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Calculating the case for U.S./U.K. contextualizing

U.K. producer PolyGram Visual Programming has broken into the U.S. with Maisy on Nickelodeon, and the company recently picked up the TV, video and merchandising rights to the American property Sitting Ducks, a poster collection by Michael Bedard. Lucinda Whiteley shares...
December 1, 1998

U.K. producer PolyGram Visual Programming has broken into the U.S. with Maisy on Nickelodeon, and the company recently picked up the TV, video and merchandising rights to the American property Sitting Ducks, a poster collection by Michael Bedard. Lucinda Whiteley shares why and how PolyGram is tailoring series to U.S. tastes.

As a European company with a global perspective, we constantly strive to ensure that our programming works for every country into which we sell. The synergy created by the network of video companies PolyGram operates worldwide enables us to deliver programming that works on a local level, liaising with broadcasters to provide foreign-language dubs, captions and titles, all of which make the program indigenous to their country.

There can be no doubt, however, that the U.S. market remains a most significant one. And while no producer has any illusions about how difficult it can be to break into that market, faced with a highly sophisticated and sometimes confusing broadcasting structure, vertical integration on the increase and what can seem like an intimidating array of talent, the U.S. market still remains a key element in many business plans.

No one can claim to be able to predict absolutely what will and won’t work in a market, but there are basic ground rules. Take language, for example. While translation into a different language is axiomatic, either through dubbing or subtitling, the fact that the U.K. and the U.S. share the same mother tongue might generate a false sense of security. Anyone who has worked in both arenas will know the importance of respecting the cultural and linguistic differences that exist between our two countries-at the simplest level, ‘torches’ become ‘flashlights’ and ‘post’ is ‘mail’-and it is essential therefore that programming is developed with a keen awareness of the U.S. sensibility.

Creating the American version of Maisy with colleagues from PolyGram’s U.S. offices, as well as with Nick Jr. production executives, has given us strong insight into just how profound those differences can be. They can range from simple figures of speech to a wider televisual context where it seems quite natural that the narrator should play the role of a grandfather (or should that be grandpa?) in the U.S. version, as opposed to the younger companion created by Neil Morrissey in the U.K. version, since there is a tradition of using more mature preschool presenters in the U.S. Teletubbies, Thomas the Tank Engine, Noddy-all have an American incarnation as well as a British and international one, and by virtue of their genres (preschool and animation), too, are more readily adaptable to these different incarnations. And, of course, by tweaking, enhancing and, in some cases, contextualizing, U.S. broadcasters have access to a diverse and stimulating range of programming at a fraction of the cost of having to create and produce such shows in-house.

There are other considerations, too, for producers when they are evaluating the U.S. as a key market-as well as offering high license fees (certainly in comparison with other territories), the U.S. market can offer significant rewards in terms of licensing and merchandising. By virtue of the fact that many of the major toy companies are based in the U.S., most worldwide deals will emanate from the States, and the master toy license is where much of the toy-based revenue will be generated. U.S. advances and royalties can be higher, too, for the right property.

While other markets can and do offer significant opportunities, particularly in terms of licensing and merchandising (Japan being one of the most obvious ones), it remains a fact that the U.S. market offers everything to play for.

So, will we continue to concentrate our energies and resources on developing programming that has the potential to succeed on both sides of the Atlantic? You betcha!

Lucinda Whiteley is senior VP of production at London-based PolyGram Visual Programming.

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