Shows not lost in translation

Locally made versions of U.S. hits are luring auds worldwide

HOLLYWOOD — Disney’s Buena Vista Intl. deal to remake its hit dramedy “Desperate Housewives” for Latin America is the latest example of a growing practice — reversioning shows for local auds rather than (or as well as) selling on the original.

Artear Argentina and TV Catolica (Canal 13) Chile have committed to remaking the skein while talks are still under way in Mexico, Venezuela, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil.

“Housewives” success is especially sweet for Buena Vista, which has trouble selling its comedies abroad.

“We’ve had no problem getting dramas like ‘Lost’ to air on primetime TV abroad but sitcoms are a harder sell,” says Fernando Barbosa, senior veep, BVI Latin America.

The Mouse is nibbling at a practice pioneered and perfected by Sony Pictures Television Intl. (SPTI).

It’s way ahead of the game, churning out remakes in countries as far afield as Germany, Chile and Russia.

“The Nanny” has morphed into “Dadi” in Turkey, “Nyanya” in Russia, “Ntavta” in Greece and “La ninera” in Ecuador, Argentina and soon in Mexico.

Reversioning its shows abroad was the first step towards SPTI’s ultimate goal: making new original programming.

It now produces local skeins in 25 countries and 13 languages, among them original scripted skeins in Germany, Chile, Italy and the U.K.

SPTI’s first attempt at remaking their scripted TV skeins began 15 years ago with “Married … With Children” in Germany. That version — a verbatim translation of each episode — fell as flat as a pfannkuchen (pancake). Even reruns of the original scored higher ratings.

When Sony owned U.S. Hispanic net Telemundo in the late 1990s, one of its strategies to counter market leader Univision was to create Spanish-language versions of hits including “Charlie’s Angels” (Angeles) and “Starsky & Hutch” (Reyes y Rey), shooting them in Tijuana. Ratings went as flat as a tortilla.

“We made the mistake of airing them (the remakes) on Monday nights, directly against Univision’s telenovelas,” says Steve Kent, SPTI’s senior executive veep of international production.

SPTI has since learned that working alongside a local partner with a firmer grasp of cultural idiosyncrasies is pivotal to success.

“We have been careful in selecting our local partners and have been lucky so far,” says Brendan Fitzgerald, senior veep of international production who focuses on SPTI’s local production in the U.S. Hispanic Market and Latin America.

But it still has hits and misses as it hones the craft.

“Bewitched” did well in Japan last year, where it was remade with Tokyo Broadcasting Systems, but Mexican auds gave the TV Azteca remake a thumbs down in 1999.

SPTI has even remade a Colombian telenovela, “Betty la fea” (Betty the Ugly) in Russia and India. India’s “Jassi jaissi koi nahin” was so popular that Mona Singh, the actress answers to the name of the character she played, Jasmeet Walia, and her face appears on stamps.

The very fact that SPTI got its own version out of “Betty” in India before locals ripped it off is something of a coup in a country famous for taking liberties with property rights.

Twentieth Century Fox is presently suing India’s Zee Telefilms alleging that “Time Bomb” is a copy of hit terrorist drama “24.”

In June 2003, an Indian court threw out a copyright lawsuit brought by British author Barbara Taylor Bradford against the producers of Hindi-language soap opera “Karishma” (Miracle) after she alleged the show was a straight lift of her novel “A Woman of Substance.”

That doesn’t appear to be an issue in Latin America.SPTI has been most active south of the border.

“Our comedies seem to resonate best in Latin America,” Kent says, pointing out the importance of customizing them for each country.

Local reincarnations are tweaked to make them more credible. For instance, the notion of a butler is alien to some cultures so Niles in “The Nanny” is a personal assistant in Greece and a bodyguard in Ecuador. Matching the tone and quality of the original is even trickier. Rehearsals take longer as a result.

Argentina’s Telefe, the first in the region to adapt an SPTI sitcom for primetime, aired its local versions of “The Nanny,” “Who’s the Boss,” and “Married … With Children” from Monday to Thursday instead of once a week.

“Audiences in Argentina are used to following a story daily because that’s the telenovela format,” says Telefe programming chief Bernarda Llorente.

With the sitcom format unfamiliar to most territories except the U.S. and the U.K., it fell upon SPTI to educate its partners.

It has been a godsend to both parties. Aside from being ratings winners, they’re inexpensive to produce.

“Unlike the telenovela, the sitcom has a reduced cast and no exteriors so it’s much cheaper to make,” says Llorente.

Not that the telenovela is in any danger. In fact, “Desperate Housewives” will probably fit right in. As one blogger put it, “What’s ‘Desperate Housewives’ if not a high-gloss telenovela?”

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