HBO arm gives drama full ‘Treatment’

Format's success spurs Europe cabler's move into original content

“Be Tipul” has been treating HBO Europe quite well. Offshoots of the original TV drama based on the Israeli format that was the foundation of HBO’s Stateside series “In Treatment” have already scored second seasons in Poland (where the show is called “Bez Tajemnic”), Romania (“In Deriva”) and the Czech Republic (“Terepie”) as well as premiering in Hungary last month (as “Terapia”).

The offshoots were the first fiction productions of HBO Europe, headquartered in Budapest, which programs TV channels in 15 countries.

The series have been so well-received by subscribers (spawning a total of 145 episodes) that they’ve allowed the international arm of the pay TV company to aggressively program more original content at a time when terrestrial broadcasters in the region are cutting back due to falling advertising revenue.

HBO Europe CEO Linda Jensen says the network is thankful it has been able to retain its robust subscription base (it won’t reveal numbers), despite Europe’s financial woes, but adds that the company has followed a clearly marked path, focusing first on documentary films, which Antony Root, HBO Europe’s executive VP for original programming and production, calls the heart of the HBO brand.

HBO Europe chose its doc topics carefully, aiming for edginess and cultural relevance. The result was hits such as “Miss Plastic” (HBO Hungary, 2009), which documented a beauty contest for women who’ve had breast enhancements, and, a year later, “The World According to Ion B” (HBO Romania), which followed the rise to fame of an elderly, homeless street artist after his discovery by a Bucharest gallery owner. “Ion B” won an International Emmy.

Not only is HBO Europe reinventing itself as a program producer, it is being credited with upping TV quality in the region.

“I can report a new standard has been set,” wrote a critic for the Budapest newspaper Magyar Nemzet, after HBO Hungary’s airing of the original series “When Shall We Kiss” in 2011.

Next up is “Burning Bush,” a three-part original movie about the Prague Spring directed by Agnieszka Holland. Root says such local original programming is the key to a premium service making the greatest impact.

But HBO Europe is evolving in other ways, including distribution. The net has launched its own version of the HBO U.S. on-demand digital interface HBO GO, but with innovations including functions to download programming and switch languages.

HBO Europe’s ultimate validation would be for its programming to appear on HBO in the U.S. Root admits that language differences may make direct purchases unlikely, but hopes one day that a format sale of an original series will be possible.

Says Jensen, simply, “We’re hitting our stride.”