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The Evolution of Foreign Language Series

When the U.K.’s Channel 4 aired French series “Les Revenants” in primetime in 2013 it was a watershed moment; a non-English language series playing in the primetime schedule of one of the U.K.’s big free-TV broadcasters. A horde of Scandi invaders also made their way onto international TV screens, as Sarah Lund’s knitwear in DR’s “The Killing” became watercooler chat for the drama cognoscenti.

English-language markets that had shunned “foreign” production had opened to “international” drama. Starz has now bought a Norwegian drama and HBO will run an Italian-language series. The success of the latter’s “My Brilliant Friend” will establish if global fare can edge further into the mainstream, or will remain the preserve of the streamers and specialists.

“Over the last decade the international drama market has evolved from one dominated by sales of English, particularly U.S., finished, 13×1-hour series, to one where any show, in any language and any time length has the potential to be a hot commodity worldwide,” says Moritz Polter, executive producer international TV series at Bavaria Fiction. A key producer on Germany’s domestic scene, it is one of a growing number of companies targeting international markets.

The surge in the volume of international drama is partly due to an increase in local production. For broadcasters, local stories now resonate more strongly than U.S. fare. “4 Blocks” was the first original for Turner’s TNT Serie cable net in Germany, while Sky Deutschland and Sky Italia have also ramped up, as has Spanish paycaster Movistar. They are pumping out expensive series that work at home, and increasingly find an audience abroad.

“That creativity was always there in international drama, maybe it was just slightly ignored in the past,” says Jason Simms, a former Fox executive who is now director of drama and comedy at Sky’s production and distribution unit Sky Vision. It recently gave buyers an early peek at Sky Deutschland’s buzzy pre-apocalyptic series “Eight Days” at a London showcase. “The niche services prove the demand is there. In an overall market that is fragmenting, the that fact you can build loyalty among a solid group of people, even if it isn’t big free-TV levels of viewership, is something worth going after.”

Walter Presents bears the name of Walter Iuzzolino. A leading authority on international drama, he curates and presents programming on the service, which runs as a linear block and on-demand service in the U.K. He freely admits Walter is a boutique proposition and international drama a specialist area, but one worth mining. “It is gaining commercial traction, but with a global niche audience,” he says. “That audience is dedicated and loves the content.”

Beta Film shops German series “Babylon Berlin” and has a pedigree of selling international drama. Managing director Moritz von Kruedener says the German company is selling to an increasing number of markets, although rarely to mainstream English-language networks. “We haven’t had the luck to bring a German or Italian production to U.S. network primetime and there’s probably a long way still to go,” he said at a Berlin Drama Days session moderated by Variety in February.

At the same event, FremantleMedia’s head of drama, Sarah Doole, noted the barriers to mainstream U.S. go beyond language: “I don’t think any British producer has sold a show to an NBC or ABC in its original form,” she said.

It is a different story on premium cable. Starz has acquired Norwegian mystery drama “Monster,” and, with its extensive operations outside of the U.S., HBO is leading the charge.

At Mipcom in October, CEO Richard Plepler disclosed that it would run HBO Europe originals on its U.S. streaming service. “Richard came to see the value for viewers of being able to offer the work from HBO Europe and Asia to an American audience,” says Anthony Root, HBO Europe’s programming chief. “Are these going to have ‘Game of Thrones’ level viewership? No, but the point is, there is an increasing number of people who enjoy watching shows that do not come from their own culture.”

HBO Europe makes originals from 10 countries in 10 languages. That drive now includes the Nordics, where filmmaker Lucas Moodysson is making comedy-drama “Gosta,” which he says will be “a mix of comedy and Dostoevsky.” HBO Espana also has its first original, “Patria,” an original adaptation of Fernando Aramburu’s eponymous novel.

“My Brilliant Friend,” however, is the potential gamechanger. Produced by FremantleMedia’s Wildside for HBO and Rai, it is an adaptation of the Elena Ferrante bestselling novels. It will go out on the Italian pubcaster and in the premium cabler’s main schedule in the U.S. in its original 1950s Neapolitan dialect.

Pubcaster Rai is playing a key role in bringing Italian-flavored drama to the world with English-language productions “In the Name of the Rose” and “Medici.”

“I think TV series can build the identity of our country even better than film and add an international dimension,” says Rai drama chief Eleonora Andreatta. “Rai wishes to play a fundamental role in the development of the international presence of the Italian industry.”

Adapting “My Brilliant Friend” with HBO is a milestone in terms of Rai’s overseas ambitions. “As the public broadcaster, we could not ignore this extraordinary all-Italian success,” Andreatta says. “When producers Wildside and Fandango proposed making a series from Elena Ferrante’s novels, we had no hesitation.”

If premium pay is a growing international outlet, the streamers continue to change the game. Amazon and Netflix became big buyers of global drama as they launched around the world and sought to localize, but the buying boom may be coming to an end. As Netflix pushes into non-English originals with the likes of “Narcos” and “Dark,” and Amazon does the same with “You Are Wanted” and “Deutsch les Landes,” they are buying fewer finished series, sellers report. The SVOD players heated the market up, but the prices and that heightened level of demand have fallen away, several sources say.

