Monday, September 15, 2008

How to sell a show to America or "Why I need a passport"

Apparently writers in America have no good ideas. I mean, you’d think we would. There are a whole lot of us. And we’ve dreamed up hit shows for fifty years. Also, we live here so you’d think we’d maybe have some sense of what would work in our country. Apparently we don’t. Not according to the new TV Fall line-up. But you know who does have great ideas for American shows?

Colombian writers.

British writers.

Australian writers.

Japanese chiropractors.

From UGLY BETTY to THE OFFICE to premiering shows like LIFE ON MARS, KATHY & KIM, THE WORST WEEK, LITTLE BRITAIN U.S.A., and HOLE IN THE WALL (a game show where people have to squeeze through weird shaped openings – yes, of course it’s on FOX), networks are falling all over themselves to adapt imports.

They’ve discovered that the way to attract viewers in Kansas City is to see what works in the Barrier Reef. If it’s a hit in Eje cafetero then housewives in Pittsburgh will surely flock.

And if the shows fail, hey, the networks can always blame France.

So are the ideas really that groundbreaking? Australia’s KATH & KIM is a series about a dysfunctional mother and daughter. Okay, I’ll give them that one. No one in America could possibly have come up with that premise.

The argument can be made -- well it’s the execution that makes the show so fresh and distinctive. Fine, except producers are quoted in Sunday’s LA Times as saying this ‘cuckoo’ series is toned down for the U.S. There’s less snark, more mother-daughter drama. Huh???

I haven’t seen KATHY & KIM. The new version might be great. THE OFFICE managed to jump the pond where many others jumped the shark. But the two women who created the original also starred in it. There was clearly a distinctive voice. The new version has a new cast, new location, new writers, new tone. I’m surprised NBC didn’t go out and just get Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel.

So the message is clear, if you want to sell a show to the U.S., sell it overseas first. I still feel BIG WAVE DAVE’S would be a hit. That was our 1993 short-lived series about three guys who quit the rat race to open a surf shop in Hawaii. You can watch the pilot here.

Well, congratulate us. We’ve just sold it to the Marshall Islands. Of course we’ve had to revise it to adapt to the lucrative Marshall Islands audience. Instead of opening a surf shop our lovable goofballs open a missile testing facility. New title: BIG BOOM DAVE’S. We’ll own Tuesday nights in Majuro!

So next fall look for our show. I can’t tell you which network it’ll be on. I’m expecting a bidding war.


Annie said...

If all the network wonks chase each others' import tails doing the same thing, none of them lose, more important these days than winning.

Our band used to do that - generate attention overseas - "Oooh, they from Amerika - they must be goood!" Then parlay that into studio interest - ""Oooh, they're big in Sweden, they must be good!"

Anonymous said...

The American KATH & KIM reminds me of the several atempts to do American versions of ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS and FAWLTY TOWERS, when both shows relied on the original creator/performer's unique talents, so they always went down the tubes. (Also Barry Humphries guested on the original KATH & KIM. Don't look for him here.) In any event, I find Molly Shannon unbearable (Right up there with Cheri Oteri and Will Ferrell), so I won't be watching.

At least LITTLE BRITAIN IN AMERICA is Matt Lucas and David Walliams, not imitators.

And the new Christian Slater series MY OWN WORST ENEMY is a rip-off of Steven Moffett's briliant JEKYLL, with a spy melieu tossed in to pretend its not plagiarism, with Moffett and JEKYLL never mentioned or credited, let alone paid, because the new creators - ah - noticed that the Stevenson novel is in the public domain, so by PRETENDING it's a fresh inspiration, they feel free to rip Moffett off. I hope it tanks.

Blame ALL IN THE FAMILY and SANFORD & SON. If they'd tanked 38 years ago, this wouldn't be happening now.

Scott said...

Well, KATH & KIM were actually born out of a sketch show that the main actresses did several years before. It is kinda bizarre to see a show that you watched in its infancy being transported to the US. Along with the fact that many jokes come from the fact the daughter thinks she is a hottie (or 'hornbag') when she is overweight and kinda ugly. So what do they do? Cast noted hottie Selma Blair! Inspired!

Christina said...

I'm a big fan of the original Kath and Kim. I would hate to see it lose its pathos - the original is truly twisted in a way only Australians can pull off. I doubt the toned down version will make it. But I also didn't think The Office would make it and I think it's the best show on TV right now.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ken:


I guess the MIBS (Marshall Island Broadcasting Service) network will now hire you to run their network. But first they will have to pay you 100 Million Dollars for your production company. Then you can run their network and exclusively produce your own shows on your own network. But what about all the Marshall Island independent producers and writers that previously and adeptly supplied shows to the Marshall Island public. Oh well, screw them. Your now a hundred millionaire!!!

