American Television Reinventions
Created | Updated Feb 21, 2018
Comedy | Drama | Family | Game Shows | Reality
When American television companies have wondered what new television programmes to make, a certain amount of risk is usually involved. Any programme made has to make money in return, usually by one or more of three methods:
- High ratings, thus encouraging advertisers and sponsors to pay premium rates for their services and goods to be advertised during commercial breaks and/or be associated with the programme, either as sponsors or through product placement.
- Merchandising sales, including the home video market.
- Selling the broadcast rights to the programme to other television channels overseas.
When television companies are deciding what is likely to be popular, they have often turned to already existing television programmes from around the world1. If a television programme has a proven record of being popular elsewhere in the world, it is not unreasonable to suppose that an American adaptation might be popular also. If the original television programme has built a fanbase in America, there may already be an established audience viewership anticipating this version. If the remake should make it past the pilot stage, the reinvention may be able to reuse the original series' scripts, cutting down on the work required to make the new show.
This is especially true of programmes made in Britain where the scripts do not even need to be translated into English. They can be simply adapted to a format better suited for American consumption by, say, changing the city they're set in. Consequently, many television programmes from the UK have had American adaptations, some of which became popular over the Atlantic and others which fell into obscurity.
It is interesting to watch, compare and contrast the American version of a programme with its British original, noting the differences in theme.
Why Not Simply Broadcast the Original Series?
The question must be asked: Why do Americans create their own versions of British programmes instead of simply broadcasting the original versions? Many countries, especially Commonwealth countries such as Australia and Canada, broadcast the British versions without having to create their own. There are a number of different answers to this question.
British programmes can feature themes, events and references specific to British audiences that may otherwise be unfamiliar to a general American audience. While this is also true in reverse for most American programmes, British audiences usually have a greater understanding of American culture. Humour especially doesn't always translate easily, although that hasn't stopped many British comedy series becoming cult hits across the Atlantic. Interestingly, the cultural cut-off for what is acceptable to broadcast on television is different between the UK and the US2.
The accent is also a turnoff to some segments of the American population. Some accents may be unconsciously associated with snobbery. Some British accents are too strong for unfamiliar American viewers to follow. If the original series involves the use of British slang or regional accents, such as Geordie and Yorkshire accents, many American viewers may be put off. American television executives want their shows to appeal to the widest possible audience, so alienating potential viewers and customers is against everything they wish to achieve.
Another reason is that the US networks might be afraid of having too many British actors in a cast. Many series made in America have some British actors, but want the majority of the cast to be American. To be fair, of course, many UK programmes don't have American actors, especially if the script has no need. Yet American television tends not to cast as many actors who fall outside the pinnacle of physical perfection as British shows do, making the cast of many British programmes stand out on television.
Another point is 'product placement'. Although in the UK at the birth of commercial television, guidelines ensured that adverts and programmes were clearly separate, in the US not all advertisements are in the commercials. Many companies will pay a large fee to have their product or food package prominently displayed in a scene in a popular programme. If the script calls for someone to take a drink, drinks companies may well try to outbid each other to make sure the character has selected their brand. This is an important source of income for television companies.
During the 1960s many British television programmes were broadcast on American television, even becoming prime time hits. Spy-fi series were especially popular, including The Saint, The Avengers, The Champions and The Prisoner. Other successes included Supermarionation shows such as Thunderbirds. Many of these were made by Lord Lew Grade's company ITC, which at the end of the 1970s moved away from television production into film. Since then, British programmes have tended to be shown either on cable channel BBC America or PBS.
PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service, is an American network that does broadcast a high proportion of British television, so much so that it has been nicknamed 'Primarily British Series'. This is a non-profit public broadcaster consisting of many local television stations that retain a degree of independence, rather than an omnipotent centrally controlled channel. Many of PBS' most popular programmes originally came from Britain, although its traditional partnership with the BBC may well develop in a different direction since the launch of BBC America.
Many of Britain's most successful shows seen in America, including Red Dwarf, were first broadcast on PBS. Often British specials, such as concerts and documentaries, are shown during PBS' 'pledge week'. This is in the hope of raising money from people who do not regularly watch their shows.
Other Differences Between British and American Television
American television is formatted differently to its British counterpart in several ways. A typical British television series is usually 6-13 episodes. As there are 52 weeks in a year, 13 episodes equate to a quarter of a year, and so 13 episodes will last an actual season. A shorter series of 6 episodes allows a flexible half-season schedule, with leeway to allow for the odd week away from the normal scheduling to dedicate to sporting fixtures, overwhelming current events, and the Eurovision Song Contest.
A typical American series is more likely to be 22-26 episodes per season3. If the American networks were to show the original programmes, they would not necessarily have enough episodes to fill an entire 'season' of American broadcast, unless they broadcast two series back-to-back. As such, they like to create their own version, which can feature the optimum amount of episodes.
