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February 13, 2017

A Foreign Affair

With its recent launch on Amazon Channels, MHz Choice is cornering the market on international streaming.

Maria Neuman
  • Detective Montalbano

    Fabrizio Di Giulio
  • Beck

    Baldur Bragason
  • Crime Scene Cleaner

Americans’ interest in foreign programming — which many trace back to the 2011 film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — continues to grow, and a recent deal with Amazon Channels is bringing a surge of subscribers to MHz Choice, a subscription-based streaming service featuring new and exclusive international mysteries, dramas and comedies.

“We are getting millions more eyeballs than we could afford to market to,” says Lance Schwulst, vice-president of content strategy for MHz Choice, of the pact that lets consumers add MHz to their Amazon Prime account. “Plus, Amazon has over five years of experience when it comes to promoting top shows, and our customer base is a subset of theirs — it’s a win-win for both parties.”

While MHz Choice has previously been available on Apple products, Android and Roku, none of them have the reach of Amazon Channels, which is in approximately half of all U.S. households. “In terms of Amazon’s scale,” observes Frederick Thomas, CEO of MHz Networks, “it does feel a bit like we cut down a tree, made our own surfboard, then headed into 100-foot swells.”

MHz Choice launched in 2015, but its key players have been well versed in international programming since the late ‘90s, when the service first appeared on MHz Networks, a Virginia–based non-commercial broadcaster that serves the Washington, D.C., area and 30-plus affiliates throughout the U.S.

“I’ve always been an internationalist by design, and when I first came to the station in 1993, I decided to give it that slant,” Thomas says. What started with acquiring classic foreign films — the first screening (and pledge drive) featured The Seven Samurai — soon blossomed into regular programming. “It proved that there was an audience for this and that they were also willing to pay a little bit of money to get it.”

With the wealth of international TV series out there, it was only natural to start airing them; Schwulst now makes annual  pilgrimages to Cannes and MIPDoc, as well as to smaller events in France, Germany and Scandinavia. 

As a result, MHz Networks is the top acquirer of foreign-language content in the U.S. One of its first hits — still its most popular — is Detective Montalbano, an Italian series set on the island of Sicily and based on a series of novels by Andrea Camilleri.

“We were the first international broadcaster [MHz] worked with,” says  Bruce Rabinowitz, sales executive in North and South America for RAI, Italy’s  national public broadcast company.

“A lot of the content we acquire is based on a literary series, like Detective Montalbano, Beck and Wallander,” explains Schwulst, whose book-based content also includes Arne Dahl (Sweden), Baantjer Mysteries (the Netherlands) and Inspector and the Sea (Germany).

“We tend to have a slightly older, female-skewing audience, but one of the common threads with all our viewers is that they are voracious readers,” he continues. “The great thing about television characters based on book characters is that they are very complex, so much of the time the crimes take a back seat to the key players and their idiosyncrasies.”

And crime does not necessarily mean violent. “Aside from being well acted, well written and shot beautifully, a lot of these series actually aren’t that violent,” notes Rabinowitz, who chalks up part of Detective Montalbano’s appeal to Americans’ “endless fascination” with the mafia. Of course, looking at picture-perfect views of Sicily and handsome lead actor Luca Zingaretti doesn’t hurt, either.

While not all programming is based on novels (French law drama Spiral and German philosophical comedy Crime Scene Cleaner are channel favorites), MHz sates viewers’ general curiosity about how others live — what they eat, how they drive, where they vacation, et cetera.

“One of my favorite aspects of watching the different shows is realizing that every country has a different-sounding police siren,” Schwulst says with a chuckle. “Plus, it’s great escapism.”

Despite a seemingly endless supply of content, there are some hurdles in getting programs ready for viewing. Just subtitling a show takes time, money and manpower; MHz Choice works with a modest crew of approximately 20.

Also, FCC rules regarding which shows require closed-captioning and which need only subtitles can be tricky. “The new rules specify that if content is released here in a language that is foreign to who it’s being marketed to, subtitles are fine,” Schwulst says. “But a Spanish series on a Spanish network now needs closed-captioning.”

MHz Choice is looking to include both.

“The challenging part is not what we’re doing — we’ve been doing this for a long time,” Thomas says. “The daunting part is that suddenly we are in the big leagues.”

But, like all good relationships, the MHz-Amazon deal is a two-way street. Amazon does not have to acquire the programming, yet it can benefit from the catalog MHz has built up over the years. “And with the streaming technology, we get an accurate view of who’s watching and for how long,” Thomas says. “That makes it easier for us to go out and find more of those people.”

So, for viewers with a soft spot for an English whodunit, a Scandinavian serial killer or a swoony Italian detective, such shows are only a stream away. And while MHz Choice plans to expand its offerings in comedies and drama, for now, it remains the go-to source for foreign bookish detectives and cold-climate crimes.

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