Foreign-language TV still foreign to U.S. auds

Experts debate potential of breaking down resistance

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Territory Reports

American television is more influenced by foreign programmers than ever, but Americans remain unlikely to watch foreign TV programs in their original languages, say industry executives.

Due to that belief, few outlets exist where adventurous American viewers can check out such shows to see if they would enjoy watching them.

“I don’t see that changing in the near future,” says Chris Grant, prexy of Shine Group’s Reveille, which imports and exports TV formats to the United States — including Fox’s summer show “Masterchef,” which was brought over from the U.K. “Americans are accustomed to watching television that comes from America in English. People in other countries grow up watching television in other languages. Dubbing or subtitling is second nature to people in other countries.”

“We don’t speak any other languages, and we’re not going to watch television with subtitles,” says Mort Marcus, co-president of Debmar/Mercury, an independent syndicator that is shopping British talkshow “Jeremy Kyle” to U.S. TV stations and also has sold U.S.-produced syndicated programs abroad.

NBC even skipped a chance to air the British version of its “Law and Order” franchise, allowing BBC America to take it.

While many executives are cynical, not everyone agrees that Americans are hopeless when it comes to expanding their TV horizons. (That theory will get a small test when Sundance Channel airs the multilingual miniseries “Carlos” beginning Oct. 11.)

After all, there is a small but dedicated band of audiences who embrace foreign-language cinema.

“We’ve demonstrated that you can actually bring an audience to places where they weren’t previously,” says Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse U., where he is also a trustee professor of television and popular culture at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. “If someone could find a really big hit show that worked, then of course you would break the ice. That’s the first thing that’s required.”

Cable television has introduced American viewers to complex programs with complicated characters, and that could open the door to foreign-language programs, theorizes Thompson. The Internet also has exposed more Americans to foreign video, which might make them more amenable to foreign-language shows.

And just because Americans aren’t watching foreign-language television doesn’t mean they aren’t influenced by it. U.S. television long has imported shows from overseas and then Americanized them. Norman Lear’s iconic sitcom “All in the Family,” which premiered on CBS in January 1971, was based on the British sitcom “Till Death Do Us Part.”

Reality TV first began abroad and was ushered into American primetime when CBS took a chance on “Survivor,” based in part on the Swedish show “Expedition Robinson,” in summer 2000. TV’s biggest reality hit, “American Idol,” originally was the U.K.’s “Pop Idol.” And NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” began life in Britain as “Britain’s Got Talent.” Simon Cowell partly left his job as the mean “Idol” judge to focus on bringing his popular “X Factor” to Fox from the U.K.

Sitcoms and dramas also are influenced by programs from abroad. NBC’s “The Office” was imported to the U.S. from Britain, and initially copied almost letter for letter. ABC’s “Ugly Betty” is based on the globally popular telenovela “Yo Soy Betty, La Fea,” originally a Colombian program. And HBO’s therapy drama “In Treatment” is based on a popular Israeli series.

Challenging economic conditions also are encouraging international co-productions. CBS’ “Flashpoint” and ABC’s “Rookie Blue” each are co-produced by the U.S. network’s affiliated studio and a Canadian network. Each shows air both in the U.S. and Canada.

Even more broadly, shows such as Showtime’s “The Tudors” and Starz’s upcoming “Camelot” are international co-productions, with teams from the U.S., Canada and Ireland all participating in production and sharing costs. These sorts of shows are sold around the world before they even premiere.

Still, shows from English-speaking countries — such as England, Australia, Canada or Ireland — will always have an edge in the U.S. because they don’t have a language barrier to overcome.

“What we’ve learned about the foreign public is that those who watch imported television programs have some kind of preexisting affinity towards the country of origin,” says Michael Elasmar, professor at Boston U., director of its communications research center and editor of the American Journal of Media Psychology. “Australian or English TV is pretty close to what Americans already know.”

That applies in reverse too: “American programming around the world is still probably second to the indigenous language of that country,” says Marcus. “But no other countries can afford to make the kind of programs that we make. A show like ‘Lost’ cannot be replicated in France or Italy. There’s enough of a business for our programs around the world that it’s worth it for us.”

That economic disparity is another big reason why Americans tend to watch American TV — U.S. production companies spend the most money and are widely considered producers of the world’s best TV.

Says Grant: “We’re the biggest provider of television content in the world. That’s just the nature of the television business.”

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