BUDAPEST — Hungarian tastes often stray from the mainstream and the contemporary. For some observers, Hungarian viewing habits are a mystery.
“Don’t ask me why, but Hungarians love Roger Moore,” lamented one U.S. TV executive early in Hungary’s transition to commercial TV.
Magyar passion for Moore isn’t so mysterious, stemming from the long run of “The Saint” on communist-era, state-run television. Similarly, a host of unlikely U.S. hits on Hungarian TV are popular because they either played during the communist era, or they are similar to past shows that did.
The Peter Falk classic “Columbo” is a highly rated fixture on TV2’s primetime lineup, even though the original NBC series ended in 1977. According to TV2’s Sylvia Graczka, Hungarians love the series because it’s “thinking” television, one in which the audiences enjoy watching the detective solve a murder.
But “Columbo,” like “The Saint,” was among the few TV series allowed on the airwaves during the reign of communism — both shows were apolitical and painted the West as a den of murder and mayhem — making Falk a favorite uncle for Hungarian viewers over 30.
“The Streets of San Francisco,” which was also popular in Hungary in the 1970s, airs on TV2 and helps satiate audiences nostalgia for traditional U.S. cop shows.
Hungary’s communist government didn’t allow only crime drama on the state broadcasters. Seamy adult dramas were also permitted.
The most popular U.S. soap in Hungary during that time was “Dallas.” The legacy lives on as a Stetson-wearing J.R. Ewing look-alike is the spokesman for a major Hungarian electronics retailer today.