A film producer I know went to the Berlin Film Festival a few years ago and ended up spending most of the trip in his hotel room.
He flew in, checked in, napped and showered, and prepared for a day’s worth of screenings. But as he was dressing, he turned on the TV and suddenly caught a few seconds of a German talk show with a host doing an exact imitation of David Letterman—same vocal intonation, same staccato laugh, same singsongy repetition of key comic phrases, even the same gap between the two front teeth.
My friend doesn’t speak a word of German, but he still couldn’t turn it off. It was the television version of one of those burger joints you used to see around Europe—not exactly McDonald’s, but you knew what they were going for with their funny, blenderized English names like Hitburger!
If you find yourself jet-lagged in Istanbul, you might land on a comedy show about a short, angry man who struts around his apartment bickering with his housekeeper. Depending on your demographic group, this show will look a lot like The Jeffersons. Except with doner kebab.
Sometimes these imitations are part of a business arrangement. Phil Rosenthal, the ferociously talented creator and producer of the long-running Everybody Loves Raymond, made a terrific documentary, Exporting Raymond, about bringing his hit comedy to Russia. Netflix it. You won’t be disappointed.
This used to be a lucrative side gig for television writers. Twenty years ago, television executives from Europe and South America would fly into L.A. and scoop up older sitcom writers and import them to create and run—and in some cases simply explain—American-style television shows. And because they’re not really making the great, old fashioned multiple-camera comedies anymore in the United States, it was a pretty sweet third-act twist in the career of over-the-hill comedy scribes to spend some time overseas, lionized like sitcom Yodas.
“Tell me please,” a Greek writer asked a friend of mine who took a gig like this, “we would like to know how to do this wonderful thing, this Caroline in the City.”
American sitcom veterans too old for American network television would live like pashas in foreign cities, training the local writers in such tradecraft as managing a writing staff, organizing and running a rewrite session, story structure, the “scene button,” the “act break,” and also more arcane but still important techniques such as the “expensive lunch order,” the “veiled network-executive insult,” and the very crucial “reusing old material.” That is why you can see a pretty letter-perfect bizarro version of The Jeffersons on Turkish television. And, I’m told, a Polish Two and a Half Men.
Other times, of course, things just pop up on foreign television that resemble American television shows without the nicety of money changing hands. In China, for instance, there was a show about a group of six young single people who live close together in the big city—in this case, Shanghai. It’s called, with that off-putting almost-English quality of a lot of Chinese things, iPartment. The show is a lot like an American sitcom about six young people hanging out in the big city you may be familiar with.
The Chinese friends all live in an iPartment—which is about as nice and unaffordable in real life as the iPartment the American Friends lived in—and they share a lot of the same character traits as the American iPartment Friends. There’s an uptight one and a ditzy one and one who has somehow translated the sarcastic delivery of Chandler into Mandarin. Plus a bunch of nerd Big Bang Theory touches and a dollop of How I Met Your Mother, because when you’re stealing, you may as well go for it.
It’s a different world, though, because Chinese television viewers have also seen those American shows, on the Web or satellite or just the way that young people manage to see everything somehow. So they’re hip to the copycat ways of iPartment. And they’re complaining.
“Many lines and scenes have been completely ripped off from American shows,” an anonymous viewer told the state-run Global Times newspaper. “I thought it was shameful to do this. It is an insult to the American TV producers and an insult to the screenwriters and producers of original Chinese TV shows.”
Well, yeah. I mean, yes, of course. Intellectual property theft is bad. Although I have yet to meet an American television writer who hasn’t, at some point, thought to himself, I wonder if we can reuse an old episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show? The mistake that the Chinese executives made when they cut and pasted their way to a television show was that they were out of step with their connected online audience who, if they had wanted to watch Friends, would have just watched Friends. They didn’t need a locally inflected Hitburger! version.
The mistake is understandable, because as long as there has been an international television business, the rule has been that shows need to be adjusted and translated for the local audience. In America, you’re movin’ on up. In Turkey, it has to be sınıf atlıyoruz.
If a salesman convinced Turkish television executives to buy the format for The Jeffersons, he could still turn around and sell the same format to Armenia, Russia, Italy, wherever. The complicated, Balkanized global television marketplace was a bonanza for American studios who could carve up licensing territories into ever-smaller slices and live out the dream of every capitalist who ever lived by selling the same product over and over again. These “format sales” were among the most lucrative sources of ancillary profits, and they had the additional benefit of keeping old-and-in-the-way sitcom writers off the streets.
It’s hard to imagine that world returning. American audiences are generally considered to be the most parochial and least tolerant of “foreign” media. And yet one of the most popular shows available in the United States is Squid Game, a dark and gripping show from South Korea. Netflix reports that it has been viewed in 142 million households. Lupin, a French heist drama based on a classic series of novels and movies about gentleman jewel thief Arsène Lupin, was watched by 78 million Netflix subscribers in its first 28 days of release, becoming a Top 10 show on American television for weeks and weeks.
Five years ago, an American network might have been convinced to buy the format to Squid Game but would have quickly tailored it to what it imagined the American audience would accept. Something not so weird, or pink, or dark. Something with a happy ending, normal food, and set in Florida. They would, in other words, turn it into a Hitburger!
It’s equally hard to imagine an international broadcast network today buying the format of an American sitcom—much less importing salt-and-pepper talent to manage the production process of a homegrown version. Everything is already available in the (mostly) borderless streaming universe. The customer prefers the original version.
The result is that global television is no longer the idiosyncratic, highly local freak show it once was, with David Letterman imitators braying in German and Russian Raymonds complaining about their babushkas next door.
The big streaming services resemble large international fast-fashion retailers. Just as Zara and H&M have brought popular and appealing fashions to a global customer, where everyone gets to wear everything and there’s no such thing as “Ukrainian blue jeans,” Netflix and Hulu have done the same for entertainment. For the studio salesmen and Los Angeles–based comedy writers, this new universe is a calamity.
But for viewers across the globe, it’s sınıf atlıyoruz.
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