Why US Networks Remake Foreign Shows

If there’s one thing I see over and over again in TV message boards, it’s this: “why does [US network] have to remake [some foreign show]? Why can’t they just air the original??”

The answer to that question is the answer to almost every question: money.

As you may know, viewership of the Big Four broadcast networks is down. Waaaay down. Part of this is due to the exploding number of TV channels. Where ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC once had viewers all to themselves, they now have to compete with USA, FX, AMC and others. Another part of it is DVRs: Neilsen counts people who watch shows within three days of it airing (called “Live Plus 3”, or L3) and those who watch it within seven days (called “Live Plus 7”, or L7). But networks only care about the L3 ratings, so if you DVR a show on Monday but watch it on Friday, you may as well not watch it at all… from a ratings perspective. And, of course, you have the younger generation, who are more likely to pass the time watching YouTube videos over network TV.

Point is, the days of the Big Four networks having a captive audience of 300 million people are long over. Networks need as many eyeballs as possible, and foreign shows don’t help. A certain percentage of Americans simply won’t watch a show where people have foreign accents, no matter how great the show might be. I don’t know what that percentage is, but even if it’s a little as 10%, that’d cripple a show out of the gate. It’s like… atheist politicians. In several surveys, 53% of Americans have said that they would have “major reservations” about voting for an atheist presidential candidate. So, a hypothetical  atheist candidate would have to win almost 100% of the remaining 47% of the vote, which is almost impossible. So you don’t see foreign shows on US networks for the same reason you don’t see a lot of atheist presidential candidates: they’re set up to lose.

Then there are cultural issues. Perhaps African-American and Hispanic viewers think a show like Downton Abbey isn’t relevant to them. But if you were to take almost exactly the same scripts, but set it in a rich American’s house… then maybe that’s something they’d watch.

And all of us, even those of us who like foreign shows, have almost certainly come across references and jokes in foreign shows that go over our heads… kind of like the Grey Poupon joke in Wayne’s World.

There were a series of commercials for Grey Poupon mustard in the 80s where a rich man in a Rolls-Royce would be eating in the back of his car, and another rich guy would pull up at a light and ask if he had any Grey Poupon, ‘cos I guess Grey Poupon is mustard for rich people:

In Wayne’s World, Wayne and his gang pull up to a stoplight in their piece of crap car next to a Rolls-Royce and ask for Grey Poupon:

Thing is, those commercials never aired in France, so when Wayne’s World was dubbed into French, Wayne says “you… you would look good in a Fiat Uno”, parodying a then-popular series of French ads for an inexpensive car.

*     *     *

But when I said it all comes down to money, I really mean it all comes down to money.

If NBC had chosen to buy the rights to the original British version of The Office, the only money NBC could have earned would be from running commercials during the show.

If, however, NBC chose to buy the rights to remake the original (which is much cheaper than buying the rights to the finished product, by the way), then NBC could elect to have its own production company – Universal – to make the show. In this way, NBC would make money from:

– Selling commercials that run during the show.
– Off-network syndication sales.
– Foreign sales.
– Licensing to airlines and cruise ships.
– Licensing to cable companies for OnDemand viewing.
– Licensing to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu.
– Selling commercials for NBC.com streaming.
– Home video sales (DVD\Blu-Ray).
– Merchandise sales.
– (Possible) licensing for spin-offs and movies.

For NBC, the difference between airing the original Office and making their own was literally a billion dollars. Plus, most British shows only have 6-8 episodes per season. Americans are used to much more than that. Despite its legendary status in the comedy world, there were only 12 episodes of the original Office (plus two specials). That’s less than single US season! When the US version turned out to be a hit, NBC was able to make 201 episodes, something they wouldn’t be able to do with the original.

I agree that many of these remakes suck. Two of my favorite shows of the 2000s – the British Life on Mars and the Australian Rake – were dismal failures as American remakes. But I’m not sure how much of that was due just to them being remade, or to them being remade by broadcast networks. If you’ve ever seen the original Rake, you know there’s way too much sex and drugs and swearing for a US network. Had HBO or Showtime – or even FX – remade it, then it could have been much, much better. And while the British Life On Mars wasn’t afraid to show people smoking and drinking to excess… like people did back in the early 70s… the US network seemed to shy away from that, lending the whole thing an inauthentic, Disneyfied air.

But really, folks… it’s just TV. The reason I posted this today was because some folks on a message board were ranting about Gracepoint, the new Fox remake of the British show Broadchurch. Yes, Broadchurch is a really great show. But it’s not some priceless, immutable cultural icon. I’m sure the British version will go down in history as the better of the two… but there’s no need to get your panties in a wad about it.


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