Anonymous said...

I disagree with Scott who so rudely suggests Kim's kinda ugly. She's gorgeous. I'd take her over one of those creepy stick figures with nice hair from 'Friends' any day. She's certainly loud, brash etc but she isn't ugly. She's a hornbag.
I wonder if the series will work as it relied on some distinctly local Australian in jokes but I hope it does succeed. The Office (US) has certainly taken on a life of its own and is brilliant.
I hope the US franchise has brought the Turner/Riley combo enough cash for some fun new projects.

Anonymous said...

Just more evidence that network television is run by morons... as if we needed more evidence.

impwork said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
NotRichard said...

I'm sorry.. "Little Britain USA"? How... What... Britain... USA.. Eh?

The original was funny, briefly, but quickly turned into a parade of recycled, samey jokes with zero insight. I'm so totally unsure how this is going to translate I may just have to watch it.

impwork said...

So what's new?

This has been going on since TV was a success: "Steptoe and Son" became "Sanford and Son". US comedies have been remade in the UK - at least one that I know of ran longer than the US original which is an achievement given the UK series length being half the length of a US season. The biggest family sitcom over here of the last few years is an original sitcom led by the US producer Fred Barron. Same thing with quiz shows, panel shows, talent shows...

I even met a guy once who made his living buying jokes from stand up comedians in countries and selling them to comedians in other countries. Just swap the celebrity/politician the joke was tagged to for each country and you've made a sale. He made a healthy living at it for 30 years that supported his variable income writing career.

Now so long as they don't mess up Life on Mars I'll be happy.

Anonymous said...

"Friends", the big NBC hit, was a redo of a British series called "Coupling". When they tried to import "Coupling" to NBC and show it and friends, "Coupling" died.

Guess they don't all translate as well as would be hoped.

Nat G said...

""Friends", the big NBC hit, was a redo of a British series called "Coupling"."

Wow, that's some trick... they redid it 6 years before the original!

America exports its series as well, so you get, say, a version of Charlie's Angels for Latin America. Heck, when they moved The Nanny to Russia, it was such a hit that they had the American writers write an additional season.

Me, I care more about the results than ingredients. If the Brits want to do their own series of Cheers, go for it!

Anonymous said...

If you are going to rip off the British, then go all the way, and have a series run only 6 or 8 episodes a series or season. Rather than try and come up material for 22 episodes, do it the British way, and make a handful of great episodes.

Anonymous said...

Is The Nanny funny in Russian? Explains a lot.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that you bring this up due to recent developments at CBS. The Ex-List was developed by Diane Ruggiero (That's Life, from an Israeli half-hour show. Ruggiero walked Friday when CBS brought in the original creator as a consultant. In Ruggiero's words, "I'm not a fucking transcriber."

Anonymous said...

Dey tuk err jerbs!

Don't forget that show from argentina about the guy who's body gets SWITCHed by a woman.

"hey, the networks can always blame France."

you're not even trying anymore Ken.

Anonymous said...

Another Britrip coming to America is the automotive show Top Gear. If you've seen it you know the presenters are the show. But, instead of going with proven hosts, it will have three American presenters.

It may have the same name but it surely won't be the same show.

Anonymous said...

It's true about THE NANNY being exported to Russia. A friend of mine who was a staff writer for THE NANNY found herself making additional money while her old scripts were retooled for Russian references and translated, and writing new ones never to be seen here.

However, sadly, the Russians didn't take Fran.

But that did make the writing easier, as they never had to rewrite something because Fran had noticed that someone else had a laugh or a funny line, and wanted it changed so that she got the laugh or the joke.

But imagine Fran's voice speaking Russian. "Nyyyyyyyyyeeeeet. Dosvedoooonnnnnnnya."

Scott said...

I thought that it was also translated into Turkish? I remember watching a few Turkish episodes of the Nanny at 12.30 on SBS.

And Len, I was saying that alot of jokes came from that premise, not that I think she is ugly. Plus, a question: who is going to be the US Kylie and Danni Bolton?

Anonymous said...

But imagine Fran's voice speaking Russian. "Nyyyyyyyyyeeeeet. Dosvedoooonnnnnnnya."

AHHHHHHHHHH!!! It still burns the ears, even in another language.

Anonymous said...

I think what Ken is saying is that only american shows can be exported everywhere, but foreign show can't be imported into america, because america is the center of the universe in terms of creativity and entertainment.

