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Lack of Imports

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The United States severely lacks the importation of television programs from other countries. We only like our own fare. Why?

It’s extremely common for us to remake shows in the American style. Ugly Betty and Homeland are two examples of successful series from lands far away we’ve remade in our own studios with our own actors. But how many series can you think of that you watch that do not come from America? I expect that is an extremely short list, if you can think of any at all. Why?

One obstacle may be our country’s resistance to subtitles. Sure, there is a certain segment that enjoys an occasional foreign film, and occasionally bad reality TV provides words on the screen for those with thick accents or who mumble a lot. But for the most part, we avoid such things.

Dubbing over the shows with American voice actors is worse. Thankfully, that is trend that never took off here.

It could be because people here are lazy. Books, while still popular among some, are shunned by others. Many people sadly do not equate reading with relaxation, and at the end of a long day, don’t want to have to think about their television programming. Even if the content is simple, reading subtitles means some thinking is involved.

For others, television still holds that idiot-box reputation, and subtitles are seen as an uppity thing for the elite or over-educated. They assume they won’t like anything with words on the screen because they watch TV for mindless entertainment, and think that anything with subtitles won’t appeal to their demographic.

However, I do think that the issue goes much deeper than subtitles. Our entertainment industry has an arrogance that, because the rest of the world gobbles up our content, we are the best. They think they can do it better than anyone else, and so decide they want to do their own version, rather than serve us up a foreign package.

This mindset is not completely unjustified. We do have a thriving entertainment industry which is syndicated around the world, and sometimes we do remake things better than the original. Other times, though, we do not. In this case, I really wish there was more importation.

Another reason for remakes, rather than straight airing of other countries’ shows, is social disconnect. This is especially relevant in the arena of humor, which often relies on commentary of a certain society or population.

This occurs even with the country we are arguably most closely related to, England. Some people like the British version of The Office, while others don’t get it and prefer the American one because they can relate to it. For every Monty Python’s Flying Circus, there are dozens of comedies that foreign audiences will just not understand. We love Ricky Gervais and Simon Pegg, but there are many others who experience obscurity here.

This isn’t just an American problem. Shows like Everybody Loves Raymond are recast and remade so that viewers in other countries will get the joke, as illustrated in the excellent documentary, Exporting Raymond.

But they are also offered some American fare, as well, as that’s where we suffer, because we get the choice for very little of anyone else’s content.

While humor is subjective, one would think drama would translate much better. After all, stories of the heart are universal, right, and don’t require a certain frame of reference? It’s why Shakespeare remains so relevant, more so for his serious plays, rather than his whimsical ones. Then how come we won’t sit for the original version of The Killing? Why won’t we expend that little bit of effort, or why do studios think we won’t?

There are inroads in the world of sci-fi. I think this is because this is the one genre where we expect to look past the surface to relate to characters who aren’t like us. Any well-done alien will seem foreign, so who cares which country developed the creature? From Doctor Who to SyFy’s broadcast of Canadian hits like Lost Girl, this is the type of show that gets here and finds a home and viewership in the U.S., even if it’s not made here.

However, even if the vast majority of people won’t watch programs from other countries, there are plenty of niche channels, so why don’t we get import networks, too? IFC has a very narrow viewing audience, as I’m sure does Oprah’s network. Yet, they have subscribers and still broadcast their thing. Where is the French and German stations?

One could argue that BBC American is the exception. However, BBC America airs very little British programming. Instead, it reruns American shows with British actors, like The X-Files or Star Trek: The Next Generation incessantly. Sure, it gives us lots of Top Gear, but other than that, the list of fresh programs we get every year is pretty short.

Now, BBC America is even getting into the original content game, making shows just for the U.S. With Copper and Ripper Street, they are stepping away from the BBC series American fans may want to see, and giving us things they think we’ll like, based on a certain style. Can’t they air the second seasons of Friday Night Dinners or Outnumbered instead? Isn’t it cheaper to just show the stuff the BBC already makes, and that some American audiences really want to see? I am increasingly more disappointed with that network.

I can’t say for certain if satellite TV offers more opportunity; perhaps it does. And Netflix and Hulu have offered a handful of imported shows, such as Skins and Misfits. But for those of us still using cable (which is all TiVo works with, though it does allow Netflix and some of Hulu), we get very little opportunity to expand our horizons.

Considering how much I’ve enjoyed the handful of foreign shows I have seen, and given the expanding reach of globalization in arenas outside of the entertainment world, it’s a trend that should change, even though there have not yet been signs that it will. At least, I hope so.

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About JeromeWetzelTV

Jerome writes TV reviews for BlogCritics.org and Seat42F.com, as well as fiction. He is a frequent guest on two podcasts, Let's Talk TV with Barbara Barnett and The Good, the Bad, & the Geeky. All of his work can be found on his website, jeromewetzel.com