Television's foreign affair

Shows based on international hits are flooding the fall lineup. Has the U.S. TV industry run out of fresh ideas?

Published September 4, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

A few weeks ago, audiences got their first look at "Kath & Kim," NBC's highly anticipated fall sitcom, in a series of short ads featuring Molly Shannon and Selma Blair as Kath and Kim. A mother and daughter dressed like escaped extras from an Olivia Newton-John music video, they screech and whine in their Florida suburban home. In one ad, Kim barges into a house and yells, "I'm getting a divorce. It's over. O-V-U-R!" In another, she sits next to her mother on a couch and says, "Would it make you feel better if you got up and made us some nachos?"

The ads were short, confusing and painfully unfunny. The show is an adaptation of a beloved Australian sitcom of the same name, and when the ads made their way onto YouTube, fans of the original were irked. As one commenter put it, "This is just evidence that America has to steal anything decent another country has and pretend it's theirs." Another commenter called it "Kath & Kim dumbed down for inbred dumb fucks in Alabama." Or, to quote xxRazorBladeHeartxx: "Laaaaaaaaaaaaame."

"Kath & Kim" is one of a conspicuously large number of adapted foreign shows that will appear on American TV this year. Adaptations of foreign TV shows are not a new concept, by any means: "All in the Family," the quintessential American sitcom, was based on the BBC's "Till Death Do Us Part," and "Three's Company" was based on ITV's Britcom "Man About the House." (See our guide to classic American shows born overseas.) But the sheer number of this year's imports suggests that the television industry is undergoing, if not a convulsive transformation, a major change in the way it finds its material.

From ABC's "Life on Mars" to CBS's "Eleventh Hour" and "The Ex List," to Fox's "Secret Millionaire," a remarkable number of this season's high-profile shows are versions of series that have successfully conquered other countries. If 2007 was TV's Year of the Nerd and the Power-Broad, 2008 is shaping up to the Year of the Adapted Foreign TV Show.

The YouTube commenters' vicious reactions, however, speak of the contempt many people in other countries have for a process that shows often undergo on their way to American TV. It's a process that involves changes in tone, pace and theme to make them palatable to American taste. Given this year's import-heavy schedule, it also raises some bigger questions: Why did all these foreign TV shows suddenly show up? Has the American television industry finally run out of ideas? And what, if anything, do changes to these shows tell us about what makes an American audience American?

This past year has been a near-catastrophic one for Hollywood. The writers' strike not only robbed us of several months of Zach Braff's hospital-themed antics, but interrupted the networks' pilot production cycle (in which a large number of pilot episodes for different shows are produced, and the networks then decide which will be picked up). Combined with the lagging economy and rising production costs, a much smaller number of pilots were produced than normal, and without those, the networks have trouble selling ad time and getting advance attention from critics. By adapting foreign material, the networks could circumvent the process and buy scripts with proven track records in another country.

The trend can also be tied to our country's long-standing love affair with Regis Philbin and multiple-choice questions. The late-'90s success of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," a quiz show imported from the U.K., paved the way for the growth of the TV-format market. Networks realized that, not only was it cheaper to buy foreign "formats" than to produce homegrown pilots -- particularly when it came to reality TV and game shows -- but those shows could make them tons of money. With growing competition from cable, they helped networks fill time and cut costs, and eventually networks began adapting more scripted shows as well. In the years since, imports and adaptations like "Survivor," "The Office," "Ugly Betty" and "American Idol" were some of American TV's biggest hits -- others, like "Coupling" and "Viva Laughlin," not so much.

Luckily for executives looking for the next big international thing, they now have more foreign shows to choose from than ever before. Asian, Latin American and Middle Eastern countries are producing more and more original programming -- spurred by the proliferation of specialty channels and satellite television. Add to that the impact of the Internet -- which allows entertainment executives to easily stay abreast of popular programs in other countries -- and the growth of foreign-themed specialty cable (like BBC America) and you've got an American TV industry that's intensely aware of what television shows are popular in other parts of the world. "Historically, we've tended to bring in shows from the Anglophone world," says Joseph D. Straubhaar, the Amon G. Carter Centennial Professor of Communication at the University of Texas. "Now we're looking beyond the places we used to look." This year's imports include shows from the U.K., Israel, Canada, Japan and Australia, with shows from Argentina and New Zealand currently in development.

In their journey to the U.S., however, most of these shows undergo at the least some minor surgery -- and sometimes a complete overhaul. Upon arriving in America, the questions on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," for example, suddenly became much easier. "Ugly Betty" became considerably less ugly, "Queer as Folk" grew more campy, "The Office" got more romantic, and, well, "Coupling" stayed as awful as it always was.

"The most common change you have to make in bringing a show from Britain to the U.S. is a faster pace," says Chris Coelen, the executive producer for "Secret Millionaire," Fox's upcoming adaptation of the British reality show. "I think it's just what Americans are used to," he says. Coelen has helped adapt scores of British shows for American television, including "Wife Swap." In the past two years, his company, RDF, has sold 11 foreign formats to American TV. "It's big business for us," he says.

"Secret Millionaire," which premieres in December, puts wealthy people undercover in poor neighborhoods, and at the end of each episode, they give money to their unsuspecting neighbors. The American version will have quicker MTV-style editing, more music and amped-up drama than its British predecessor. "The British audience is more used to a subtle approach," he says, "while in the U.S. people feel that you need to accentuate the drama and the stakes." This will be especially noticeable, he says, during each episode's climactic money exchange. "In the British show it's more like, 'Yes, here's a check, thank you,' while in America it's more 'Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,' oh my God crazy!'"

