Sink or Swim: The Transatlantic Translation of British Television

If a television show is successful and profitable in England, it is easy to argue that its success and profit will only grow in a bigger marketplace such as the United States. However, some television shows simply cannot be translated for the American audience. The success of a television show depends completely on how it is adapted to fit its new cultural context.

It is difficult to ignore the rising trend in television shows coming from the United Kingdom and being adapted and remade for the United States. Shameless, Being Human, Skins, Episodes, and even The X Factor are all examples of repurposed television shows that either have already or will be premiering in 2011 (McNutt). This is, however, nothing new. Many recreated English adaptations have made their way to American screens over the past several decades, both successfully and unsuccessfully.

The truly successful shows are typically the ones that people have forgotten are originally from the United Kingdom in the first place. Norman Lear’s 1970’s television series, All in the Family and Sanford and Son, were both adaptations of the British originals Till Death Us Do Part and Steptoe and Son, respectively (Spicer). A slew of reality and game shows have also made their way across the pond in the form of American Idol (from the English Pop Idol), Dancing with the Stars, Top Gear, and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire (Spicer). No conversation about adapted English television can ignore The Office. With rights sold in eighty countries, The Office has established itself as the most successful original British comedy series to be exported (Griffin 3).

Throughout the years, there have also been many adapted shows that simply did not translate well for the American audience. Fawlty Towers, Coupling, Life on Mars, and Spaced are just a couple examples of shows that met with low ratings and cancellations early on in their recreated forms in the United States. What then makes for a successful adaptation? Where did these shows go wrong?

I propose that the success of an original British television show in the United States is dependent on how it has been adapted to fit its new cultural context. To adapt is “to make suitable to requirements or conditions; adjust or modify fittingly” (Dictionary.com). Consideration must be placed on the recreation of characters and settings without losing a show’s essence, finding the right audience and the right

network, and conforming to a new set of regulations and commercial needs. To demonstrate the importance of these factors, I will be focusing on three British adaptations currently in their first season in the United States:

Shameless, Being Human, and Skins

Shameless revolves around the lives of the dysfunctional Gallagher family, lead by the patriarch, Frank, who spends a majority of his time too drunk to take care of himself, let alone his six children. The children, Fiona, “Lip,” Ian, Debbie, Carl, and Liam, all of varying ages, are left to fend for themselves as they straddle the line between working class and poverty (Abbott “Episode One”). The show is an hour-long dramedy with one season so far aired in the U.S. on Showtime and eight seasons in the U.K. on Channel 4 (Channel4.com).

Being Human is about three supernatural beings, a ghost, a werewolf, and a vampire, who form an unnatural friendship and live together as roommates. All three struggle with what they have become and attempt to go against their supernatural nature to live ordinary lives and be human (Whithouse “Being Human”). Being Human is an hour-long dramedy currently in its first season in the U.S. on SyFy and in its third season in the U.K. on BBC Three (BBC.com).

Skins follows an unlikely grouping of high school teenagers growing together as they grow up. The show explores each character individually and as a group as they confront such controversial topics as eating disorders, sexual orientation, substance abuse, and death (Elsley “Tony” 2007). Skins is an hour-long teen drama with one season aired in the U.S. on MTV and five seasons in the U.K. on E4 (E4.com).

Globalization Theory

This paper examines the exchange and appropriation of media and the ideas held within that media between two different countries. This is an aspect of the theory of globalization. The term globalization refers to the integration and interdependence

between two or more countries on both a minimal scale, such as individual persons, or grand scale, such as large corporations and governments. “Globalization as a concept refers both to the compression of the world and the intensification of consciousness of the world as a whole” (Robertson 8). Politics, economies, technologies, and cultures are being exchanged and redefined by globalization. The speed, intensity, and extent at which this is occurring is also unprecedented (Bohman).

