The archvillain of the television show Dallas, J.R. Ewing, is a fading memory for most Americans. But he's hot in Hungary, where reruns of the defunct series capture up to 85% of the country's viewers. Dallas is a hit there in large part because Hungarian television is such a backwater. With only six stations and a bland fare of peasant dances and dull talk shows, it makes Hungarians hungry for livelier programming.
They may soon get it. Well-heeled Western media companies are lining up this month to bid on several state-owned Hungarian TV and radio stations. The investors include Central European Media Enterprises (CME), a venture backed by cosmetics millionaire Ronald S. Lauder; Scandinavian Broadcasting Systems, which is 23.4% owned by Capital Cities/ABC; and big broadcaster Compagnie Luxembourgeoise de Telediffusion. They all see a potential gold mine in advertising revenue as marketers hawk products to Hungarian consumers. The only thing needed is to offer programming that people want.
On the block are 10-year concessions on Hungary's second public channel, MTV 2, and Channel 58, which once broadcast in Russian to the Soviet army. Radio Danubius, now run by the state radio corporation, and a new radio frequency will be offered on seven-year licenses. Interest is especially high in MTV 2, which should fetch $100 million. "Hungary represents a great business opportunity," says Leonard Fertig, chief executive of CME, which owns the successful Nova television channel in the Czech Republic.
DIRE DEFICIT. Bidders note that Hungarians are buying more of everything from Coca-Cola to electronics to Opels. "Commercial television is going to have an important part in selling these products," says Harry Evans Sloan, president of Scandinavian Broadcasting Systems. Just as crucial, Hungary's deficit is so dire that no one anticipates any effort to block foreign involvement. The sale "is in the interests of the budget," says Gyorgy Balo, a Hungarian television journalist working with CME on its bid. What a deal! The government gets some cash, while viewers get Melrose Place.