The future of American TV production took an international plot twist in mid December when two men named Vincent showed up at a sprawling Long Island, N.Y., mansion for the shooting of Law & Order: Criminal Intent.
As expected, Vincent D'Onofrio was there, playing detective Robert Goren investigating a homicide. But the other Vincent—major French film star Vincent Perez—had flown to the U.S. along with French actress Sandrine Rigaux and several French producers. They were in New York to study the cast and crew of Criminal Intent.
That's because they're turning the NBC drama into Paris Enquetes Criminelles, a French version of the Dick Wolf series. It debuts this spring on France's largest commercial broadcaster, TF1.
Russian versions of Law & Order: SVU and Criminal Intent are in production now, part of an effort by NBC Universal to create foreign versions of those shows all over the world. NBCU and other producers will be peddling those format rights to foreign broadcasters at NATPE this year, even as they're also selling the American versions of hit shows.
In perhaps the most ambitious effort to remake a current U.S. network show, Walt Disney Co.'s Buena Vista TV last summer began producing a Spanish-language version of Desperate Housewives filmed in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and it has committed to two more Spanish and Portuguese versions.
When Desperate Housewives first bowed in 2004, Disney's Latin American sales staff was convinced that it would be a hit in the region but were unable to sell it to major broadcasters in the key territories of Mexico, Argentina and Brazil.
So they began floating the idea of local productions, and by October of 2005 had convinced broadcasters in Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil to co-produce three versions, one in Portuguese and two in Spanish. That left Leonardo Aranguibel, production manager, Walt Disney Television International, Latin America, less than a year to translate all the scripts, find a studio, build a huge set, cast actors and deliver a finished tape of the first Spanish version, Amas de Casa Desperados, to the Argentine Broadcaster, RTR.
To make the show economically feasible, Disney decided to produce all the versions on one set in Buenos Aires. Measuring 180 meters inside a huge building 30 miles outside of the city, it took workers four months to construct Calle Manzanares, the Latin American version of Wisteria Lane. All that effort has paid off with rock-solid ratings.
The enormous set and the star-studded casts are expensive by Latin American production standards, but the gamble has so far paid off. The series is pulling in about a 20 rating on RTR in its 11:30 p.m. time slot in Argentina, which has a late primetime, and a 42% share since it bowed in mid August.
The taped version of the Argentine show has also performed extremely well in Uruguay, where it is winning its time slot on Teledoce with a 25 rating and is the No. 2 show overall.
Selling 'I Love Lucy'
Sony, Warner Bros., Paramount and Buena Vista also have all been working with broadcasters in Europe, Asia and Latin America on other local versions of familiar America series such as The Nanny, I Love Lucy, Perfect Strangers, Bewitched, Golden Girls and Home Improvement.
"Everyone wants the top American shows: Lost, Desperate Housewives, House, CSI," notes Steve Kent, senior executive VP of production at Sony Pictures Television International. "But after that, they want local productions. This is a way to fill that demand."
Sony produced a version of Married with Children in Germany on RTL in 1995. That show flopped, but Sony has since successfully produced dozens of them around the world and built up an enormously successful local production business with offices in many major territories, including Germany, the U.K., France, Italy, Spain, Russia and Beijing. The studio produces about 10,000 hours of TV programming outside the United States. Comedies, dramas and soaps account for about half their output.
The concept has taken on a new urgency in the last few years, as rapidly growing international TV markets boosted budgets for local productions. Seeing an opportunity to break into markets like France and Russia, where few imported series make it into primetime, studio executives began hunting through their libraries for shows that could be adapted into local versions. Over the last two years, that has translated into a flurry of deals.
Disney sold Golden Girls, Home Improvement and Hope and Faith in Russia and Turkey. In October, Warner sold the rights to old sitcoms including Suddenly Susan, Perfect Strangers, Step by Step and Full House to several Russian broadcasters. Paramount has done format deals for The Odd Couple and I Love Lucy in Russia, Poland and Italy. Besides the Law & Order deals, NBC Universal is talking to foreign broadcasters about remakes of Kojak, Northern Exposure and some comedies.
The concept has some obvious risks, however. With the exception of Sony, which has 70 people working on local productions around the world and production offices in many major territories, most Hollywood studios have little experience producing a TV series in a foreign country.
Says Kent, "I don't think a lot of people understand how much work is involved in these productions.
"It isn't just a matter of translating the scripts and changing the place names from Newark to Moscow."
While Aranguibel and his team had to make only minor changes to the storylines of Desperate Housewives, more substantial adaptations are often required.
One episode of Criminal Intent, for example, featured a male executive who has been laid off but continues to pretend to go to work. To support his family, he has an affair with a wealthy woman and begins taking her money.
"In the U.S., affairs are still somewhat shocking, and that made it a great plot twist for the end of the episode," notes Leslie Jones, VP of international sales and format production for NBC Universal International Television Distribution, which is spearheading the studio's local production efforts. "But in France, everyone would just say 'Of course. He's having an affair.'"
The legal systems in France and Russia are also very different than in the U.S., a factor that made it easier to create a foreign version of Criminal Intent, which focuses on the investigations, and tougher to complete the flagship Law & Order series.
"In the American version, the detectives go about investigating the crime and the suspects in a relatively polite and gentle matter," Jones adds. "That isn't the case in Russia. So the actors had to make this very Russian. When they go about grabbing a suspect, they are really grabbing them."
But can these shows grab an audience? The answer will begin to be revealed in a few weeks, when Criminal Intent and SVU bow in Russia on NTV.
Next week: Why American reruns are once again a hot commodity in foreign markets.