We all know that when it comes to sharing TV between cultures, sometimes it works, and sometimes it just doesn’t. Especially in the case of comedy, TV in translation is difficult to master.
Kath and Kim U.S version = FAILURE
Whilst The Office U.S version = SUCCESS
There are a couple of different ways of transferring TV content.
- Owners can sell the format and/or script for a TV show, so buyers can recreate a similarly styled show appropriated to appeal to a different culture.
- Owners can export the entire show, unaltered.
Friends is an example of a TV show that was exported, unaltered, all over the world, to places like Australia, Bulgaria, France, Portugal and Russia. It’s even been popular in China, with the creation a real life, fully functional “Central Perk” cafe (see the clip below). So we can see, even though China and the U.S have vastly different cultures, some TV shows are transferable between cultures. Perhaps, as the clip suggests, Friends is successful because it focuses on the universal theme of friendship.
Other shows, such as Masterchef, the Voice, X Factor, Dancing with the Stars and Big Brother, are sold as formats, and have been successfully appropriated in a variety of cultures.
What makes television work in different cultures?
Well, no one is really sure. But it is easy to tell why a TV show fails. Sue Turnbull (2008) writes about why Kath and Kim (US) failed. It seems that the most significant reason was casting. The American characters of Kath and Kim were two slim, attractive women who did not at all convey the deluded nature of the Australian originals. As Turnbull notes, the humour in Kath and Kim was derived directly from the characters’ perceptions of themselves as different from reality.
Unfortunately, there seems to be a lot of luck involved in exporting and importing foreign television. Success or failure is dependent on a multitude of factors specific to different cultures, such as political concerns, recent local events and cultural history. What one culture ‘gets’, another doesn’t.
The good news is, with globalisation, sharing of television is occurring more and more frequently, and so we can expect to see more TV shows from all around the world. It’s quite possible the reason some shows fail is that they are simply too ‘foreign’. With increased integration, perhaps it will be easier to understand and share TV, and especially, the world’s comedies.
In the meantime though….
Turnbull, S 2008, ‘It’s Like They Threw a Panther in the Air and Caught It in Embroidery’: Television Comedy in
Translation’ Metro Magazine Issue 159