H’wood finds Czech mate: pop goes the culture

PRAGUE — IF YOU WANT TO START an argument anywhere in Europe, now more than ever, just mention the H-word — Hollywood. Europe’s media and movie community continues to be polarized over America’s pervasive pop culture. Just last week, the governments of France and Italy announced a joint drive to increase film production and fight the domination of the Hollywood blockbuster, and Italy’s new deputy prime minister, Walter Veltroni, a movie buff, came out in favor of what he called “light quotas.” At the same time, more and more mavericks around Europe are challenging these calls for protectionism. Talk to Vladimir Zelezny, who runs a burgeoning TV station group in the Czech Republic, Romania, Slovenia, and sectors of Russia and Germany, and he scoffs at fellow Europeans who long for the emergence of some form of “universal European culture.” Says the Czech-born broadcaster, “A universal pop culture already exists, and it is American culture.” While Polish movies are excruciatingly Polish and French TV aggressively French, Hollywood alone is marketing mass entertainment that transcends boundaries, and it is ludicrous to resist it, Zelezny argues. For two years now, the 50-year-old Czech has pinned his fortunes on U.S. product in building Nova, the Czech Republic’s first private national TV station. With such shows as “Beverly Hills, 90210,” “ER” and “Chicago Hope,” Nova has walloped the rival Czech pubcaster, achieving a 70% market share and all but monopolizing the younger demos. Nova is very American in its funding as well as its programming. The station is 66% owned by Central European Media, a Nasdaq-listed company founded by Ron Lauder, the son of Estee Lauder and a former U.S. ambassador to Austria. Even Nova’s unexpectedly popular news shows reveal a Yank slant, with twin anchors and on-the-scene reporters covering breaking stories, not to mention a steadfast focus on the local news. “We have found that our viewers have a great appetite for the news, but they want to know what’s going on right around them, not overseas,” observed Zelezny.

THIS PROVINCIALISM ANNOYS the Nova chief, a worldly man who holds a doctorate, but as Zelezny put it, “I’m not going to fall into the trap of thinking of TV as an intellectual medium.” Zelezny’s fiercely aggressive style and Western mannerisms have stirred a great deal of criticism in the seething political climate of the Czech Republic, which at this moment is a sort of Wild West for capitalists where some former Communists still function as power brokers. Those who rule the government TV station, which not only sells commercials but also receives a hefty state subsidy, are especially resentful of this rambunctious marauder. The criticism, however, only fuels Zelezny’s ambition. One explanation for his excess zeal, associates say, stems from the fact that Zelezny’s life was put on hold with the arrival of Soviet tanks in 1968. He was subsequently arrested and almost shot by the Russians for working as a clandestine anti-Communist broadcaster. He supported himself principally as a ghost writer, penning more than 300 scripts for Czech television under various names, until the Communist regime finally imploded in 1989. Having surrendered more than 20 years of his career, Zelezny seems all the more ferocious about building a new TV empire amid the struggling young free-market economies of Eastern Europe. The obstacles are abundant. Obtaining licenses in countries like Poland entails doing battle with nightmarish bureaucracies. Although there are 400 million potential viewers in Central and Eastern Europe, far fewer broadcast frequencies are available than in the West. Then, too, although Russian rule has ended, the patterns of living under Communism remain.

ZELEZNY, FOR ONE, IS TRYING to shake his audience out of its old habits. This means not only an infusion of hot U.S. shows plus softcore porn after 11:30 p.m., but also the introduction of a Czech-born sitcom, “The Novaks.” In this popular new show, a black American social researcher is forced to take up residence with a typical Czech family — a family scientifically selected because it is quintessentially Czech. During the course of the show, the American visitor assimilates Czech traits while the Czech family starts jogging and measuring its cholesterol intake — standard sitcom role-switching. Zelezny doesn’t pretend to be a fan of every Hollywood show he acquires. Some, like “L.A. Law,” fail because Czechs cannot identify with the milieu — the Czech Republic has the good fortune to have a shortage of lawyers, especially showbiz lawyers. The violence of some shows surprises Zelezny; Fox’s new offering “Millennium” is especially vivid in its violence, but he may buy it anyway. “What we are trying to do is not only build a free-market economy but also to create a pop culture,” Zelezny says. “The people who founded Hollywood came from Europe and instinctively mastered a universal language of pop entertainment.” Zelezny intends to mobilize that language to create his own personal dream — a TV station group that reflects the flair, energy and occasional chaos of the free-market system rather than the stifling patterns of the now-defunct Communist world.

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