U.S., Scandi firms in Hungarian TV war

BUDAPEST — Scandinavian Broadcast System president Martin Lindskog and a small army of journalists from the Mipcom TV market in Cannes gathered Wednesday in Hungary to preview Saturday’s launch of Hungary’s first national commercial television channel: SBS-owned network TV2.

SBS has pole position in Hungary’s TV market of 3.7 million households and 10 million people, and SBS chairman Harry Sloan is hoping it will establish the Scandinavians as “a force in European broadcasting.” If it’s successful in Hungary, Sloan says, it will become a major player in the international media market.

SBS’ newfound success in Hungary has pitted it against U.S.-controlled media investment company Central European Media Enterprises in a battle for dominance in the region.

In Slovenia, nets owned by CME have been embroiled with SBS in a legal battle; CME subsid MKTV went to court in July to prevent SBS’ TV2 and the CLT-Ufa network RTL Klub from going to air. Shut out of terrestrial TV, CME recently announced it will broadcast in Hungary over cable and satellite.

With networks in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Poland, Romania, Germany, and the Ukraine, CME has been unchallenged in this region until now. So bitter is the CME-SBS war, the two are even fighting on the press-junket front: Today CME is flying its own contingent of Mipcom reporters to Poland to mark the launch of its new network TVN.

If SBS prospers in Hungary, the rivalry will only intensify. And SBS is expected to prosper. TV2’s frequency has a slightly greater reach than commercial rival RTL Klub, which will go on the air Tuesday ; and SBS will broadcast over a frequency that previously carried Hungary’s popular Magyar Televizio 2 channel.

“We’ve won the No. 1 license so we have a position in the viewer’s mind,” said Brian Frons, TV2’s programming consultant. “We’re going to work hard in the next two weeks to nail down some viewing habits.”

To do that, the Scandinavians are launching a lineup that will highlight news and current affairs programming. The news-and-weather show “Good Morning Hungary” will appear on TV2 between 6 a.m. and noon every weekday. TV2’s sked includes foreign titles obtained through output deals with Viacom Paramount and Universal, and locally produced programs such as relationship gameshow “Love at First Sight.”

“We’re trying to make TV2 a broadly based channel which is locally tailored,” said SBS’ Lindskog.

CME plans to battle on in Hungary from the cable front. After recently purchasing 89% of the cable/satellite network TV3, which reportedly reaches as much as 60% of Hungary’s TV market, CME will be fighting with an arsenal of big guns — over 10,000 hours of hot programs (including top international titles) that it purchased in anticipation of winning a national frequency.

Despite CME’s program weaponry, SBS’ commanding reach almost assures it the top spot in this market — a beachhead it can use to expand elsewhere in the region, and take on CME in other TV territories.

“The market in western Europe is saturated,” said one analyst. “But if SBS does well in Hungary this success could propel them into other territories … I think they want to create a block of channels in this region based on their Hungarian and Slovenian networks. They see Hungary and Slovenia as a corridor into Eastern Europe.”

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