijing regulators outlawed the broadcast of foreign TV shows during primetime and limited the volume of imported content that streams on China's fast-growing online video platforms. “Protection of social stability" and the need to guard against content that "deviates from core socialist values” were the reasons given for the crackdown.

Under the new rules, non-Chinese content will be limited to 30 percent of total airtime both on streaming platforms and on broadcast TV. China has worked to limit the "corrupting influence" of foreign content on the small screen for years, but the new rules are the strictest to date.

Netflix Bets Big on Series En espanol
Netflix renewed teen Spanish series Elite for a second season.

In real estate, smart players bet on “location, location, location.” When Netflix announced in July that it was betting on Madrid as the location for its first European production hub, all eyes turned to Spain.

People unfamiliar with the country’s booming sector for premium series might have been surprised, but Netflix has helped put Spain on the world's TV radar thanks to the global popularity of original series like International Emmy-winner Money Heist and Elite. Next up: new seasons of these two favorites and Cable Girls, as well as new series High Seas and Hache.

Atomic T-Shirt Gets BTS Banned in Japan

The rise of K-pop sensation BTS to global superstardom was one of the biggest music stories of 2018. But the boy band caused a sensation of another kind in Japan, where they were banned from a planned appearance on music network TV Asahi, after member Jimin wore a T-shirt that appeared to celebrate the atomic attack on Hiroshima by the U.S. 

Earlier, Jimin had been photographed in a T-shirt commemorating the liberation of Korea from Japan in 1945, with an image on the back of what appeared to be a mushroom cloud exploding over Hiroshima.

BTS later apologized for the shirt (and for another fashion faux pas: when several members were photographed wearing hats with the Nazi SS Death Head logo).

Politics Beats Soccer as President Macron Addresses the Nation

Emmanuel Macron's emergency presidential address was the most-watched event of the year (and an historic record for a presidential speech), viewed live by 23 million people when it was broadcast on the major networks (TF1 9.73M, 34.3 percent), (France 2, 8.27M, 29.2 percent), (M6, 3.11M, 11 percent), and news channels (BFMTV, 919,000, 3.2 percent share); (CNews 394,000, 1.4 percent share); (LCI 215,000, 0.8 percent share).

The president's response to the weeks-long “yellow vest” protests topped even the World Cup final, which saw France win over Croatia with 20.9 million viewers on TF1 and beIN Sports.

Netflix Reinvents the Mexican Telenovela With The House of Flowers

Just when Mexican soap operas were losing viewers to melodramatic, action-packed narco series, along came The House of Flowers (La Casa de las Flores), a Netflix original production that puts a racy and decidedly more contemporary spin on the telenovela genre by embracing sexual and racial diversity.

Centering on a dysfunctional upper-class Mexican family that owns a reputable Mexico City flower shop, the show ranked among Netflix Mexico's most-watched series of 2018. A large part of the dark comedy's success hinges on the well-received career comeback of lead actress Veronica Castro, a hugely popular telenovela actress in the '70s and '80s.

Brazil Gets Political As Jose Padilha's The Mechanism Triggers #DeleteNetflix Campaign

Jose Padilha wowed international audiences with his take on the South American drug trade in Netflix's Narcos but when the Brazilian director turned to a story closer to home, audiences were not amused.

Politicians, journalists and users in 2018 called for a boycott of Netflix after the streamer announced The Mechanism, a series directed by Padilha based on the real-life “car wash” bribery and corruption scandals involving former presidents Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff. Following the series premiere, Brazilian politicians, activists and cultural journalists claimed Padilha had misrepresented events, accusing the director of political bias, and called for Brazilians to boycott Netflix.

By the fall, Brazilians had bigger things to worry about. Lula da Silva was sentenced to 12 years on corruption charges and the country's presidential elections were won by far-right Trumpist candidate Jair Bolsonaro.

Spies Play Tourists on Russian TV

RT, the English-language news network funded by the Russian government, has long been accused of being a propaganda channel. But RT dipped into self-parody in 2018 with its “exclusive interview” with the two men accused of poisoning an ex-Russian spy and his daughter in England, the so-called Salisbury poisoning.

In an inadvertently hilarious exchange, the two military intelligence agents, caught on CCTV cameras carrying out the poisoning attack, using a Soviet-era nerve agent, in minute detail, claimed to be simple tourists, who had traveled to Salisbury “to see the famous Salisbury cathedral.”