Some foreign formats need translation before they hit American TV screens
EmptyOn paper, it looks pretty simple: Take a show that has been successful somewhere in the world, change the setting and the character names, spruce up the dialogue and voila, you've got a hot new U.S. series.
But in reality, the challenges of adapting a foreign format go well beyond the proverbial potato-potahto cultural clash and down to the differences in the way series are produced and scheduled in other countries.
Take CBS' new comedy "Worst Week," based on the U.K.'s "The Worst Week of My Life," and ABC's "Ugly Betty," an adaptation of the Colombian telenovela "Yo Soy Betty La Fea." Both went through at least three reincarnations before landing in key slots -- as a lead-out of "Two and a Half Men" and a lead-in of "Grey's Anatomy," respectively -- and stray significantly from the original series' genre and format.
The British "Worst Week" ran two seven-episode seasons, chronicling the seven days leading to a young couple's wedding and birth of their baby. The final three episodes, set Dec. 23-25, aired as a Christmas special.
"Worst Week" producer Hat Trick Prods. first set a remake at Regency TV. The project, based on the series' first season, was penned by Ed Decter and John J. Strauss. Fox picked it up to pilot, which was directed by Adam Shankman and starred Zachary Levi and Jaime King as the young couple.
After another stab at the format by Regency with writer Ben Wexler, Hat Trick took it to Universal. It was taken on there by "Scrubs" alum Matt Tarses, who began developing it as a strip with the Christmas episodes as a jumping-off point.
When Ben Silverman joined NBC in June, he considered picking up the show for an initial weeklong run before Christmas, but an aggressive play by CBS led to setting the project there with a pilot order in August.
For "Ugly Betty," the evolution was even more dramatic.
As an agent at WMA, Silverman first unsuccessfully tried to sell an American "Betty La Fea" as a 65-episode summer strip, keeping close to the telenovela's original weeknight run.
Then he shepherded the format sale to NBC, which developed it as a half-hour penned by writer Alexa Junge, with "Saturday Night Live" star Ana Gasteyer rumored for the lead.
As a producer, Silverman pacted with Selma Hayek and ABC in 2004 to adapt the format as a comedic one-hour with writer Kerry Ehrin.
The next year, the producers took another pass at the concept with Silvio Horta for what became "Ugly Betty."
During their rocky paths to the screen, some formats also have to compete with homegrown shows that borrow from their popular concepts. While NBC was developing a half-hour "Betty La Fea" during the 2001-02 development season, ABC picked up the similarly themed "Less Than Perfect." It was canceled a couple of months before ABC launched "Ugly Betty" in 2006.
Also, during the 2005-06 cycle, when Fox picked up "Worst Week," ABC ordered the single-camera comedy "Big Day," which draws parallels to the first season of "Worst Week."
Despite the difficulties, formats -- with their built-in name recognition and proven creative direction -- are hotter than ever this year, with seven new scripted series hailing from overseas.
"The titles are freaking awesome," Silverman said of "Ugly Betty" and "Worst Week." "That's something you're also buying when you're buying the material."
And though original ideas rarely get a second shot, formats often are given multiple chances by the networks, which re-develop them with new writers.
Tarses first became intrigued by "Worst Week" years ago when "24" was the only serialized series on American television. He later adapted another British comedy, "Teachers," which had a short run on NBC in spring 2006 and starred Sarah Alexander, the female lead on the original "Worst Week."
In the meantime, the serialized genre has made strides on the one-hour side with such shows as "Lost," "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's," but all efforts to do a serialized comedy series -- such as ABC's "Knights of Prosperity" and "Big Day" and CBS' "The Class" -- have been short-lived.
Which brings us back to the difficulty of adapting a format from overseas, where most shows have continuous story lines.
"It is not going to be as serialized," Tarses says of "Worst Week." "What's distinctive about the show is that something that starts in Episode 1 pays off in Episode 5. We will try to keep that, but you won't need to have seen the previous episode."
Nellie Andreeva can be reached at [email protected]