The television industry as a whole has become globalized. Large television networks and production companies extend past geographic boundaries and span several countries. Viacom is a great example. Viacom owns and runs MTV Networks, BET Networks, and Paramount Pictures and is, in turn, responsible for such channels as MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon, and Comedy Central. With representation in 161 countries and territories, Viacom content is shared in 33 languages through locally programmed and operated television channels and hundreds of online properties (Viacom.com).

As a result of such broad reach, media conglomerates have played a large role in the globalization process and the spread of ideas. Film and television circulate ideologies and general concepts held in their native country and promote acculturation. This is particularly evident when very powerful nations export culure to smaller nations  (Bohman). This theory is referred to as media imperialism. In contrast, how is this exchange handled between two different countries of dominance like the United States and the United Kingdom?

The concept of globalization can be viewed and interpreted in various ways, although most opinions lie at either of two extremes: progressive and beneficial or capitalistic and detrimental. I will be approaching my thesis from a neutral frame,

regarding globalism as neither positive or negative but rather as a natural and unavoidable process.

Recreating Characters and Settings

Arguably the most vital process in adapting an English television show is recreating the same plots and themes while adjusting a show’s settings and characters to reflect what would be found in the United States. In many situations, this also happens to be the most challenging element of adaptation. A successful approach to this issue can be to take current issues and themes from the United States and carefully apply them to the imported show. This is most often expressed through a show’s characters and the space in which these characters must interact.

Sanford and Son is an example of this idea used successfully. Many forget that Sanford and Son is a remake of an original British television show by the name of  Steptoe and Son (Spicer). The basic story elements remain the same between the two versions: a working-class father and son run a junkyard. The United States’ version, however, rewrites these characters as an African-American family and sets the junkyard in South Central Los Angeles (Museum of Broadcast Communications). By incorporating race, the creators of Sanford and Son were able to adapt the story to make it more relevant for an American audience with whom it eventually found commercial success, apart from the British Steptoe and Son.

A more recent example of an adaptation is Showtime’s Shameless. “In remaking a series from another country, a key challenge is a setting that will resonate in a similar way to the setting of the original” (Griffin 4). The writer/producer responsible for bringing Shameless to the United States, John Wells, has mentioned in an interview his argument against early decisions to have the American version set in the South (Rochlin). The British Shameless is set in the city of Bristol, a large urban city in South West England. In order to keep in line with its original, Wells pushed for the show to be set in Chicago’s South Side, an area that would better resonate with the original show’s setting in Bristol but still be viewed as very “American.” According to Wells, this allowed for the audience to relate to these characters and their struggles without painting them in the stereotypical images often associated with the South. Wells wanted an urban audience to feel as if this family could be people they actually (Rochlin).

In addition to appropriately translating the setting, it is also necessary to make adaptations to characters. With a show like Shameless, which features a family with many archetypal characters, it is important to consider the different roles in the family structure according to the culture for which it is being made. For example, the character of Fiona, the eldest child in the family, is depicted as more motherly and matriarchal in the American version (Wells “Father Frank, Full of Grace”). This becomes a more prominent feature and driving force for the American Fiona throughout the run of the season.

Another way to go about this is by following in the same steps of Sanford and Son and finding themes and current issues relevant for the U.S. audience. In both versions of Shameless, Ian, the second oldest brother of the Gallagher clan, isgay.  Additionally, in the American version Ian is interested in joining the military (Wells “Father Frank, Full of Grace”). This calls back to the current American hot topic of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military policy. The American Shameless also brings forth the theme of race. Unlike the British version, Liam, the youngest child in the Gallagher family, is of mixed race (Wells “Father Frank, Full of Grace”). This plays into a storyline later on in the American version. The neighbor characters of Kevin and Veronica are also depicted as a bi-racial couple in the American version. In the American version, Kevin is Caucasian and Veronica is African-American, as opposed to the English version where they are both Caucasian (Abbott “Episode One”).

