TV/DVD Feature and Interview: MHZ NETWORKS

by Dale Reynolds on May 16, 2017

in CD-DVD,Film,Interviews

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A BOON TO AMERICAN AUDIENCES

“To learn another language is to learn another culture;
And to learn another’s culture is to be a world-citizen.”
Anonymous

For those who have been clamoring for foreign-language television shows without paying a small fortune on specialized cable, MHz Networks has been a major godsend (MHz does indeed stand for Megahertz, with no reason found for this name choice).

Hitting it big four years ago with the DVD release of the significant Danish political drama, Borgen/The Citadel, about the first (fictional) female Prime Minister of Denmark, MHz-imported shows can now be seen on 40 U.S. outlets, mainly independent, non-commercial stations such as KCFM/San Francisco and WYCC/Chicago and, oddly, KLCS/Los Angeles, the L.A. Unified School District television station. For a nominal fee (currently $7.99), MHz Choice offers streaming videos for about 115 exclusive shows, and there is an impressive swath of DVDs available for purchase through the MHz store.

But they do more than import dramas and cop-shows. MHz Networks is also a national broadcaster: MHz Worldview, headquartered in the Washington, D.C. area, is intent on connecting a global audience with an intimate picture of the U.S.A. through documentary and locally-produced programming.

MHz Networks, founded in the mid-1990s by entrepreneur Frederick Thomas, was originally connected nationally to PBS; they imported foreign-language content, obtaining international rights to soccer, followed by shows which didn’t exist before 2004/5, mainly in foreign news and entertainment. It was then-French President Jacques Chirac who asked, “Why not global news in French for Americans to follow?” And Thomas, when I interviewed him on the phone, tells me he replied, “Why not foreign news in English for Americans?”

Anchoring it in D.C., where national and international news is created, made the most sense to Thomas. MHz launched their idea for multiple global channels with Tokyo-based NHK and France 24, and soon others followed. “We are public television,” insisted Mr. Thomas. “You don’t have to be Public Broadcasting Service-content to be public TV. We use our spectrum to cater to a global, internationally-minded citizen.” All of these broadcaster shows are specifically intended for an American audience who can, if they so choose, watch Chinese, Taiwanese, Israeli, Russian, German or French news from around the world. “Our viewers are obsessed with the shows. It’s a rabid niche; a global dynamic. The news shows are not just for a ‘diaspora’ audience; we engage the American audience with the rest of the world.”

Director of E-commerce and Acquisition Lance Schwulst, 50, is the buyer of said European detective shows: “We usually look for tightly written, character-based detective stories, typically based on successful novels,” he tells me. Author Donna Leon is a prime example of that: She’s an American expat who lives in Venice, Italy, writes in English, and has set her Commissario Brunetti series of novels there, where they are filmed entirely in German for a largely German-speaking audience [2003-2013 on DVD]. Well-made, but very odd indeed hearing German out of Italian mouths (although no odder than BBC’s three-episode 2011 Zen series with Rufus Sewell, which was filmed in Rome in English, but with all the background noises, off-screen conversations, and television, in Italian; or the recent English-language remake of MHz’s superb Swedish detective series, Wallender, starring Kenneth Branagh).

MHz has imported to the U.S. around forty cop/detective shows so far, plus Borgen and a Norwegian family-drama, The Half-Brother/Halvbroren. Most are superbly made; some showing on screen in their native lands for many years. They include the French Maigret, which starred the late Bruno Cremer in 54 90-minute films [1995-2005]; the outstanding Swedish detective show, Beck [1997-2009], which starred Peter Haber and sexy Mikael Persbrandt; and Inspector Montalbano [1999-2013], which stars a very expressive Luca Zingaretti, a show so successful in Italy that it spawned a twelve-episode prequel, The Young Montalbano [2012-2014], starring Michele Riondino; the Swedish Wallander [32 episodes, 2005-2013], starring Krister Henriksson; the Italian A Case of Conscience [2003-2010], of which only the first season has been released here; and France’s Spiral/Engregages [2005-2012].

Others include a one-off of Il Commissario De Luca [four episodes, 2008], a vital look at pre-and-post-fascist Italy through the eyes of a detective, starring Alessandro Preziosi; Blood of the Vine [2012-14], shot in the vineyards of south-central France, starring Pierre Arditi as an oenologist (a wine expert) who solves murders connected to the wine-growing regions; and Fog & Crimes/Nebbi et Delitti [2005-2009], set in the Po River Valley in central Italy.

