How About Some Chinese Tonight? On TV, That Is

As we’re in the midst of the awards season—The Golden Globes just took place on Sunday and we’re gearing up for Academy Awards in February—now might be a good time to ask the question: Why do we watch foreign TV shows? (Or movies, for that matter. But in today’s blog post, we’ll just talk about TV.)

We watch because they act as a window into the lives of people different from us, our culture specific to our country, state, city, or community.

We also watch them because they are about people similar to us, our human culture. We recognize human emotions—love, fear, sorrow, happiness—despite language and other seeming differences. Sort of like music, actually.

And although we might be looking for what we think to be “exotic” when we watch something “foreign,” we only connect because of what’s common between us.

In this blog, we share with you some interesting trends related to foreign TV shows from all over the world.

Subtitles or Voice-Overs?

Foreign TV shows come with either subtitles or voice-overs or, in some cases, they’re completely remade. The latter, of course, only retains the idea central to the original series, but is essentially done with local actors in the local language and is internalized in every possible way. A remake doesn’t really feel foreign, unlike the ones with subtitles and voice-overs.

Subtitles are translations that appear onscreen as the actor is speaking. The original language and the actor’s voice are retained (heard). With voice-overs, a dubbing artist mouths the translation of the actor’s lines in sync with the actor—or that’s the goal, anyway.

Think Remake? Think Transcreation

A remake is a different ballgame altogether. Kind of like the difference between translation and transcreation. Only, there are two kinds of transcreations when it comes to teleserials: re-versioning and remaking. With the former, the content is localized to some extent, without making major changes to the original content. A remake, on the other hand, does everything from scratch, with only the shell of the original idea intact. It’s more expensive, of course, but has more resonance with the local audience.

So What Sells Abroad?

If you take a look at the top Chinese teleserials selling abroad, you’ll see that they’re generally one of two types: either about ancient empires or regular, everyday dramas. The former type is in the majority, though. Anything to do with history or culture gets traction with foreign audiences. Take for instance, the newfound international popularity of several Russian serials centering on World War I and II.

South Korean TV Is Hot!

South Korean soaps, we discovered, are the hottest sellers abroad. Korea grew its TV exports from $8 million in 2001 to $155 million in 2011. The Financial Times reports that the serials are popular in many countries, but especially so in Iran, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates. As these countries have strict rules that will allow only for very conservative shows, South Korea exports its medieval shows to them. Talk about localizing your product!

India—an Easy Market

India, of course, must be the easiest market to sell to, given the predilection of young, urban Indians for English-language serials. In fact, U.S. telly is so popular in India that Star World Premiere now broadcasts Homeland, Mad Men, White Collar, and a host of other shows on the same day as in the U.S. (actually the next day in India because of the time difference). There are also remakes of popular foreign shows.

The U.S. Has Been Doing This for a Long Time, but Something’s Changed….

America has long dominated the entertainment landscape of the world. In 2011, the film and TV exports from the U.S. were worth $14.3 billion. Why are TV producers so good at exporting? For one thing, they have been doing it for a very long time—since right after World War I when the major U.S. studios took advantage of the war’s devastation of their European competitors. Also, they prep for localization very well. They know their product might go international at some point and, in fact, they want it to. Having an international success helps producers recoup the high costs of creating an original series back home. They welcome the idea that foreign audiences might even want to make an American show their own.

But today, the U.S. is perhaps as big an importer of entertainment as it is an exporter. Much like the digital coming of age of many long-tail languages, in the entertainment world, too, content produced in languages other than English is gaining eyeballs. One obvious reason is ease of access. Technology is bringing down the language and geographical barriers of the past. Secondly, content producers are seeing an increased demand in non-home markets.

The uptick in multicultural TV viewing is great news for companies like Netflix as it ploughs forward with its international expansion. But translation and transcreation companies also have much to gain, as the demand for subtitling and voice-over work grows. Even in the case of remakes, language service providers can position themselves as go-to companies for advice on cultural nuances to keep in mind and language gaffes to avoid.

More than anything else, foreign TV helps in making us more sensitive to other cultures, more open, and more global in our outlook. How’s that for a good excuse for binge-watching?

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