"Life on Mars," ABC's take on the hit BBC series, will also be undergoing changes. The original, about a modern-day police officer named Sam Tyler who finds himself mysteriously transported to 1970s Manchester, was a bizarre mixture of fantasy, romance and police procedural, and much of its drama emerged from the tension between Tyler and the eccentricities of the period's policing techniques. In its move to New York the show has acquired a Scorsese-esque vibe and cast -- which includes Gretchen Mol, Michael Imperioli and Harvey Keitel. The show's new lead, Jason O'Mara, it should be noted, is also a considerable step up on the international dreamboat index from the original's low-glamour star, John Simm.

Like "Secret Millionaire," "Life on Mars" will have a faster pace, at least partly because of its reduced screen time. (The original ran without advertising breaks.) Other changes have been thematic. "We've amplified the romance element of the show," executive producer Josh Appelbaum says, "because the show deserves it, and so the 'Grey's Anatomy' audience will be more receptive to it." (The show will be shown in the time slot following "Grey's.")

The producers have also tinkered with the show's mythology. In ABC's version the reason behind Tyler's time travel will be different from the original, and it won't be made clear. "We didn't want to get ourselves into a case where the audience could turn on [BBC America] and find out what the ending was." As a result, 13 possible reasons for his conundrum are sketched out early on in the ABC show. It's an ambiguity that's necessary because successful American shows tend to run much longer than successful British ones and as "Lost" and "Heroes" have shown, American audiences these days love (very) drawn-out fantasy story arcs that invite speculation -- which "Life on Mars" will combine with episodic storytelling.

Diane Ruggiero, the writer behind ABC's "The Ex-List" -- an adaptation of Israel's "Mythological X" -- changed her show's concept because of similar longevity concerns. In the Israeli show, a psychic tells a young woman that she has one year to find her true love, who happens to be one of her ex-boyfriends. "She then tracks down all of her 11 boyfriends," says Ruggiero, of the Israeli show. "For the purposes of American TV you need more than 11 episodes." So Ruggiero changed the psychic's prediction to include anybody that the main character was "romantically involved with -- that she had a crush on, a random hookup."

In the Israeli show, the main character is also on the selfish side, so in the American version, she will be more fleshed out (that is, have a job) and more likable. "You can't really have a character on American TV who's blindly pursuing men," says Ruggiero, "and it was important to show that she had a life outside of her boyfriend." She also added, as she puts it, more "wish-fulfillment." This, she argues, is necessary for American romantic comedies. "You want the men to be as attractive as possible and the location to look as good as possible. It's about seeing the quick picture of it, and being able to sell that as the dream."

What emerges from the producers' makeovers is a portrait of the American audience that, at first glance, isn't particularly flattering. We have short attention spans. We like our drama spelled out for us, and accompanied by loud music. We want romance, likable characters, "wish-fulfillment" and hunks. These generalizations, however, may have less to do with what Americans really want to watch than the way American television has evolved over the past half-century.

In the United Kingdom, some TV networks are subsidized by public funds and, as a result, have a mandate to educate -- not just entertain -- their audiences. State funding also means more experimentation. Whereas most American network TV is funded by advertisers based on ratings, so, as Straubhaar points out, "there's always been a calculation: What is it the biggest chunk of the audience wants to see?"

But all that may be changing. As the cable universe expands, shows like "The Sopranos" and "Mad Men" -- which have much more in common with British television than most network American fare -- have proved that American audiences, especially cable audiences, are far more open-minded than the networks give them credit for. While the big networks continue to modify their shows to suit broad American tastes, cable execs may have become less inclined to do so. "In Treatment," an unconventional Israeli show composed largely of introspective monologues, for example, made its way to HBO with minimal changes, and has been renewed for a second season.

One wave of the future may be the international co-production, similar to the international funding structure that has become common in independent film. It's a strategy that was recently used on "Rome" and "The Tudors," and, this spring, "Flashpoint," a Canadian-American co-production about the Toronto police force, began airing simultaneously on CBS in the U.S. and CTV in Canada. Other such U.S.- Canadian co-productions are now in the works, and, in another form of cultural exchange, Coelen recently made a deal for the comedian David Cross to star in a British television show. "Americans starring in shows in the U.K.!" he says. "Those are the kinds of things you're going to see more and more of."

In the coming years, changing demographics -- with visible minorities becoming the majority in the U.S. by 2042 -- also means that American networks are going to have to cater to more international tastes. "The audiences are going to want to see something that mixes American TV with what they grew up with," he says, citing "Ugly Betty's" diverse, multilingual cast as an example. "'Ugly Betty' is a harbinger of things to come."

Considering how often American television has been criticized for its cultural imperialism, the sudden popularity of foreign fare is an ironic twist, to say the least. But as the American experience becomes more foreign, our television may simply have to become more foreign as well. We've spent decades sending dreck to the far corners of the world. Let's hope the world will be considerably more gentle to us in return.

By Thomas Rogers

Thomas Rogers is Salon's former Arts Editor. He has written for the Globe & Mail, the Village Voice and other publications. He can be reached at @thomasmaxrogers.

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