The Drama Behind Drama

Today was the first day of a three-day “International Drama Summit”
that MediaXChange, in cooperation with CBS, NATPE and Fox, put
together here in L.A.  A sobering fact came out of a panel discussion today with Jeff
Wachtel, head of USA Network, and David Stapf, head of programming for
CBS and Paramount. They were asked point-blank by David Zucker (who
heads Ridley Scott’s TV production company) if they would ever buy a contemporary TV
series set in Europe or South America, written and produced by
Americans and starring American actors…and they both answered with a flat-out NO.

The only exceptions Stapf and Wachtel said they would consider would be
shows set in the past (ala ROME, THE TUDORS or ROBINSON CRUSOE) or that
are science fiction (which are likely to be set on other planets,
regardless of what country they are shot in).  They believe that
America audiences simply won’t accept a contemporary series set in
Europe, no matter how big the stars are. They said there hasn’t been a
successful network show set in Europe since the days of THE AVENGERS,
THE SAINT and I SPY thirty five years ago…and they were unwilling to be the ones to try to break that record.

(So, if their views reflect those of other American network chiefs, I was doomed on FAST TRACK as a series before I ever started…though the movie has quite done well internationally as a “one off” and made money)

That said, Stapf and Wachtel said they are very open to buying formats from overseas
and setting them in America…as the networks have done in a big way this season LIFE ON MARS, 11th HOUR, MYTHOLOGICAL EX, THE
TREATMENT, and NY-LON, to name a few. The key is adapting the format to what they called our “uniquely American sensibility.” A BBC exec on the panel said the biggest difference was story-telling…he said British programs tend to meander more, “though there is some pleasure to be had in meandering.”

They also talked about how immensely successful U.S. shows are in
Europe and that American studios actively consider the international sales
potential of whatever they are developing for the domestic networks.

There was also a fascinating panel of executives and content providers discussing the potential for drama on the web. Christopher Sandberg, of the Companyp in Sweden, said the key difference between TV and the web comes is how they view the relationship between content and the audiences. In the broadcast model, the important thing is getting the viewer to click his remote to your program and to stay there to watch it. In the web model, it’s not getting the audience to the content that counts, it’s what the audience does when they get there that matters…and that is what is saleable to advertisers. Passive viewing isn’t enough in the new media world. What the web provider is selling advertisers is the audience involvement, and how people are experiencing, interactin with, & utilizing the content…not simply the audience’s eyeballs.

Fascinating stuff.

23 thoughts on “The Drama Behind Drama”

  1. I’ve noticed an ethnocentric(I’m not sure that’s the correct term when referring to a country) attitude among a lot of Americans. I have a friend who will not read a book unless it happens in the United States.
    As long as I’ve known him, the only exception I’ve ever known him to make was the old Nick Carter/Killmaster series back in the sixties and seventies.

  2. “What the web provider is selling advertisers is the audience involvement, and how the audience is experiencing & utilizing the content…not the audience’s attention in and of itself.”
    Lalalala…fanfic/fanart… LOL!

  3. It IS fascinating. It seems to me that Americans are creating the leading culture in the world, and that people from other countries are very curious about it. So it rings true to me that the networks wouldn’t consider a drama set in another country because what would this other country’s culture have to teach modern Americans about getting ahead in the world?
    But what I don’t get is this: the American culture is very smart when it comes to making money, so why isn’t the financial aspect of life given more play on TV shows? Investing is a national passion, and of growing world-wide interest, and it’s Americans who can teach the world about it, so why not? Dallas/Dynasty meets Wall Street Week. Is there a niche that is not being served by U.S. prime-time drama?
    Anyway, in Canada, U.S. tv shows are vastly preferred to home-grown ones. No matter how hard the Canadian Radio and Televison Commission (CRTC) pushes networks to produce Canadian fare, Canadians won’t watch it. American shows are just deeper, more topical and have more glamourous characters who want to make an impact in the world, and know what to do and how to do it. What do Canadians want to do? Move to L.A. to escape winter. (Last winter there was almost a record amount of snow.)

