Czech commercial TV stations investing heavily in domestically-produced drama for first time

"Rodinna Pouta" ("Family Bonds") is the first serial made by commercial station Prima and is already a big success, winning one third of the TV audience in the summer months. What's more, it's part of a new trend: while drama series have traditionally been made by state broadcaster Czech Television, Prima and the other commercial channel Nova are - for the first time - also investing heavily in home produced drama.

Postcard advertising 'Insuring Happiness'
Indeed, this week Nova sent postcards to four million households advertising new flagship series "Pojistovna stesti" ("Insuring Happiness") which starts Sunday. Another new Nova series "Redakce" ("Newsroom") begins next week. But why now? Jan Jirak is a lecturer in media studies at Prague's Charles University.

"There are probably two reasons. First the TV stations found out finally that the regularity, the periodicity of programmes is one of the sources of the high fidelity, the high loyalty of viewers.

"And the second reason is the structure of ownership of Czech commercial television stations is stabilised enough to allow the owners to invest in the long-term perspective. So they started to produce series, or serials, also because they need to think on a strategic level."

State television has been making serials for years, but now the commercial channels are starting, as you say - is there a difference in the quality of the output, or are the serials similar?

"By state television you mean the public service television here? There is a distinction, at least legally. I think it's difficult to define the difference in quality.

'Family Bounds'
"For the first time we will witness the direct competition in the genre which can be called family series, or something like that. It seems to me that commercial and public service television use similar directors, similar actors. And there might be some difference in the screenplays."

Marek Dobes was one of the writers of "Misto Nahore", or "A Place Above", a well-received serial on Czech Television. He says the commercial channels do produce a different kind of drama.

"The one big difference is that Czech Television's TV series are reality based, they are about real life, or Czech TV tries to make series about real life. Nova TV and Prima TV are working on series which are more entertaining."

And though home-grown drama is a new phenomenon on the country's commercial channels, other forms of Czech programming have been very popular for some time, says Jan Jirak.

"There is a long-term inclination of Czech viewers towards domestically-produced programme, movies and TV programmes. The old Czech classic movies seem to be - in a long-term perspective - one of the most successful programmes."

But getting back to the wave of Czech drama series, writer Marek Dobes welcomes the trend but is not impressed with the quality.

"If the TV series are good, it's important. When the TV series are clichéd, when they are without fresh ideas, when the viewers should only watch Czech actors in some shallow stories it doesn't help. These TV series try to tell people 'we are based on real life, we are here for you, we are a mirror of your lives'. It's not true. It's shallow, stupid, boring stuff!"

(Speaking to Jan Jirak) How realistic are these programmes? For example I know the serial Nemocnice na kraji mesta 20 years later, or Hospital on the Edge of Town, was filmed in what I believe is the only new hospital in this country. And the hospital in the serial wouldn't have been the kind of hospital most Czechs would experience.

Jan Jirak: "The realism of TV programme is in fact a philosophical question for a long lecture. I think I don't care a lot about life and institutions realism, but in the representative value or realism of plots. Which in fact is related to screenplay and the quality of writer. In this sense most of the series produced in the '90s are not very realistic."

'A 'Place Above
We were speaking a moment ago about "Hospital on the Edge of Town", a serial originally from the late '70s and early '80s regarded as an all time classic. It was also very popular in other countries in the region at the time. A 2003 "update" made by Czech Television did well in the ratings, but did not have as much impact as the original. The consensus seems to be Czech TV drama is not what it used to be.

Martin Dobes: "It was much better. They weren't totally honest and great TV series because they were done in the Communist era. But because the writers in those days didn't have as much pressures of economy, and because they had the power to do things, they had a better...possibility to work."

Jan Jirak: "I'm a little bit afraid that the TV series of the '70s and '80s somehow represent the top of the genre, in a sense. Especially in terms of plot and characters."

What do you think of the use of music in Czech serials? Often they use quite - to me - sentimental music.

'Hospital on the Edge of Town 20 years later'
Jan Jirak: "I think that's OK. TV culture is a sentimental and nostalgic culture."

Marek Dobes: "The music in TV series is horrible! First, in this country there are maybe just two people who can write music for features or TV series. That's the first thing. And the second thing is that the TV stations are old-fashioned that they try to put to TV series music that was written 30, 40 years ago."

So the use of music in original Czech TV dramas may not be to everybody's liking, but it's probably safe to say most Czech viewers will welcome an autumn schedule packed with an unprecedented number of home-grown serials.