Sweden offers more: Along with Johan Falk: Trilogy [1999-2012], an extraordinary political cop-thriller, the country exports police-related series that star women: Annika Bengtzon, Crime Reporter/Livstid [Sweden, 2012-14], starring Malin Crápin; Detective Inspector Irene Huss [2007-2011,], with Angela Kovacs; Investigator Maria Wern (played by Eva Rose); and Antigone 34 (Episodes 1-6, starring Anne Le Nen, unhappily now cancelled).

The above shows work well: entertaining, well-written -directed, -acted, and -shot, showing off the various cultures they represent. Interestingly, all of the modern-day series liberally use “okay,” a quintessentially-American word, along with other American colloquialisms, showing how ubiquitous English has become.

For Schwulst, a bear of a man who hails from the American Midwest, his is a dream job: traveling to Europe six times a year, including all the hotspots for TV-buying, such as Cannes, France, and the Nordik Festival in Norway. “I go on goodwill missions to our partners over there. I want to stay in their field of vision [as] we’re blazoning the trails. Some of their more popular current shows we saw were, sadly, not what we were looking for, so I examined their back-catalog, and found that much of the older series fit into our magical formula.” And what is that? “The shows have to have value-plus: entertaining, ideally literary-based, and ones which educate the American public about everyday peoples and countries.” Amen to that.

Schwulst didn’t himself bring Borgen to America television, but he did bring it to DVD, with a handshake deal with the distributor at a high-end dinner in Stockholm. “You know, all this nonsense about the death of the DVD format is wrong – at least for us. Sales of DVDs and BluRay are thriving. It’s a highly niche product, which carries a high-priced point, as we are a specialized market.” All their shows go from one-to-two-hours an episode.

Borgen’s three seasons were a huge success for Danish television at home and now world-wide, bringing international attention to the Danish television industry, especially when HBO purchased the re-make rights to it.  But it also became a transitional breakthrough for MHz as well“Even though it isn’t a police-detective show, Borgen fit into our mold: some intrigue, some humor, some romance.” (2007’s The Killing was another Danish show that successfully adapted to American/Canadian television and has done well on DVD, as was the spooky The Bridge (Broen/Bron), now in the third season of its American showing.)

His travels have taken him as far afield as Turkey and Lebanon, looking for unusual fare. But for Schwulst there are barriers to most of these shows being imported: “A lot of Americans are not willing to ‘read’ a film or television show [with subtitles], thus limiting our potential audience, coupled with how few Americans own passports,” thus unlikely to be as interested in other cultures. (MHz does most of the subtitling themselves.) “I love showing how normal other people’s lives are; the distinct aesthetic of their homes – a window into other folks’ cultures. This opens up the world to me, and thus, to others.” Plus, they’ve proven the universal attraction to crime dramas.

As uncompromising as MHz’s core audience is for their “police procedural” shows, they’ve been remarkably valiant in watching the news-imports as well. The intended audience reaches, Thomas proudly admits, forty million households on the digital spectrum.

And keeping the acquired standards and building on them has proved to be relatively easy.

MHz has a somewhat different financial model than most in that they take no state or federal funding and do not charge the individual stations for their product. “We work with broadcast neighbors, and share the content, share streaming, tap donors, as well as DVD revenue. We are proud that we have a streaming product [MHz Choice], with sponsors and underwriters. Consumers of the DVDs tell us that they want the cop-shows as collectors’ items.”

As all of the outlets in the United States are Independents, some still connected to PBS, the majority of the stations are broadcasters who have searched for something different. As Thomas explains, “Some cities have four or five PBS stations and it’s hard for them to stand out [from each other]. We are helping the consumer understand the globe.”

As per the anonymous quotation at the top of this article, MHz’s growth is a reflection of a maturing of the American public’s taste for non-propagandist news and views of other country’s legal systems. They’re educational and entertaining – a worthy combination.

for more info, visit MHz Networks
for streaming videos ($7.99 a month; about 115 exclusive shows), visit MHz Choice
to order DVDs, visit Shop MHz
for MHz programming, visit the schedule page

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