  4. Actually, Kete, “fanfic” and “fan art” came up indirectly as they discussed the implications for copyright and author control over their work. The execs (which included folks from MySpace) clarified their comments…they are NOT talking about fanfic and fan-art…they are talking about viewing the story not as a square, but a cube, adding depth to the story exprience by allowing viewers to explore different aspects of the plot and characters on their own (sort of like the stage play “Tamara.”). The audiencec could also explore, say, the clothes the characters wear or a reference one of them made in dialogue, through links to other sites and multi-media. The creators could also create communities to discuss their work.
    They stressed that the writer/creators would still control the copyright and how the content is used…new media would simply add to the tools creators could use to tell their stories and add depth for the audience.

  5. To many Americans, South America (and Mexico and Central America as well) is already another planet as alien as anything from Star Trek so I don’t see why the audience would be reticent to watch a show set on another continent if it’s competently done. They do watch travel shows and buy travel magazines while travel sections in newspapers are still being read in spite of the fact that a lot of people in this country don’t even have a passport. Why would they be necessarily reluctant to watch a show where the action takes place abroad?
    I don’t agree with Dan that American culture is becoming the leading culture in the world when it comes to TV. It’s true that there’s probably no other country that does the one-hour drama better and most local attempts to replicate, say, the cop show (be they in Canada, Latin America or wherever,) are doomed to fail. Local cops talking and acting like American P.I.s can’t help but look ridiculous. Why would you watch the local copy when you can watch the American original? On the other hand, if you watch the local programming lists in those countries, most of it is dominated by local fare, such as telenovelas, talk shows and other entertainment products that appeal to their own idiosyncrasy. American shows are just a small percentage of the overall programming.
    This post reminded me of a discussion I had the other day about the difference between U.S. crime and noir novels and their Latin American counterparts by authors such as the Argentineans Rolo Diez and Guillermo Orsi. While broadly speaking the bad guy in an American novel is typically an ordinary criminal (or a serial killer, drug lord, etc.) in Latin American noir it’s far more common to see the main character fight against state-sponsored terrorism, former torturers trained in the School of the Americas, etc. I guess it all comes down to how a given culture absorbs the foreign product. Just as American TV could successfully adapt something as intrinsically Colombian as Ugly Betty, I guess that a network could successfully set a show in Mexico or South and Central America (maybe even the Caribbean) if it takes into consideration the many other conventions that American audiences are used to. Then again, I have no experience working for TV so what the hell do I know.

  6. Speaking of financials, the media and corporate strategy, at there is an analyst article on publisher J. Wiley & Sons, 200 years in publishing as of 2007, a profitable publisher who is adding to the bottom line through some interesting acquistions. The title of the article is: “Who says publishing is dead?”

  7. Ugh. No wonder most network television is so bad with closed-minded men like those guys running it. The idea that Americans would refuse to watch a quality television series for the sole reason that it happens to be set outside the U.S. is ludicrous.

  8. >”Jeff Wachtel, head of USA Network… They believe that America audiences simply won’t accept a contemporary series set in Europe, no matter how big the stars are. They said there hasn’t been a successful network show set in Europe since the days of THE AVENGERS, THE SAINT and I SPY thirty five years ago…”
    I guess it depends on what you consider successful, but La Femme Nikita ran for four and a half seasons (1997-2001) on the USA Network.

  9. LA FEMME NIKITA wasn’t shot in Berlin, Rome or London. It was a Canadian show shot primarily in Canada. To the networks, Canada doesn’t count as a foreign country…they see it as a big, studio backlot that looks just like the U.S.
    (The Dead Zone, Monk, and other USA shows also shot in Canada)

  10. Oh, I thought by “set in Europe” they meant just set in Europe, not actually shot in Europe.
    Maybe that’s one of the reasons why Ripper hasn’t gotten off the ground, yet.
    In any case, thanks for briefing those of us who can’t be there.

  11. And, as you know, two of your examples of European series were actually English productions with little if any initial US investment…and I SPY started out mostly setting itself in East Asia, in part for the exoticism and in part to help Mugwumps see Bill Cosby’s character as American as Robert Culp’s…I guess the “niche” success of various imports on public television or BBC America isn’t going to be persuasive, except as a model for what should be Yankified.
    Also a pity about lack of Canadian support for Canadian shows, given how impressive such efforts as DA VINCI’S INQUEST/CITY HALL, THE NEWSROOM, SEEING THINGS, and SCTV have been, in whole or in part, to name a few.

