Lost – or found – in television translation

With a number of local TV formats recently being snapped up by overseas broadcasters, John Richards looks at what works in foreign territories. 

America is a land of immigrants, and the TV network upfronts are the electronic form of Ellis Island, where successful formats from abroad line up, papers in hand, ready to become US citizens.

The UK is a common visitor – everything from The Office to Dad’s Army has attempted the trip. The acclaimed programs Homeland and In Treatment were originally conceived in Israel. And Australia is now a regular source of ideas with Wilfred, The Slap, Rake and The Strange Calls all to be remade with accents considered more palatable for the American audience.

Not all of these will come to fruition, of course. For every Being Human, there’s a Viva Laughlin. For every Wilfred there’s a Kath & Kim. There were three failed attempts to remake Fawlty Towers in the states, one starring Bea Arthur.

One of the first Australian format sales was an ill-fated 1980 NBC version of Number 96. Possibly misunderstanding the appeal, NBC dialled down the sex and sold it as an hour-long comedy.

Aside from the remakes, numerous original shows fare better with overseas audiences than their country of origin. Neighbours has always been more popular in the UK than at home, and the 1990 comedy series Let The Blood Run Free reportedly only had a second season due to its popularity in Germany.

The Japanese are baffled by the Australian obsession with Monkey – why would an Antipodean audience be so fascinated by a Japanese retelling of a 16th century story about a monkey-man who flies around on a cloud?

So do formats help? Not necessarily. But while enough of them land, America will continue to try. Disney recently announced it was to make an American Miss Marple, but with one great improvement – the lead would now be young and sexy. Sometimes things get lost in translation.

John Richards is a writer and broadcaster best known for the ABC1 series Outland.



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