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Americanization, syndications, and the art of making money on TV

By Bert Ehrmann

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Fort Wayne Reader


Question: why do Hollywood television producers “Americanize” (recast with American actors and rewrite with American tastes in mind) British television shows? It’s a common enough occurrence. Over the years there’s been some 60 odd shows converted from Queen’s English to American Slang including Three’s Company, Sanford and Son and All in the Family, all based on British television shows.

A good example of a recent “Americanization” is BBC’s The Office. The Office ran from 2001-2003 on UK television and met great acclaim there. When the series ran here in the US on BBC America, it met with so much acclaim it garnered two Golden Globes.

In late 2003 it was announced that The Office was to be Americanized. Why spend a lot of money developing an American version of a British show when surly it must cost less to simply re-air the already complete British version than to completely remake it? Surely a series that has only been exposed to a small percentage of the population via an obscure channel could only do better if exposed to a larger audience via a network channel?

Short answer: money. Long answer: an insane amount of money.

The American television half-hour comedy/hour drama series doesn’t begin to turn a profit until it’s sold into the immense syndication market. And since most television shows never make it to syndication, most shows never make money. Television shows don’t initially make money because they’re so darn expensive to produce. It can literally cost millions of dollars PER EPISODE in star salaries alone to finance a show, not including everything else involved in television production.

Take for example NBC’s Friends and E.R. In 2002 it cost a reported $7 million to produce a single episode of Friends and $13 million per episode of E.R. That’s around $168 million $312 million respectively for the entire 2002-2003 season for those shows. And no amount of commercial interruption’s ever going cover those sorts of costs.

Things begin to change, however, if a show’s successful enough to have completed around 100 episodes and can be sold into syndication. Syndication is where a show like Gilligan’s Island, which ran only three seasons in the 1960s, can be resold and episodes aired all over the country and indeed the entire world. And each time an episode of Gilligan’s Island airs money is made.

Best of all, the money made is essentially “free money.” Almost no money goes into a show once it’s in syndication yet millions can come out.

For example, TBS reportedly paid $140 million for exclusive cable rights to Seinfeld for four years and shows like The West Wing and Law and Order can bring in more than a million dollars per episode depending on which cable channel airs it. And that’s not counting the money earned from network television syndication reruns (like on Fox), overseas markets and DVD sales. A show like Seinfeld could literally air on thousands of stations across the world for decades to come earning untold sums for Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David.

And that’s why British shows are remade for American television audiences; producers are eyeing all the money that could be made if they produce the show and if that show makes it into syndication. Whereas a show like the British version of The Office could be shown on NBC, the only money the studio would make would be the relatively miniscule amount via commercial sales. A US remake sold into syndication, however, might literally be a goldmine, earning perhaps hundreds of millions for those involved in it.

The actual quality of the show matters very little; the show making it into syndication matters very much.

That’s why we’re treated to sub-par remakes of Coupling and Doctor Who on American television while the immensely superior original versions air on obscure cable networks; it’s the money. Always has been, and always will be.

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