“This is a niche that doesn’t justify ‘Homeland’ prices,” says one influential buyer who asked not to be named. “Producers and distributors had developed a sense of the worth of their shows that was misleading. There was a bubble, but there has been a recalibration of the economics.”

“Dark,” meanwhile, is a bona fide international hit for Netflix, with 90% of viewing of the German-language mystery drama coming from outside Germany. A second season has been commissioned. Netflix offers series such as Sky Germany’s Tom Tykwer period drama “Babylon Berlin” with subtitles and dubbed, although some observers have questioned the quality of the dub. “It would be a dream if dubbed European content was successful in the U.S., it would change the game totally,” says one European distributor, although most agree that dream is unlikely to be realized.

What is common to international dramas breaking through is often edgy and dark material — story-of-the-week procedurals don’t cut it. “The audience is looking for strong, serialized stories and the rapid growth of SVOD and binge-viewing has helped in terms of this kind of storytelling,” says Francoise Guyonnet, head of TV at Studiocanal, which heads to MIPTV with new Canal Plus original, crime thriller “Nox.”

The Nordic crusaders who pioneered a wave of dark serialized programming now have competition for global eyeballs. “The Killing” set a brooding template for Nordic noir that was followed by the likes of “Bron,” “Mamon” and “Modus.” The light is now beginning to creep in. “I think we are moving to a new brand, Nordic Light,” says NRK drama boss Ivar Kohn. NRK has “Homegrown,” about a female soccer coach. “Nordic Light has the same DNA and qualities [as noir] but it is not dark crime. It’s broader and we are getting a better response from our audience.”

Germany, Italy, Spain and Scandinavia sit at the top table of international drama, but others are looking to join them. Brazilian media giant Globo is known for its soapy telenovelas, but has moved into series with show such as “Jailers” with some overseas success, notably the recent sale of “Merciless” to RTL Crime in Germany.

Israel is already established as a formats hotspot and Keshet’s “Prisoners of War” inspired Showtime hit “Homeland.” Distributors are now bringing Hebrew-language fare to market. At MIPTV Endemol Shine Intl. has Reshet series “Harem,” about mysterious healer who lives in Tel Aviv and has 32 wives and 89 children. Banijay Rights has Israeli-produced crime-meets-vampire drama “Judah.”

Banijay also has French, Norwegian, Swedish and Welsh fare on its books. Caroline Torrance, head of drama, says she is looking at Flemish and Dutch series, a category that is emerging, with Netflix recently buying ZDFE-distributed psychological thriller “Tabula Rasa.” Iceland is also proving an emerging drama production territory, with shows such as Baltasar Kormákur’s “Trapped” a success, and Bavaria Fiction and Yellow Film & TV’s “Arctic Circle,” about a deadly virus discovered at a crime scene, coming through.

Bavaria Fiction has just wrapped filming on Sky’s “Das Boot,” which took to the seas with a premium $32.8 million budget. Filmed in German, French and English, it is in the vanguard of a new wave of multilingual international drama. “While the multi-language element to these shows suits the co-production partners very well for their local channels, it is the universal themes in the series that will see them travel way beyond their primary audiences,” Bavaria’s Polter says. “The most important thing is for the concept not to feel forced.”

Torrance says several multi-language projects have come to her attention in the past year. It will have “Straightforward,” a Danish-Kiwi series that is in production at MIPTV, and “Wisting,” the drama that will recently added “The Matrix” star Carrie-Anne Moss to its cast.

Banijay’s French epic “Versailles” is heading into its third season, with a Canneseries launch, and although the distributor’s catalog is packed with global fare, the story of France’s Louis XIV was filmed in English.

“Ovation is the U.S. channel for ‘Versailles’ and I don’t think they would have looked at it if it were in French because it wouldn’t work for their basic cable audience,” Torrance says. “In the U.K. it may have found a home on [arts and culture net] BBC 4, but not on [general entertainment channel] BBC 2.”

As with its German counterpart Beta, ZDF Enterprises is well-versed in the distribution of non-English series, often in ZDFE’s case with shows from Scandinavia. But in an attempt to reach the biggest buyers and channels, Beta and ZDFE have teamed with “Game of Thrones” producer Frank Doelger to launch Intaglio Films. It will create English-language scripted content for the international market.

“Lilyhammer” producer Viafilm wants the best of both worlds. It shot NRK Norway’s 10-part drama series “One Night,” in Norwegian and English back-to-back. It added a few days to the schedule, but Federation, which is selling it at MIPTV, now has a version for buyers that would not go for the Norwegian original.

The language lessons are clearly paying off. While U.S. network TV is not within reach, cable and SVOD are open for business, and with viewers increasingly fluent in the language of international drama, programmers are paying attention.

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