It’s not uncommon, if you are back to travelling overseas, to flip on the television and see a local remake of a show you always thought of as American or British.

Once restricted to game shows and drama, talent contests like The Voice, The X Factor and American Idol are now produced in countries all around the world, often with only slight changes, and earn enormous success, and no doubt profits, with new audiences.

Yet few people realise the pioneering role an Australian played in developing today’s roaring trade in the international adaptation of television shows.

The Grundy Factor

One of the greatest pioneers in the world trade in television formats was Australian television entrepreneur Reg Grundy. He started in radio as quiz master on the game show Wheel of Fortune, which he adapted for television in 1959, so launching the Grundy Organisation.

He also brought the US game shows Concentration and Tic, Tac, Dough to Australia, the latter’s format copied from NBC in the United States. Over the next decade, other game shows such as I’ve Got a Secret, Play Your Hunch, and The Guessing Game followed, and gained large and faithful local audiences.

Grundy then expanded into drama and sold several popular Australian programs and successful formats overseas. Jail drama Prisoner was an early success and was followed by soapies like The Restless Years and The Young Doctors, then Sons and Daughters, a show that ran to 972 half-hour episodes. It proved a very successful format, still selling 25 years after it first appeared in Australia on Channel Seven. A couple of years ago, it was remade as Zabranjena Ljubav in Croatia and, separately, in Bulgaria, under the same title.

The story of Reg Grundy and his format empire is told in Albert Moran’s, TV Format Mogul: Reg Grundy’s Transnational Career.

Today, the most trade-able format in global television is the talent contest. Shows such as The Voice and The X Factor have similar competitive elements, elimination techniques and reward mechanisms. Their individual sense of value and quality is largely set by the judging panel, which may vary in number. Some judges are chosen for professional knowledge, some for more nebulous qualities like public or media notoriety, market appeal and promotional utility.  The programs differences lie in the staging, presentation, publicity and hype.

Remarkably, The Voice has been remade for Chinese audiences.  Presumably, it is a bit of Yankee imperialism acceptable to Xi Jinping.

Sets, Staging, signage and Theme music: the keys to format.

Under format licensing agreements, the remakes vary little from the original production, usually given some tweaks for local cultural sensitivities and technical and production limitations. This preserves the value of the brand but also gives confidence to advertisers that the program’s commercial performance is likely match the performance of the original.

However, just occasionally, things work out differently, and the best example is a talent contest of another kind: a talent for cooking.  When TV production firm Shine Australia remade MasterChef for Australia’s Channel Ten something unanticipated happened, the remake completely eclipsed the British original.  There was a fortuitous intersection of location, setting, cast and contest. The runaway ratings saved, for the time at least, the competitive position of Australia’s then third-placed commercial TV network which was slipping to fourth behind the ABC.

The three judges, little known outside the world of fine dining, became immediate celebrities and the final episode of the first series peaked at 4.11 million viewers, placing it fourth among the 10 most watched programs of the previous decade. MasterChef joined Australian Idol in a ratings territory previously the exclusive preserve of sporting finals and the Olympics.

Subsequently, MasterChef’s ratings slipped but later series recovered some of the ratings ground of series one.

Local Drama, Global Trade

In drama, format distinctions are much clearer, but remakes are more inclined to be infused with national characteristics. Think of what New Tricks – the BBC drama about cops, brought out of retirement to crack old cases – would look like with a French cast: farce? Or a US one: social satire?

In an attempt to replicate the originals, the US remakes of North European noir, like The Bridge (originally a Danish/Swedish crime drama) or The Killing (originally a Danish police procedural drama), imitate the photographic style and studied performances of the originals.  Ultimately, however, it does not work. The US versions are new programs with original, adapted dialogue, and other distinctive US cultural features.

Future formats?

In 1995, Grundy sold the Australian company to the UK conglomerate Pearson Television, now known as Fremantle, and their Australian arm Fremantle Australia, remains a prolific television producer and distributor of programs and formats.

A couple of years ago it produced Wonderland, an Australian soapie in a beach-side setting. It was criticised for its near wall-to-wall white Anglo-European casting and its self-absorbed, largely personal narratives.  However, it is a perfect format.  If it were remade overseas and cast with members of the local and wealthy dominant ethnic group, Wonderland would be equally at home on the banks of the Volga River in Russian or in sight of Yokohama Bay in Japanese.

For a time, it was a valid criticism that TV was all format remakes or sequels and prequels. However, the rise of streaming services, and video on demand and the competition for audiences has driven diversity in program offerings. While talent contests will always be talent contests, no matter how glammed-up, there is now greater diversity in original drama that has ever graced our TV screens.

Vincent O’Donnell

Media Analyst and Social Researcher.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.