U.S. series go to Russia, are loved

Locals say they can't match quality of 'ER,' 'Zone,' 'Smallville'

Go channel surfing in Russia with the sound on mute and you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching television in Los Angeles, Chicago or New York: The same shows and familiar-looking sitcoms and reality programs play across the terrestrial and satellite stations here.

Daytime, peak time and through the night, Russian tele-vision executives are programming the most popular U.S. shows in their original ? albeit Russian-dubbed ? versions or Russian-made adaptations of the formats.

Night owl? The late-evening schedules are peppered with American shows: "Friends," "The Sopranos," "Six Feet Under" and "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" are among those found across national and regional channels.

In the early morning, there's First Channel at 4:20 a.m. with "The Dead Zone." Afternoon time slots bring "Smallville" on CTC Network. A littler later, at 6:30 p.m., Domashny airs "ER."

Primetime tends to be dominated by such Russian-made drama serials as Ren-TV's popular military comedy "Soldati" (Soldiers) or the sort of ratings-grabbing specials pubcaster Rossiya has made popular in the past couple of years, including an adaptation of Soviet novelist Mikhail Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita" or the adaptation of Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's "The First Circle." But increasingly, Russian adaptations of U.S. formats ? particularly sitcoms ? are being scheduled now.

On CTC Network, the characters, story lines and locations might all be pure Russian, but the format and narrative framework and detail are American. Airing at 7 p.m. daily is "Kto v Domye Khozyin?" the local version of "Who's the Boss?" Airing on the weekend at 8 p.m. is "Moya Prekrasnaya Nyanya." That's the local version of "The Nanny," but it features a girl from the provinces coming to Moscow to work for a Russian family rather than a wisecracking New Yorker going to work for a wealthy English widower. "Ne Rodis Krasivoi," with lunchtime slots three times a week, is none other than the ugly-duckling tale of "Ugly Betty." Warner Bros.' local version of "Perfect Strangers" is also airing in Moscow.

"The key driver for Russian television is local product content, but we don't have the scripts or the professional scriptwriters to be able to develop great quality content on an everyday basis," said CTC president and CEO Alexander Rodnyansky, who added that CTC is working with Sony Pictures Television International on a range of new local adaptations of series and movies.

Tim Horan, British-born executive vp at Moscow's Amedia Studio ? one of the key suppliers of Russian adaptations of U.S. formats to CTC and other channels here ? said it also is the innate conservatism of network chiefs, Russian television-scheduling habits and the sheer abundance of U.S. content that make formats an easy sell.

"Network chiefs are more likely to buy an adaptation of something that has been successful elsewhere, and even original series might be inspired by successful formats," Horan said.

Knowing the home ratings for a show helps executives working in a cutthroat advertising ratings environment make decisions with less of a margin for error than local product might pose: South American romantic soap operas and Polish family dramas ("L Is for Love" is now approaching its second year on the First Channel) along with U.S. sitcoms are tried and tested.

Additionally, U.S. formats usually come with hundreds of episode scripts ? guaranteeing long-term play if they catch on with audiences. Such series as "Law & Order" (which is being formatted locally here) has gone beyond 380, with "ER" not far behind at 278 and counting.