The Art of Dubbing American Television - The Intrepid

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Art of Dubbing American Television

The CSI franchise is a gold mine. The three franchises in all their formulaic glory are viewed weekly by 60 million Americans, and more than 2 billion people overseas. While the shows producers make a great deal of money off the American market, it's in the foreign markets where they rake in the big dollars.

Media is one of America’s largest and most lucrative exports. Although people around the globe may detest America’s overarching foreign policy, they are happy to listen to the newest Kanye West album or watch the latest Richard Gere love story.

Of American media exports, television is unique. Music and movies are often dubbed for foreign audiences with hilarious results. But, these two mediums tend to get more attention than television shows.

The dubbing of television shows in foreign markets is often an effort in mass production, particularly if there are multiple seasons to catch up, or if the show is being syndicated. If it sounds like a single person is voicing all the characters, it might be because they are. Although, the production values in a dubbed cartoons tend to be lower than those in live actions shows, particularly if the cartoon’s popularity is limited. Even The Simpsons sometimes suffers from poor dubbing.

In the French (France) version of the Simpsons, Philippe Peythieu, the actor who voices Homer, mistaken read the line “Do’h” as “To’h” during his first reading. The mistake was eventually acknowledged, but the line in the French version remains the same to this day.

Even the Quebecois version, which Matt Groening claims is the most accurate to the source, has a certain number of peculiar elements. For instance, Newt Gingrich is always referred to as Mike Harris (a former Ontario premier). Apparently, Quebecois viewers don’t know who Gingrich is, or writers believe that they will find a Harris reference more amusing.

Often times, cultural substitutions are made if foreign writers feel that viewers won’t understand the original content, or more culturally relevant content better fits the scene. Changes can be as simple as altering a name (in the Middle East Homer is called Omar Shamshoon), but in some cases the content itself is entirely altered.

The Middle Eastern version of Sesame Street, like many other foreign versions, contains unique content. Bert and Ernie don’t usually hang out in a Bazaar, do they?

While local markets sometimes demand unique content, brand new shows that recycle American scripts are often unpopular, and often lose the ratings battle to their dubbed counterparts. The various Latin American screen adaptations of Desperate Housewives frequently lose the ratings battle against the original dubbed version.

Quality is often an issue for foreign reproductions. While the original script might be good, and the changes might make it culturally relevant, if it looks cheaper than the original, people are unlikely to tune in.

In some cases, selling a show is a lot more like giving the rights to a restaurant franchise. Wheel of Fortune plays in over 25 countries, but is almost identical everywhere. KingWorld, the producers of Wheel of Fortune, ensure that every version of the show is almost identical.

“We provide the local broadcasters with what we call the bible,” says KingWorld's president, Fred Cohen, “…Once the show is up and running, we check it every few months to insure they're adhering to our production values.”

Like game shows, reality shows are easy to export abroad. It seems like every country in the world has its own version of American Idol, regardless of how terrible it might be.

Even American producers have started to reformat popular foreign shows in recent years. Britain’s The Office and Columbia’s Ugly Betty are the most notable successes.

Ultimately, people, wherever they are, want to watch quality television. American television may be dimwitted, but its production values still reign.


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