Importing Series: Adapt or Adopt?

Either way, U.S. networks are buying a brand when they look abroad

his week, Showtime unveils its newest series, Secret Diary of a Call Girl, starring former Doctor Who ingenue Billie Piper as a high-class prostitute. She's a British actress, and Showtime executives originally considered remaking the series with a U.S. star and sensibility, but the original won out.

That particular primetime child was adopted, but many more, in both scripted and reality TV, are being adapted. For the 2008-2009 TV season, the list of broadcast network series adapted from international predecessors includes shows from the United Kingdom, Israel, even Australia.

So what's the deal? Are U.S. television writers and producers suddenly so bereft of compelling series ideas that we have to import them from abroad? Has Hollywood, too, become a victim of international outsourcing?

Well, yes, but it's less victimization than maximization.

Because costs are up and viewership is down, and especially because the writers' strike upset the usual method of germinating prospective TV properties, networks are making fewer pilots—and, for this coming season, fewer new shows. An existing property—a brand—is easier to assess, and certainly easier to position and promote, than a concept begun from scratch.

Plus, there's the ridiculously tempting track record for recent U.S. shows adapted from existing international TV series. ABC's Ugly Betty and NBC's The Office are two of the successes on the scripted side; over in the reality sandbox, the list of fortune-changing hits derived from imported franchises includes Survivor at CBS, Dancing With the Stars at ABC, Deal or No Deal at NBC, and the reigning champion, American Idol, at Fox. Every network's got one. Every network wants more.

CBS is especially bullish on British fare, planning Americanized versions for fall of the comedy Worst Week and the thriller Eleventh Hour. ABC has the time-bending drama Life on Mars (already seen here in the States, in its original incarnation, on BBC America). Fox also has a British-“inspired” series, the reality show Secret Millionaire, in the pipeline for midseason.

You might be tempted to call this the biggest pop-culture British invasion since the Beatles hit New York in 1964, but the invasion is a coalition of many foreign sources. In addition to the shows adapted from England, CBS has The Ex List, based on a TV series premise from Israel, and NBC has Molly Shannon and Selma Blair in an Americanized adaptation of Kath & Kim, the long-running sitcom from Australia.

Though it makes good business sense to pursue these shows and ideas from other lands, nothing in TV is guaranteed, and few things are more difficult than making a good new version of an original good show. NBC's The Office has done it, though the British original, starring Ricky Gervais, remains a pitch-perfect masterpiece by comparison. And HBO's recent adaptation of the Israeli drama In Treatment was an unqualified success creatively—but not necessarily successful enough for HBO to order another season.

Many other efforts import or adapt about as well as haggis. CBS was so proud of its Viva Laughlin series, an attempt to remake and localize Great Britain's Viva Blackpool, until the first episode aired, and tanked. Not too many years ago, NBC took a delightful British sitcom, Coupling, and made an Americanized version that was delightless.

And while this love of international adaptations, and poaching foreign brands, is traceable at least as far back as the 1970s—when British sitcoms gave birth to U.S. hits such as All in the Family, Sanford and Son and Three's Company—the road to creative ruin is just as well-worn a path.

The classic British comedy Fawlty Towers, starring John Cleese as innkeeper Basil Fawlty in a series and performance that were utter perfection, was remade for American audiences no fewer than three times—including arguably the worst cross-countries remake in TV history, ABC's Amanda, which starred Bea Arthur as the female equivalent of Basil Fawlty.

The dangers of Fawlty reasoning, when buying the rights to these series for domestic distribution or adaptation, are legion. Showtime deserves credit, in the case of Secret Diary of a Call Girl, for leaving well enough alone. Piper is good, and so is her show.

But if the series being adapted is less than brilliant (and, let's face it, Kath & Kim isn't that much more cerebral or artistic than Lenny and Squiggy), adapting it may be the smartest thing to do. Who knows? Next year at this time, countries around the globe could be jockeying to produce their own homegrown versions of Wipeout.

My guess is that no matter what the networks choose to change, it'll be an improvement.