Helping TV Hits Translate Overseas

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Wentworth Miller in Fox's Prison Break

If you happen to be in France and catch the Fox hit TV series Prison Break on M6 television you'll hear a lot more than Michael Scofield (actor Wentworth Miller) dubbed in French. In place of the U.S. soundtrack for this gritty drama, the Gallic version features "Pas Le Temps," a new theme song written and performed by French rapper Faf Larage, whose music video of the tune is now number one on the charts. Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution teamed up with M6 and EMI Music Publishing in France for the video, retail single and radio airplay. The idea was to give the American import a French flavor and help boost its profile, and it has clearly worked. "We knew Prison Break had a strong following and this part of the show lends itself to Larage's kind of music," says Mark Kaner, 20th Century Fox Television Distribution President. "It's created buzz around the show and allowed the French to make it their own."

Making it their own, in fact, is the newest trend catching on among U.S. television studios trying to find new ways to push their programming in foreign markets. From local music tie-ins like Larage's to new versions of American hits produced overseas with local casts, studios are thinking globally but acting locally.

Fox's Kaner says he knew from the start that Prison Break would go over in Europe. But the unexpected success of Larage's new theme song and the music video, which features clips from episodes of Prison Break, has convinced the studio to try similar local tie-ins in Belgium and Spain. "Music is a good way to localize a shows," says Kaner. "But we've got all sorts of other ideas too."

So do his competitors. Disney announced a deal last week to produce four versions of Desperate Housewives in Latin America. The ladies of Wisteria Lane will be more than dubbed in Spanish. Hoping to replicate the worldwide success of the ABC dramedy the local editions will each have their own casts and cultural flavors in Spanish and Portuguese. "The script of the series perfectly fit the profile of what the Latin American audience looks like," Buena Vista International Television senior vice president Fernando Barbosa said. "It looks similar to telenovelas." Each local Desperate Housewives will follow the format of the U.S. show but be adapted to reflect local culture. Explained Barbosa: "In the U.S. version there's a plumber [actor James Denton] in that neighborhood. In Latin America a plumber is very unlikely to live in such a neighborhood so we'll have to switch that profession."

That kind of thinking was selling big last week in Cannes, where American television studios were testing their wares on thousands of buyers and foreign distributors who gathered for Mipcom. Participation in the annual supermarket sweep of TV buying was up to 12,500 registered participants, 10% more than last year and higher than it's been since 1985. On the heels of international hits like 24, Lost and CSI, American sellers not only wowed foreign buyers with a new slate of dramas but were commanding as much as $1.5 million an episode for a show like Desperate Housewives.

Producing local versions of popular American shows with local casts all over the world, known in the industry as "reversioning", could be a bonanza for studios, which count on sales to international markets to recoup the high cost of producing episodic television at home. In the 1990s Sony Television International pioneered reversioning with local productions of hits such as Married With Children and The Nanny as a way to counter a trend of scheduling U.S. shows in undesirable time slots far away from primetime. Today, Sony is expanding its productions throughout the world in markets as culturally different as Russia and China. "We want to provide a full array of product as each programmer looks for solutions in a very competitive marketplace," says Sony Television International President Michael Grindon

Not content to go with local music-tie ins alone, 20th Century Fox announced plans last week to open Fox TV Studios France, a Paris-based production studio that will serve as the European outpost for expanding the studio's presence with local productions. It's only a matter of time before a French Prison Break is hatched, probably starring Larage.