The Desperate Housewives of Wisteria Lane have a new address: Istanbul’s Gul Street. In Russia, Peg and Al Bundy of Married … With Children have morphed into Gena and Dasha, who squabble in their apartment in Yekaterinburg rather than a suburban home near Chicago. And Sony this summer released an Arabic version of Everybody Loves Raymond to coincide with the heavy Ramadan TV-viewing season, proving that dysfunctional families know no borders.
For decades, American situation comedies and dramas dubbed into other languages have been standard fare on TV screens worldwide. Now broadcasters in Turkey, Russia, and emerging markets are increasingly padding their prime-time schedules with locally produced versions of shows licensed from U.S. studios. The close-to-home strategy is working. The Istanbul housewives—Yasemin, Nermin, Elif, Zelis, and Emel, known locally as Desperate Women—star in the eighth-most watched series on Turkish TV courtesy of Walt Disney, which owns global rights to the show. And Sony has remade Married … With Children a dozen times for international markets. “Right now we see that in the Middle East, the TV world has an exploding appetite for everything,” says Andrea Wong, president of international production at Sony Pictures Television.
It’s not just small markets that are attracting attention. Warner Bros.’s Chinese version of Gossip Girl, called V Girl, will premier in the second quarter of next year, says Andrew Zein, senior vice president of creative format development and sales at Warner Bros. International Television Production. And Russia, which Zein calls a “significant market with an appetite for scripted format,” will see the police series Without a Trace air later this year.
Reality- and game-show formats have been sold in multiple markets for years—think Survivor or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? What’s different today is increased availability of free and paid channels on satellite and cable systems in emerging markets that has fed a growing appetite for localized versions of American dramas and sitcoms. The localized shows, which typically draw heavily from the scripts and dialog of the original U.S. episodes, appeal to audiences who don’t want to watch dubbed or subtitled programs. And in conservative cultures, plot lines can more easily be adjusted to avoid offending social mores.
It’s easy to see why programmers want to go global. Developing countries including Brazil, Turkey, Colombia, and Vietnam make up nine of the top 10 fastest-growing markets in terms of ad revenue, according to Informa Telecoms & Media in London. Disney on Sept. 18 announced that a Turkish version of Private Practice, a spinoff of the hit ABC medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, will start airing next month on the Fox Turkey channel. Better yet, says Catherine Powell, Disney’s senior vice president of media distribution for Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, “Turkish products appeal in the entire region and we can get secondary revenue by licensing the Turkish drama to other countries.” Turkey’s Desperate Women, now in its second season, has been licensed by Disney to Dubai’s MBC Group, a satellite TV company in the Middle East.
As ad revenue in emerging markets rises, broadcasters have more money to spend on programming—the bread and butter of U.S. studios. Says Michael Edelstein, president of international TV production for NBCUniversal, which has adapted Law & Order in Russia: “We have high hopes for this side of the business.”
Guy Bisson, television research director at IHS Screen Digest, says one big lure is that many of the foreign TV markets will continue to expand as Western markets mature. “Russia, Turkey, Latin America are moving from a small offer of TV or cable to a large choice of channels and new pay-TV platforms,” he says.
The interest in localized content has led U.S. studios to buy foreign production houses so they can get more than just licensing fees from their series ideas. “If a studio is doing a format deal for one of its shows, it can further make money if their local production company makes it,” says Stewart Clarke, editor of London-based Television Business International. In 2010, Warner Bros. bought Shed Media Group, the U.K. company behind Supernanny and Footballers’ Wives. Sony Pictures Television now owns 18 production companies worldwide.
Alterations to the original shows are sometimes required to suit international viewers. Sony says the Arabic version of Everybody Loves Raymond eliminated a scene where the series’ starring couple was in bed. TV executives in China requested their adaptation of the high school musical show Glee show the actors in university, says Yoni Cohen, senior vice president for development and sales at 20th Century Fox. Glee, one of the top-rated shows in the U.S., could prove problematic in some markets, as the show has openly gay actors and discusses teen sex and teen pregnancy, he says. “We try very hard not to let other cultures dictate,” Cohen says. “And we’d rather not do a show in the end if it steps beyond an adaptation and into a reinvention.”