Television shows have always been one of the media industries biggest exports with many programs shown in hundreds of different countries (e.g. The Simpsons.) Now as media capitals rise and the flows of television change entire series formats are sold to other countries so they can be remade to suit cultural contexts. Comedy series are the most popular to re adapt with some more successful (the American and British versions of The Office) than others (American version of the Inbetweeners.) Andy Medhurst offers a reason for this: ‘comedy plays an absolutely pivotal role in the construction of national identity because it invites us to belong by sharing the joke.’ Sue Turnbull’s article Television Comedy in Translation highlights that comedy and humour is something that does not always culturally translate well. Specifically she uses the example of the American Kath & Kim and explains that the reasons for its failure lie in the missing element of irony.
‘I would suggest that what has ‘seriously been lost in translation’ is the role and place of irony: in this case, the gap between how a character imagines him/herself to be and how they appear to the audience. While Riley’s Kim might imagine herself as a horn-bag, the actor’s embodied performance works to undercut her character’s belief and to reveal Kim as foolish and self-deluded… Blair’s Kim, however, is young enough, attractive enough… and trashy enough to be a tabloid queen.’
Humor is not the only element that might not be translated well, sometimes the entire format of a show will need to be altered in order for it to be culturally identifiable. An example of this is Ugly Betty– originally Betty la Fea, the 1998 Columbian production sold the show’s telenovela format to over 70 different countries. Certain countries made their own version of Betty la Fea for cultural authenticity such as India, Turkey, Germany, Russia – whilst other countries ‘dubbed’ or ‘canned’ the original program.
It was the American version of Ugly Betty that is probably the most interesting, airing in 130 countries once a week with a 40 minute time slot + adds, the American version followed a similar story but couldn’t be more different from a telenovela production.
Ugly Betty Goes Global by Jade Miller describes a telenovela as ‘dramatic narratives, frequently imbued with humour and even more consistently full of romantic liaisons, improbable story-lines and melodrama.’ Telenovelas generally have a half an hour time slot every night, run for 6 months and are cheap to produce with a whole series run totalling around $8 million. (Miller, 2010) ABC studios realised the traditional telenovela format or genre wouldn’t work for American television audiences as the South American version of the show was too simple and too cost effective. We now live in an age where television production is big business and people expect more from TV studios. Game of Thrones costs $6 million per EPISODE. A far cry from the $8 million of the entire series of Betty la Fae.
In an effort to localise the show, Ugly Betty was made into a sitcom. This however failed because they over localised it and stripped it of its universally appealing elements, this meant that it lost its heart.
The success of a television show depends on how well culture and humour translate.