  12. “The idea that Americans would refuse to watch a quality television series for the sole reason that it happens to be set outside the U.S. is ludicrous.”
    Maybe, Marty, with shows like PBS specials showing cutting edge technological advances, like the PBS special narrated by Alan Alda on Iceland’s implementation of the hydrogen economy. This is a move that America might make so Americans want to know about it. But “boy-meets-girl in downtown Reykjavik”? Who cares? It’s so much hotter in Manhattan (Sex and the City) or California (The OC). The American audience, and the world audience, I would argue, want to know what’s going on right now in the culture at the locations which are producing it. I’m in Guelph, Ontario, Canada and all we produce here is bad weather. A TV show, here? Yuck.
    “I don’t agree with Dan that American culture is becoming the leading culture in the world when it comes to TV.”
    Maybe, Gonzalo B, there are some really good shows in other countries. I know that Mexico has some hot soaps and some very good writers. But I also know that in many countries around the world, the basic premise of American life is being embraced by the people in those countries. The basic American premise is THE AMERICAN DREAM. “You can pick yourself up and learn a skill or a trade and save your money and invest it wisely and get a house, a car, a loving family, live in a nice place and be a good person.” In Canada, the idea is just to keep warm. If you’re warm, full and dry, you’ve gone as far as you can go. Our cultural heroes are not Canadians, by and large, except for hockey players. We would much rather watch Gil Grissom than Canadian Idol. The American shows just have a vibe that Canadian produces can’t get into their shows. New York is just a more happening place than Toronto. Therefore, we watch American TV and love it.

  13. Dan,
    I think we’re talking about two different things. One is whether many countries are embracing what you call “the basic premise of American life.” I believe that’s an extremely sweeping statement. I don’t think the influence of American culture is as pervasive as you portray it, and certainly not in Europe or Latin America. Not because of anti-Americanism or anything like that, but simply because it’s a lifestyle that just doesn’t fit with the local cultures.
    As for the dominance of American TV, I’ll give you that there’s probably no other country that produces better one-hour drama shows and as such people all over the world would rather watch the original than the local copy. That doesn’t mean, however, that American shows are the most popular in those countries nor that they constitute anything but a small percentage of the overall programming.

  14. Yes, Gonzalo B, I agree, I am making a pretty sweeping generalization regarding American culture as the leading culture in the world today. That’s just my take on it.
    For instance, I think China has a lot more to learn from America than from any other country, and much more to learn from the U.S. than the U.S. has to learn from China because, I would argue, the American way of doing things is the best yet discovered for getting us safely and successfully into the future, making advances in technology over Nature, which makes life better and better.
    But as you say, local cultures can be very strong in their local areas.
    I just think I see a global trend in America’s favor regarding TV and film. I’d rather go into business with an American producer than a Canadian producer or any other foreign producer because I think the Americans know more somehow and are more clued into what’s really important and what’s really happening. But that’s just my personal preference. It doesn’t mean Mexicans, for example, can’t produce great shows for their own people and for the world.

  15. Gonzalo, In many European countries the most popular shows are American and represent a large portion of the broadcast schedule. (Lee has talked at length about how that’s the case in Germany.) I think if other countries were producing quality shows that would resonate with American audiences, the programmers would snap them up. They are, after all, trying to make money. If the audience is there, they’ll exploit it. I think the reason they mostly haven’t is because the shows just aren’t there.

  16. Dan, I don’t agree with you but I’d rather stick to the TV argument or this is going to become an endless and boring rant. I never questioned the legitimacy of your preferences. When it comes to weekly dramas, I would never change series like The Wire, Deadwood, Rome, The Shield or even John from Cincinnati (yes, I’m one of the few that liked the show) for anything I’ve seen from other countries.
    What I did question was your assertion that people all over the world overwhelmingly prefer U.S. television over local shows. I think a cursory look at local programming throughout Latin America or Europe will show you I’m right. I agree with you about Mexico. Although most of what I’ve seen from Mexican TV is utter garbage, I’m sure there’s more to it than Univisión or the stuff we see on the American station Telemundo.
    Anonymous, You’re putting words in my mouth. I never said anything about Americans not liking quality shows from other countries nor whether this is good or bad. I don’t think there is a lack of quality shows outside of the U.S. The reason American networks don’t “snap them up” is simply because these shows do not offer what American audiences are used to or simply like. That doesn’t mean that Americans have poor taste nor that the foreign shows are bad.
    I guess that also works in the other direction. A great quality show like The Wire will never be appreciated by a massive audience in Latin America because the language is absolutely impossible to translate. The show will simply not resonate with a non-English speaking audience.
    You forgot about the starting point of this discussion: why do network execs believe an American show with American actors & writers but set in a foreign locale is doomed to fail. I don’t think there is any compelling reason to believe it will but the execs obviously do. I’m sure they know much more about the topic than myself but I still haven’t heard a persuassive argument that would lead me to change my opinion.