Within the first two minutes of both the U.S. and U.K. Shameless pilots, the audience is introduced to the setting as well as all the principle and some secondary characters of the show (Wells “Father Frank, Full of Grace”; Abbott “Episode One”). The setting and action appears to be nearly identical, with Bristol’s skyline being replaced by Chicago’s, as a riotous group of people gather around a fire drinking, laughing, and having a good time. As the scene progresses, both incorporate short vignettes about the characters that make up the Gallagher family.

A comparison of The American and English versions of these vignettes reveals the differences between the American characters and their English counterparts. Fiona, for example, is shown holding tissues to the noses of two of her younger siblings telling them to “blow,” as Frank, the father, narrates through voice-over how much Fiona reminds him of her mother (Wells “Father Frank, Full of Grace”). In the English version, Fiona, is shown laughing and lovingly caressing her baby brother Liam’s face for a total of four seconds as Frank’s voice-over only offers a quick comment that Fiona is a”massive help” (Abbott “Episode One”).

Likewise, American Ian is established as a straight arrow, shown in Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) practice as Frank emphasizes Ian’s interest in the military (Wells “Father Frank, Full of Grace”). English Ian is merely shown laughing then running from something unseen as Frank talks about how similar Ian looks to his mother (Abbott “Episode One”). Kevin and Veronica, the neighbors, also got more air time in the American version, having their own vignette as opposed to the English pilot where they are only mentioned briefly and shown in a cut (Abbott “Episode One”). In the American pilot, Kevin and Veronica are depicted as a more sexually adventurous bi-racial couple, with Veronica coming off as a stronger African-American version of her English original (Wells “Father Frank, Full of Grace”).

The setting and characters of Shameless have all been manipulated in such a way so that they are in some way or another more “American, yet still maintain a great

resemblance to their English versions.  The appropriation of current issues and news headlines also help in the translation of these characters and their backdrop in a completely different country. The writers and producers must carefully balance the differences and similarities and what narrative elements need to be focused on more than others in order to adapt a show from one country to another and produce a show that is a ratings success.

The Right Network, The Right Audience

Knowing the target audience is important for any show, but for an imported show, the same content may call for a different audience in its new country. What other competitors are there in this new marketplace? Where does this show fit in culturally with its new audience? And what network is most appropriate based on the content?

Before finally finding a home on Showtime, the American Shameless was in development at NBC for a short while, followed by some time at HBO (Bernstein). In the words of John Wells, “I was always very concerned that we wouldn’t be able to do the content. Not that it has to be exactly the same content, but a certain pulling back [to accommodate broadcast network standards] would make it not the same show. And then it was at HBO for about three-and-a-half years” (Bernstein). HBO ended up passing on the show, giving Showtime the opportunity to pick it up (Bernstein). By being aired on a premium service channel like Showtime, the adaptation of Shameless could still be done without Wells’ initial worries of too much “pulling back” for network standards.

By comparison, Skins offers an example of a show that did not find ratings success because it challenged values in the United States. In the United Kingdom, Skins is aired on E4, a free digital television channel targeted to young adults (E4.com). Although known for the scandalous behavior of the characters on the show, it was well received critically and has won numerous awards (E4.com). In the United States, however, its adapted incarnation on MTV was met with a lot of backlash and negative criticism, despite the TV-MA warning, censoring of obscene language, and omission of nudity found in the U.K. original (Elsley “Tony” 2011). As it turned out, the American audience  was much more disapproving of Skins’ depiction of teenagers than the British audience was for the U.K. version. In the same way Wells was worried about avoiding controversial content for Shameless were it to have been aired on NBC, Bryan Elsley, the creator and executive producer for both the U.S. and U.K. versions of Skins, did not “pull back” enough. Based on the success of Shameless, A show like Skins would probably have been better suited to a premium service channel.