Another major difference is that British and American televisions use different scan rates - the number of lines in the picture. If the show was recorded on film, which was the policy of some British companies (such as ITC) intending to export their programmes, then this was not a problem. Recording on film, though, is more expensive than videotape, which remained the dominant medium used in Britain as late as the 1990s. Television programmes originally recorded on videotape in one country that will be broadcast in another has to be converted to the appropriate scan rate, either by adding blank lines or removing some. This results in a noticeable loss of quality. Often it is just more desirable to remake the show.
Of course it is not just British television programmes that are reinvented. In 2011 American television adapted the highly successful Danish television series The Killing (2007-12). Similarly, British television has adapted the hugely popular Swedish television series Wallander (2005-10) into a British remake (2008-10). Many American programmes have been adapted in the UK, including The Golden Girls, which was remade as the unsuccessful Brighton Belles, and Who's the Boss? becoming The Upper Hand. K-9 (2008-9) was an Australian spin-off of a popular Doctor Who character. Reality and game shows are becoming predominantly adapted, as television companies promote their successful formulas to outlets all around the world.
Beryl Vertue, Pioneer of the Format Deal
Television reinventions can trace their origins back to Beryl Vertue CBE, who worked for Associated London Scripts or ALS. This was a prestigious scriptwriting company founded by Spike Milligan, Eric Sykes, as well as Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, the creators of sitcom Steptoe and Son. Vertue had been a school friend of Simpson and though initially employed as a secretary she soon became the most powerful writers' agent in the country; in 1963 she put Terry Nation forward to write for a fledgling BBC children's drama called Doctor Who which resulted in the creation of the Daleks, and she ensured that her client kept the copyright. In 1965 she co-founded Dalek Productions with Terry Nation with the aim to sell a Dalek-based television series to American television companies, however soon realised that American companies were uninterested in a series written by a British writer.
Undeterred, she knew she now had the contacts and experience to sell versions of her other clients' shows to America, including Till Death Us Do Part and Steptoe and Son. When interviewed by Doctor Who Magazine, she explained,
I am known as the pioneer of the format deal. I didn't have any training to do this, because no such thing existed… I knew I wouldn't be able to sell an American network something like 'Till Death Us Do Part' because they wouldn't understand the language. But I also knew the idea was very good. So I figured if I could find the equivalent of Johnny Speight in America I'd do it that way. I found Norman Lear, and he wrote the American version of 'Till Death Us Do Part', which was called 'All In The Family'. Huge hit. Eight years it ran. And then I thought 'He's clever, I'll get him to look at 'Steptoe and Son'.' Norman did 'Sanford and Son' and that ran for six years.
By 1968 she was Managing Director of ALS, she produced films such as Tommy in the 1970s. In the 1980s founded her own company, Hartswood Films. This is best known for Men Behaving Badly (1992-8), Coupling (2000-2004), naturally selling the format of both to American television companies, and Sherlock (2010+), which has gained a worldwide following. In 2004 she was instrumental in ensuring that the Daleks would return to Doctor Who. Her daughter Sue is married to Steven Moffat, former showrunner of Doctor Who (2010-2017).
The Future of Television...?
Television is a constantly changing medium, adapting to new technologies and with new companies creating content and programmes. With the increasingly widespread availability of programmes over the Internet, through services such as the BBC iPlayer and commercial companies like Netflix, television companies are increasingly allowing viewers greater control over what they can watch at times of their choosing through their computers, tablets and other devices. This growth in home streaming technology has also resulted in a widely reported increase in popularity of British television series in America.
Additionally, television is becoming increasingly international, with large television companies owning subsidiaries in many different nations worldwide. For example, America's Fox Network and Britain's Sky are both part of News Corp, an international conglomerate that originated in Australia. International co-operation between different companies is also increasing. This means that television series' origins are often becoming increasingly blurred.
Television companies are also increasingly selling their formats worldwide rather than individual shows, so versions of reality and game show programmes like Antiques Roadshow (originally British), Big Brother (originally Dutch), Dragon's Den (originally Japanese), etc, can be seen all around the world.
Reactions in Britain
So how are American adaptations of beloved British television series perceived in Britain? Typically the more fondly one is remembered in the UK, the more upset British audiences are that it is being remade and the harder it will be to persuade British viewers to accept the new programme. Rumours that fondly remembered comedies like Fawlty Towers or Father Ted are being remade can be met with disappointment and even anger, although some remakes are accepted. Morbid curiosity also often plays a part, especially if the remade series is perceived as a failure.
Of course, an American adaptation of a British show is aimed at an American audience rather than British, but that does not mean that the British audience is irrelevant. The more countries around the world that a television series is successful in, the more money is made from broadcast rights, merchandising, product placement, etc. Britain is traditionally the biggest market outside the US for American television series and Hollywood films. If there is an already existing British fanbase for the original show, persuading that fanbase in Britain to accept the new adaptation can also lead to improved ratings in America through word-of-mouth, the Internet etc. American television companies are becoming increasingly aware that their audience can potentially be global, although that said their main focus is naturally on the home audience.
A Few Examples
Although it is not possible to examine every programme, some of the shows that have been adapted for American consumption will be discussed in the other entries of this series. Many of these reinventions have even gone on to become successful in the UK as well, thereby coming full circle.