It’s not uncommon, these days, to flip on the television in a foreign country and see a local remake of a show you always thought of as American or British.
Yet few people realise the pioneering role Australia played in developing today’s roaring trade in the international adaptation of television shows.
The Grundy factor
One of the greatest pioneers in the world trade in television formats was Australian television entrepreneur Reg Grundy. He started in radio as quiz master on the game show Wheel of Fortune, which he adapted for television in 1959.
He also brought the US game shows Concentration and Tic, Tac, Dough to Australia, the latter’s format copied from NBC in the United States. Over the next decade, other game shows such as I’ve Got a Secret, Play Your Hunch, and The Guessing Game followed, and gained large and faithful local audiences.
Grundy then expanded into drama and sold several popular Australian programs and successful formats overseas. Jail drama Prisoner was an early success, and was followed by soapies like The Restless Years and The Young Doctors, then Sons and Daughters, a show that ran to 972 half-hour episodes. It proved a very successful format, still selling 25 years after it first appeared in Australia on Channel Seven. Recently, it was remade as Zabranjena Ljubav in Croatia and, separately, in Bulgaria, under the same title.
Today, the most trade-able format in global television is the talent show.
Shows such as The Voice and The X Factor each have similar competitive elements, elimination techniques and reward mechanisms. Their individual sense of value and quality is largely set by the judging panel, which may vary in number. Some judges are chosen for professional knowledge, some for more nebulous qualities like public or media notoriety, market appeal and promotional utility.
Sets, staging, signage and theme music is individual and key to any format.
Under format licensing agreements, the remakes vary little from the original production, usually given some tweaks for local cultural sensitivities and technical and production limitations. This preserves the value of the brand but also gives confidence to advertisers that the program’s commercial performance is likely match the performance of the original.
However, just occasionally, things work out differently, and the best example is a talent contest of another kind: a talent for cooking.
There was a fortuitous intersection of location, setting, cast and contest. The runaway ratings saved, for the time at least, the competitive position of Australia’s then third-placed commercial TV network (now fourth behind the ABC).
The three judges, little known outside the world of fine dining, became immediate celebrities and the final episode of the first series peaked at 4.11 million viewers, placing it fourth among the 10 most watched programs of the previous decade. MasterChef joined Australian Idol in a ratings territory previously the exclusive preserve of sporting finals and the Olympics.
Unfortunately, MasterChef has now morphed into a dead horse that Ten continues to beat.
Local drama, global trade
In drama, format distinctions are much clearer, but remakes are more inclined to be infused with national characteristics. Think of what New Tricks – the BBC drama about cops brought out of retirement to crack old cases – would look like with a French cast: farce. Or a US one: social satire.
The recent US remakes of North European noir, like The Bridge (originally a Danish/Swedish crime drama) or The Killing (originally a Danish police procedural drama), imitate the photographic style and studied performances of the originals.
Ultimately, however, the US versions are new programs with unique features, just as every new production of a heritage stage play is a new play.
Their recent Australian offerings include Wonderland, an Australian soapie in a beachside setting. It’s been criticised for its near wall-to-wall white Anglo-European casting and its self-absorbed, largely personal narratives.
However, if it was remade overseas and cast with members of the local dominant ethnic group, Wonderland would be equally at home on the banks of the Volga River in Russia or in sight of Yokohama Bay in Japan.
Perhaps it will be Fremantle Media’s next big export.