Especially comedy! I mean, fuck, "the french surrender"? who could come up with such comedy genius other than an american comedian?

Anonymous said...

"I think what Ken is saying is that only american shows can be exported everywhere, but foreign show can't be imported into america, because america is the center of the universe in terms of creativity and entertainment."

Brilliant, anonymous! You've nailed it! Tremendous insight from someone so clueless they don't even know how to type their own name.

Of course, if you had any balls (this goes if "Anonymous" is female also) you'd sign your name to your insults.

Cap'n Bob said...

As I heard it, we were offered British cuisine or British TV shows. Not a hard choice.

Anonymous said...


I don't know why you are complaining. You have so much to be grateful for if you only realised it.

I mean, we haven't sent you The Last of The Summer Wine.

A whimsical comedy with a penchant for light philosophy and full-on slapstick..

Anonymous said...

"I mean, we haven't sent you The Last of The Summer Wine."

Actually that does air here on PBS, it's that show I always skip in between KEEPING UP APPEARANCES and ARE YOU BEING SERVED.

Anonymous said...

"you'd sign your name to your insults."

I'm not interested in people who value the opinion of others based on their name instead of the content of their message. Goodbye.

Anonymous said...

It's called having balls, anon.

I see you taste of chicken.

And believe me, my valuation of your opinion IS based on your content.

Anonymous said...

One of these days, somebody is going to have to spill the complete and unabridged load of dirt on The Nanny so I can hear every sordid detail. I loved that show for Niles and C.C., and was absolutely rotted at how badly they were short-changed in everything - writing, character, growth (but, God love 'em, not on acting) - so that Drescher could be front and centre ALL. THE. BLOODY. TIME.


Anonymous said...

Big fan of the Aussie Kath and Kim, cannot imagine how it's going to translate but I'm willing to give it a go. I remember speaking to Steve Carell before the Office premiered and he said it was really good - after the disaster of the American version of Coupling, I was very skeptical - well you know how that goes. Do yourself a favor, try to get your hands on the orginal Kath and Kim. I know some Australians who hate it because they think it perpetuates negative stereotypes about suburban Australians. Without stereotypes, would there be any sitcoms?

I've seen some snipets of Little Britan USA, I'm not hopeful, even though I am fan of Little Britain, Britain

Pseudonym said...

Anonymous has an interesting point, though. Why can't US networks just show the overseas originals? It's not like KATH & KIM is in a different language.

After all, American shows are shown in other countries without explaining all the jokes.

Anonymous said...

"I loved that show for Niles and C.C., and was absolutely rotted at how badly they were short-changed in everything - writing, character, growth (but, God love 'em, not on acting) - so that Drescher could be front and centre ALL. THE. BLOODY. TIME."

Well that was all Fran's doing. The writers, who loved Niles and CC for the same reasons you did, wrote tehm lots of gerat stuff, and as soon as anything they did got a augh, Fran had it rewritten so SHE got the laugh. "There's one funny person on this show, and it's Meeeeeeee." - F.D. for five years.

Niles and CC had to resort to giving half-hearted performances at all rehearsals and run-throughs, to avoid getting laughs in front of Fran to be able to keep any bits at all. they would only go full-out at teh taping.

And don't think Fran wasn't above stopping tape, and having the audience (Which for a a number of the seasons was a hired audience anyway) wait, while a scene was rewritten to give her a bit she'd just found out was funny.

"Pseudonym said...
Anonymous has an interesting point, though. Why can't US networks just show the overseas originals?"

Well many are, on PBS. But running and rerunning FAWLTY TOWERS a billion times never stopped the, to my knowledge three different attempts to do an American version. (The most notorious, AMANDA'S PLACE, changed Basil Fawlty into Beatrice Arthur. Destroyed the character of Sybil Fawlty of course. No man could EVER have henpecked Bea.)

Fortunately, so far no one has tried to Americanize KEEPING UP APPEARANCES or DOCTOR WHO.

Anonymous said...

Kath and Kim is good stuff; RTE here in Ireland have been showing it late at night for the last couple of years and its been well received.

Theres been a lot of talk about Little Britain USA on this side of the water but until now I was unaware that theres a new Kath and Kim stateside too.

Wait till you guys get "the Mighty Boosh"!

Anonymous said...


You've obviously blanked from your memory the DR. WHO tv movie that broadcast on Fox in 1996, as an attempt to Americanize the good Doctor.

Eric Roberts played The Master.

Didn't take - and The Apocalypse was, again, narrowly averted.

Anonymous said...

I really liked Life On Mars. There are quite a few English series I never miss.