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Who Says Americans Won't Watch Foreign TV Shows?

10/08/2013 05:53 EDT | Updated 12/08/2013 05:12 EST

I came upon a piece about the American TV network, Fox, remaking the British detective series Broadchurch -- with Scottish actor David Tennant recreating his role. The article then featured various posted comments decrying the need for such a remake, and the way American audiences seem unwilling to embrace non-American productions (this lament from, I assumed, abashed Americans themselves).

It's a nice theory to embrace for those outside of the U.S. as it reinforces a vision of Americans as insular and frightened of the world when other nations' TV schedules are often a little more pluralistic. It also means that when non-American productions fail in the U.S. market it can be blamed on American xenophobia, as opposed to any weakness in the production itself.

And it's a nice theory to embrace for those inside the U.S.

For producers it provides a convenient explanation should anyone ask why they're remaking something that was perfectly good to begin with. And it serves the interests of xenophobic Americans who wish to see America isolated from the global culture.

A few months back I commented on how non-American actors would appear in Hollywood productions playing Americans, as though Hollywood was happy to draw upon imported talent as long as they didn't have to admit they weren't American. And it plays into the mythology of American "exceptionalism" by sending the message that foreign productions can't cut it in the American market.

But in order to say it's true we need a body of evidence -- non-American series on American networks that continually tank (and since even a lot of American series fail, we'd have to factor for timeslots and poor marketing). Yet it's actually so rare for such series to be broadcast it's hard to say whether they would fail or not! And in recent years Canadian series like Flashpoint and Rookie Blue have run multiple seasons.

If every year the main American networks programmed the best and brightest of other nations' programs and they inevitably failed, then we could start to assemble a case. But since they won't, then they don't, and we can't.

Nor can we even say Hollywood does it better. For every hit American remake of a British original like The Office there's a Prime Suspect, Payne, or Coupling.

Meanwhile, from James Bond to Harry Potter, British franchises muscle their way into the American market. While one of TV's biggest cable series is Game of Thrones -- an American series set within a decidedly European milieu and where just about everyone speaks with British accents!

Which, of course, raises another point. Are we saying Americans refuse to watch British productions because of the foreign settings and accents, or because the British productions sometimes evince a different style and sensibility? The former is a xenophobic rejection of anything "other". But the latter is simply a matter of taste.

There is the long accepted truism that English-speaking audiences largely don't like sub-titled films, too. But are audiences reacting negatively to the sub-titles -- or to the films themselves? There are movies which I almost forget were sub-titled because the story flows so effectively I barely remember I was reading the dialogue. Some examples of the latter I've seen recently was the French espionage drama, L'affaire de Farewell and the Swedish Detective Wallander TV movies starring Krister Henriksson ("The Revenge" a.k.a. Hamnden and "The Thief" a.k.a. Tjuven linger in my mind) -- rent 'em and see if you agree.

Sub-titled sequences have cropped up in Hollywood series like Lost and movies like Salt and X-Men: First Class. Heck, much of the movie Inglourious Bastards was sub-titled and it was a hit.

This same dilemma applies to the notion of non-white actors. If a black actor is in a hit -- the common argument is it's a credit to the movie. If a black actor is in a bomb -- it's seen as "proof" black actors can't carry a film, even if the movie overall received bad reviews.

So what other motives are there for Hollywood remakes, besides alleged audience resistance?

Creativity: There's nothing inherently wrong with remakes -- live theatre is based upon them! And sometimes a remake can inspire you to seek out the original -- so win-win. Sometimes, though, not. I enjoy the Canadian-made version of TV's Being Human but I haven't sought out the British original -- simply because one's enough for me for now.

Profits. If Americans simply bought the broadcast rights to foreign productions -- all they get out of it is the ad revenues. If they do their own remake, they have their own piece of the pie, their own property that they can license into merchandise, spin offs, what have you.

Employment. Air a foreign series in primetime and that's an hour no one in Hollywood is working. Do a remake and hundreds are suddenly employed, from actors and casting agents, to writers, set designers, even caterers and personal drivers. Can you imagine the boost to the Canadian entertainment industry if instead of Canadian networks simply airing American series like Grey's Anatomy they did Canadian remakes? If every nation had their own versions?

Political. This is the more sinister explanation. That it is a deliberate attempt to keep Americans isolated and cut off from the world. And to promote the notion of American "exceptionalism" (we saw how sacred that belief is after the recent hysteria over comments by Russian president Putin). A few years ago an American network aired Ice Wars figure skating specials billed as USA vs. the World -- a friendly competition which implied it took the entire world to muster enough quality skaters to compete against Americans (purely coincidentally, I'm sure, America often won the night).

Perhaps the British version of Broadchurch could air on American network primetime and with the right time slot and the proper promotion, be a success. And to certain factions within America, that would be a terrifying prospect. Because to them America must always be the best, must always be special. If rank and file Americans started watching and enjoying British series, not carefully hived off on PBS, but going head to head with American series in primetime -- heavens! Where might it end? They might even think Obamacare was a good idea!

Foreign programs may have trouble breaking into the American market -- but the reasons might be more complex than simply audience preferences.