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Copycat TV: Globalisation, Program Formats and Cultural Identity

Albert Moran (1998). Copycat TV: Globalisation, Program Formats and Cultural Identity. Luton: University of Luton Press. 204 pages. ISBN: 1-86020-537-2.

Reviewed by Amos Owen Thomas, School of Marketing and Management, Griffith University, Gold Coast, Australia

While international program flows from the developed world to the underdeveloped dominated the 1970s and 80s, the quiet growth of program format exports have gone unnoticed by researchers. The author of this book, Albert Moran, is thus a pioneer of research into program cloning or "copycat television," the apt term he has coined.

Format translations raises a number of issues: what constitutes it? how is it done? why do it? how prevalent is it? Part one of the book critiques the hype over globalization and highlights the persistence of preference for programs in national or more localized languages. The author then goes on to discuss how format adaptations are promoted as means to minimize risk of new programs flopping with audiences. Moran touches on the point that a license fee has had to be modest for otherwise the format will tend to be copied without permission. Even when licensed format adaptations does not mean strict cloning for, as Moran points out, all cases involve considerable rearrangement of the elements such as sets, costumes, story-lines, music, etc.

The third chapter clearly maps out the various players in the business: format licensors like BBC and Globo TV, brokers/producers such as All American Fremantle, devisors such as Action Time and Endemol. It is interesting to discover the various popular programs that each of these players have been responsible for. Chapters 4 and 5 are essentially an extended case-study of Grundy, which remarkably had its origins not in the US but in Australia. Beginning with game shows, then dramas, it made a phenomenal expansion into North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia before being taken over by the UK-based media conglomerate Pearsons.

Part two of the book investigates in detail the adaptations of specific program formats. "Contests of Knowledge and Beauty" feature first and in chapter 6 Moran argues that the "short-form" of game-shows such as Sale of the Century require minimal cultural adaptation. On the other hand, the "long-form" such as Man-O-Man displays considerable adaptation of its elements to reflect local cultural mores as demonstrated in its many adaptations within Europe itself. Perhaps less known are the adaptations of the "women-in-prison" programs. The original program Prisoner was initially exported to the UK and the US, where despite its Australian-ness it acquired a cult following. Intriguingly its licensed US adaptation, Dangerous Women, played back-to-back with Prisoner in UK and other markets, while a Dutch competitor to Grundy produced an unlicensed adaptation. The book makes no reference to the deregulation of television and growth of multi-channel environments, including satellite and cable television, which are further spurs to cloning of popular programs elsewhere.

Other program genres are discussed in subsequent chapters, namely the family soap opera (chapters 8 and 9). Moran utilizes Sons and Daughters and Restless Years, both Australian originals, which spawned the first soap operas in the Netherlands and in Germany. In all the adaptations, as in the originals, pains were taken to ensure the accents and location betray no real-life locality within the nations, perhaps in order to win large national audiences and, in the German case, audiences in neighboring Austria and parts of Switzerland, France, and Liechtenstein. Chapters 10 and 11 report the qualitative research conducted on the German and Dutch adaptations of both Sons and Daughters and Restless Years, using groups of students in Germany as well as Dutch migrants and travelers in Australia. The quite different readings of these programs and reactions to the representation of national cultural identity makes for some fascinating reading. National identity is a vexed issue, well illustrated by the creation and reception of program adaptations. Moran quite rightly points out that cultural identity is negotiated within and can span nation-states.

In concluding the book Moran deems the arguments of cultural imperialism as overly pessimistic and assuming the passivity of audiences. Instead he finds greater resonance with semiotic theory's notions of dialogues involved between the text and its translators, though he cites only one author in support. Little is said about cultural hybridity and post-modern eclecticism, though. While this book is a landmark work on program format adaptation, it draws almost exclusively on European adaptations of Australian programs. However this reviewer is a member of a team assisting Moran to replicate this research across Asia, where there seems to be more "creative borrowing" than licensed adaptations. This points though to a lingering issue of whether there can be a clear demarcation between format adaptation and local use of a program genre.

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