Being Human found its place in the United States by being aired on SyFy, a channel that has undergone rebranding over the past couple of years with the goal to create programming “that’s more accessible and relatable to new audiences” (Blastr.com). In the United Kingdom, Being Human is aired on BBC Three, a channel geared to the 16 to 34 year old demographic of “people who are young in spirit and mindset” (BBC.com). With a show like Being Human, which is about the supernatural, consideration of competing shows in the American marketplace was important in determining the right network. The Vampire Diaries and Supernatural were already being aired on the CW network. True Blood has proven itself as a hit on HBO. MTV was developing its own remake of Teen Wolf.

Based on previous ratings, a show about the supernatural or fantastical would be way too risky for any of the major networks to produce. Just compare the success of sitcoms like Modern Family, 30 Rock, and The Office to shows like Medium, Ghost Whisperer, and Pushing Daisies. With shows about vampires and werewolves already being aired on several networks, mostly marketed to teenagers, Being Human needed to find a channel geared to a slightly older, more mature age group that would still be receptive to a show about such creatures. SyFy was the safest and most secure channel for the show to develop without the pressure of conforming to the trends in how vampires and werewolves were already being depicted on other television shows. With an average of 1.8 million viewers in its first season in the U.S., Being Human has already been deemed SyFy’s most successful winter scripted series launch in 6 years (Hibberd).

Different Regulations and Commercial Needs

There are various differences in both the United States’ and The United Kingdom’s television broadcast norms. This ranges from its communication regulations, general story structures and framework, and the commercial needs placed on television from either country. In the United States, communication regulations are set by the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC (FCC.gov). In the United Kingdom, the equivalent of the FCC is called Ofcom (Ofcom.com). Both organizations handle the same kind of tasks in regulating all forms of communications and broadcast in their own countries, but it is the differences in how the task of judging the content being produced and aired on television is approached that should be examined when adapting that content from one country to another. The best way to illustrated this is with the adaptation of the television show Skins.

As previously mentioned, when the freshly adapted U.S. Skins was first aired on MTV it received with a lot of criticism from parents and organizations, and mixed reviews by critics. This was despite it’s near shot for shot likeness to its award winning English predecessor. In any case, the show’s pilot adhered to all FCC regulations, as reassured by MTV. The Parents Television Council, or PTC, disagreed.  The PTC argued that although MTV rated the show TV-MA and aired it at 10:00pm, they marketed Skins to a much younger than appropriate audience (parentstv.org). The PTC also stood behind the argument that some scenes from the show may even be in violation of child pornography statutes (parentstv.org). In response, the PTC bypassed the FCC and called for a federal investigation on the show for child pornography.

As Mark Estes, blog writer from TV Overmind, puts is, “The thing that the PTC and some highly sheltered American teens don’t get is that the MTV’s Skins is tame compared to it’s source material (Estes).” The FCC acted as a harsher regulator against the show compared to Ofcom with the U.K. original but not harsh enough according to many parents. After the premiere of the pilot, sponsors of the show immediately began to drop their sponsorship and disassociate themselves with the show. By the time the second episode aired, MTV had lost sponsorship from H&R Block, Foot Locker, General Motors, Schick, Subway, Taco Bell and Wrigley (Elliott).  By comparison, the U.K. version airs commercials for some of the U.K.’s largest brands (Zana).

Another very important element to consider in the adaptation process is the television show’s story structures and framework. The typical American television season runs between 20 and 26 episodes. The typical U.K. television series only runs about half that length between 6 and 13 episodes. The writers and producers of Being Human had no other choice but to get creative when expanding the seven episodes of the first English series to a total of 13 for the American audience, still a small amount of episodes by American standards. One approach was to stretch out the character development further in the first couple of episodes and incorporate different characters and situations for the purpose of creating new storylines that help define the characters more. The most prominent example in Being Human is the character development for the ghost in the show named Sally in the U.S. version and Annie in the U.K. version.