  17. “What I did question was your assertion that people all over the world overwhelmingly prefer U.S. television over local shows.”
    GB, I don’t think I used the word, “overwhelmingly.”
    I think what I said was: “But I also know that in many countries around the world, the basic premise of American life is being embraced by the people in those countries.”
    But I can’t prove it with statistics.
    (For me there’s no anti-American feeling that might get in the way of my assessment of U.S. culture, which I really like, and which I like more than most Canadian culture.)
    What I can prove is the way it is in Canada.
    The following quote is from a speech given in February 2005:
    A Speech Delivered to The Broadcast Executives Society by Richard Stursberg, Executive Vice President, CBC English Television — Four Season’s Hotel, Toronto:
    “Many components of English Canadian culture are thriving: writing, music, dance, opera, news and documentary production, newspapers, radio and live theatre. We are reaching record audience levels and critical acclaim, both at home and abroad. Arguably, English Canadian culture has never been so diverse and so successful.
    Except in drama. With a few notable exceptions, we have yet to make a real breakthrough in terms of drawing large audiences on a consistent basis to see our own stories brought to life on the small screen. While drama is the most popular category of prime-time programming — it accounts for more than half of screen time — Canadian drama accounts for only 9% of screen time and 5% of viewers. And every year since 1998, that viewership has been falling.”
    What Mr. Stursberg isn’t saying, though, is that if the audience numbers are up for English Canadian culture outside of drama, the percentages are down. Guess which country has the biggest audience percentage increases? The U.S.

  18. Dan,
    Your quote is pretty conclusive as to what’s going on in Canada. I can’t dispute those facts but having lived and visited several other countries I still think I’m on the right when it comes to Europe and Latin America.
    As to my use of the word “overwhelming,” I wasn’t quoting you but merely stating what I thought was the central idea in your post. This is what I understood when you talked about the growing influence of American culture and also when you said that American audiences would reject foreign shows because they had nothing to teach them in terms of getting ahead in the world. I don’t think that’s true and I also don’t think that how to get ahead in the world is something people have in mind when wathcing a TV show.
    RE: Anti-Americanism. Saying that American culture is not as pervasive as you think it is does not amount to anti-Americanism. I’m American and you’re Canadian and we both seem to enjoy a lot of American TV. I don’t know how anti-Americanism was brought into this discussion.

  19. If you check the ratings from BARB (the British equivalent of the Nielsens) you’ll see a slew of American shows among the most popular on British TV — House, CSI, Law & Order, NCIS, etc. So it’s impossible to escape the procedurals, even if you cross the pond.

  20. I have no problem, GB, if you see American influence as being less in the world than I do.
    Since the Soviet Union collapsed, I see more and more countries adopting free market reforms, which is at the heart of the U.S. economic system. I think I see a world-wide rising interest in American TV and film since these shows most deeply reflect the values inherent in the free market system. But if you don’t see it that way, I’m okay with it.
    There’s only one Canadian drama I can whole-heartedly recommend and that’s a legal drama called “Street Legal,” shot in the 80’s in Toronto. If you get a chance to see an episode it’s really worth it.

  21. I guess that The Highlander, Xena, and Hercules don’t count either, lol. Since this incident is pretty recent, I guess the aforementioned doesn’t count because they are in the past and this is the present mindset.
    Way to isolate American entertainment! Who cares about the rest of the world? /end sarcasm/

  22. Those weren’t foreign shows picked up by American networks…they were first-run syndicated shows that were American (and/or Canadian) and that were FILMED overseas.
    HIGHLANDER was run by an American writer, shot in English, and shot in Canada and France.
    HERCULES and XENA were shows written and produced by Americans and shot “down under.”


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