Turn on the TV on any given day and you’re likely to be watching a scripted series borne of a foreign country and reformatted for an American audience. From Showtime’s “Shameless” — a revamp of a British series — and “Homeland” — which originated as the popular Israeli skein “Prisoners of War” — to Fox’s recent reconditioning of Peter Duncan’s Aussie legal drama “Rake,” American programming is truly the product of a global show swap. And while influential remakes of British hits “Sanford and Son” and “All in the Family” were breaking down smallscreen barriers long before “The Office” landed on American soil, today’s ever-expanding TV industry is on a fiendish hunt for overseas series in a way it never has before.
“The appetite for American broadcasters to develop reformats is great,” says Jane Tranter, head of BBC Worldwide Prods., whose half-hour laffer “Getting On” was picked up for a second season by HBO in February. “They feel very comfortable with having something that has proven success in another country, and that they can then take and build and improve on, making it specifically work for their individual broadcast of audiences. There is hardly a show in the U.K. that goes out on air that we do not get a reformat inquiry about.”
But international markets are not snatching up American formats in the same degree. You won’t find an adaptation of “Modern Family” or “Parenthood” in Germany, and there’s no Parisian version of “Girls.” (At least not yet.) Instead, broadcasters abroad fill their airtime with locally produced shows or syndicated American series like “House,” which is tres populaire in France (with 9.3 million viewers reported in 2009), and “Desperate Housewives,” which in 2008 had a worldwide audience of 65.1 million viewers.
There are several reasons for the trade imbalance.
While some successful American shows have been remade for the foreign market — in the U.K., for example, “The Golden Girls” became “The Brighton Belles” and “Married With Children” has bred remakes in Russia, Argentina, Bulgaria, Chile and Colombia — market size is a prohibiting factor for countries like Israel and Australia. “We are a tiny market,” Duncan says of Australia, without the airspace to import scripted series.
“Our real estate is really scarce,” says Keren Shahar, head of distribution & acquisitions, Israel’s Keshet Intl. “We are in a situation where we have more content than we can put on the air.”
The U.S., on the other hand, needs an ongoing flow of properties, notes Alon Shtruzman, managing director of Keshet Intl.
“There are so many buyers and so many cable and digital platforms commissioning licensed dramas,” he says. “No one spends as much money as America. Even Hollywood is not big enough to feed the beast.”
The reverse engineering of reformats from the U.S. to Australia “is never going to work,” says Ian Collie, producer of “Rake.”
“It’s no use remaking an American version because it’s much cheaper to buy the original, which of course is in our language, so it doesn’t really make a lot of sense just from an economic point of view,” says Collie.
Differing cultural attitudes toward originality also play a role in what foreign markets buy from the States.
“U.K. broadcasters really pride themselves on their attitude towards originality,” says Tranter, who once considered setting HBO hit “The Sopranos” in Glasgow until she realized a reformat “would make it worse” and not better. “Variety and originality mean a lot more to U.K. broadcasters, because they appeal to U.K. audiences much more so, I think, than originality does for the U.S.”
Israel, a culture with a robust tradition of storytelling, doesn’t need to rely on imported goods, proffers Shahar.
“I think the need to import dramas is less than it is in America or even other countries around the world,” she says.
America, however, is on the prowl for Israeli “character-driven” family dramas.
“I’ve seen this especially over the past 18 months where people want to take a breather from the action-driven dramas,” she says. “At Keshet we also have these types of shows, but we always come at it from the human story and not from the chase or the car bombing.”
It was this human element that attracted Carolyn G. Bernstein, executive VP, scripted programming, at Shine America, to the Swedish-Danish series “Bron,” which she developed as “The Bridge” for FX.
“Not only was it an excellent show with an excellent track record,” she says of the crime drama, “but it felt like it had a unique and distinctive concept at the center of it that we thought could work great if adapted for a U.S. audience.”
Per Shtruzman, with America’s TV market being a veritable behemoth, cracking down on development time and money will remain a driving force behind international purchases.
“In Israel we might spend $250,000 on an episode,” he says. “In the U.K. they might spend $800,000. In America the production costs can go up to $3 million or $4 million. If you’re committed to rolling out an entire season, you want to mitigate the risks. If there’s something good you can get from Israel then why not?”