In the U.K. Being Human Annie can already be seen and heard by other people. She can also manipulate objects by actually physically touching them. The first episode opens with Annie waiting for the pizza delivery man, being overly excited upon his arrival and having a full conversation with the young man, then physically handling the pizza herself and shutting the door behind her (Whithouse “Being Human”). For the first couple of episodes of the U.S. Being Human Sally’s inability to connect with others becomes the driving force behind her character’s personality. She can neither be seen nor heard by anyone other than her werewolf and vampire roommates, Josh and Aidan. What affects her even more is the fact that she can’t touch or be touched. She has not yet mastered the ability to manipulate physical objects (Carver, Fricke “There Goes The Neighborhood, Part 1”).

Slowing down the character development allowed the writers more creative room to to both stretch out the storylines and create a character apart from the U.K. Annie. This modification of Annie/Sally’s character led to the creation of unique American characters that would be introduced to Sally throughout the season and would teach her lessons in being a ghost. In episode 3, “Some Thing to Watch over Me,” Sally is introduced to Tony; the only other ghost Sally has had contact with up until this point. Tony is the first person since her death that Sally has been able to actually touch. He teaches her how to leave the house and in return, she helps him move on (Carver, Fricke “Some Thing to Watch over Me”).

Sink or Swim?

All three of these factors, setting, character, and programming can at times be dependent upon each other and one creative solution to one problem can be a good solution to another. The new approach to the character of Sally in the American Being Human worked in extending storylines by several episodes and helped adapt the character with a new set of ideologies more suited for the American audience. The decision to air the American version of Shameless on Showtime meant that the show could remain true to its original form by not having to censor adult content or worry about commercial sponsorship.

The adaptation of television shows and content from country to country is sure to increase as globalization continues to expand communication capabilities. It is important to know why some shows work and some shows don’t. By reimagining characters and settings without losing a show’s essence, finding the right audience and the right network, and effectively conforming to a new set of regulations and commercial needs a television show can find success in whatever country it is being exported to. What it all comes down to is an understanding of both cultures and the ability to translate content.

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2 thoughts on “Sink or Swim: The Transatlantic Translation of British Television

  1. This article runs in the same vein as my research project: comparing US censorship regulations to that of the UK, and the possible benefits of adopting the UK standards as our own here in America. I found it very interesting how the author tied in the aspect of Globalization to the cross country adaptation process; this gives me an idea to research how Globalization might be linked (if at all) to censorship for my paper. I also really liked how she mapped out the main differences between the US version and the UK version, it seemed to be very accommodating to people who maybe aren’t familiar with each version of each show, yet didn’t talk down those who are familiar with both adapted versions (myself included in the latter group) which I found made it easier to relate to. Finally, I liked how she proved how hard it is to successfully adapt an English show for and American audience, hopefully finally shutting up all those American’s how are always spouting at the mouth about how there are too many English shows on American television. I say if properly researched and well written, bring ’em all across the pond!

  2. Skins was one of the most innovative television shows I saw in 2008. The British “teen drama” had a cast of young characters doing thing that young people really do, many of these things I had not seen on American teen dramas. The drug use, sex, and parties were more accurate I enjoyed the first season tremendously, but failed to make it through the second, like a party that’s gone on for too long. By the time the American adaption was announced I was no longer interested in the series. I considered the new generation of kids who would watch the new version. I hoped many of them would seek out the UK version. Personally I like originals. As a DJ I see lots of media become reused. Sounds are used again and again, genera’s form around certain sounds. Like television, songs are altered for different audiences. But the intention often remains.
    When shows are moved they are broken down into pieces and rebuilt into new creations. The process of remixing the show is hard. Anticipating a new audience’s preferences is not always accomplished by producers. The trend shows that audiences do want certain elements for their programming. When simplifying shows into their necessary elements success is often met.
    Simple shows work well. Shows like Millionaire and Idol are extremely simple. Narrative shows are harder to adapt, character’s must be believable to the audience. Relying on themes like good vs evil are common for adaptation stories. British and Japanese series conversions are similar. Both countries have had serious success converting for the American market. The exchange of media and art is part of the globalizing of our world. The internet now makes it even faster for cross continent media sharing. As we become more connected will all art start to become similar?

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