Editor’s Note: Changes in the way Americans receive programming have opened up new possibilities for us to see stories created for television around the world. Pamela Douglas, associate professor of screenwriting at the USC School for Cinematic Arts, is author of the seminal book Writing the TV Drama Series, which has been translated for audiences in Spain, Germany, Italy, France, China, Taiwan, Korea and elsewhere. As she prepared its 4th Edition (2018), Professor Douglas decided to include a section on dramas written and produced in other nations for the first time. Read on for insights on what this might mean for entertainment, for the media business, and maybe even for peace among nations.
By Pamela Douglas
Previous editions of my book have been America-centric, and to an extent that’s useful because American shows are known world-wide. Increasingly, though, the global marketplace influences what shows are produced and – of special significance to writers – how they’re written and the kinds of characters and stories they contain. Though tensions may rise between nations, universal human feelings and relationships travel across time and space, and television is our way to connect.
With all the tensions in the world, we can be inspired by the cooperation that grew naturally in Sweden and Denmark when they collaborated to make Broen/Bron. It asks what happens when a body is found on a border bridge, half in Sweden and half in Denmark. The drama was so popular it has been remade in America as The Bridge on FX, set on the U.S./Mexican border, and in UK/France as The Tunnel, set in the Channel Tunnel between the two countries. In all versions, two countries’ police must work together despite cultural differences to solve the crime.
Is this a wave of the future? Peace on Earth through television? Well, we’re not there yet. Writing in The Hollywood Reporter, Kayti Burt suggests both a caution and a hope:
“In a global marketplace already dominated by English-language content, especially of the American and British variety, could the potential transition into an era of more international co-productions further homogenize the global market? Or will the fact that American and British production entities are bringing their money to other regions with fewer resources mean more diversity in the stories being told to a wider, global audience? … Transnational TV drama co-productions may be a commercial function of a global market, but I still have hope that an increase in more transnational and international stories will be good for the American public. Sure, in a domestic market where more people watch Dancing with the Stars than The Americans, high-end TV drama is not going to change the hearts and minds of a country with isolationist tendencies in an increasingly interconnected world, but — as an art form that specializes in empathy — it might change a few.”
After surveying how television is made throughout the world, my profound realization turned out not about the indigenous shows, but the prevalence of Netflix as a transformative global phenomenon. That’s somewhat true also of Amazon Video, but Netflix really is everywhere, speaking the language of the people. As of 2017 it had over a million paid streaming subscribers and made massive investments in new shows. The company says it spent around $8 billion on content in 2018 alone. According to The Los Angeles Timesin 2017, Netflix now counts more overseas subscribers than domestic ones. For example, the South Korean movie Okja, and the series 3% from Brazil are designed to appeal both to local audiences and viewers worldwide. That’s not to say anyone is rooting for the centralized power that a single platform may provide, however magnanimous.
If our minds are already boggled by the abundance of shows now available in the U.S., imagine what a challenge it is to comprehend the profusion of international television in addition. I’m reaching for a more insightful conclusion than simple “muchness.”
A sprit of global connectivity – humanity beyond borders – has always attracted hope for the future. On a single day in the summer of 1967, the then-new Beatles song, All You Need Is Love beamed around the world by satellite to 400 million people who experienced it simultaneously through a BBC-TV special Our World.
Now in less innocent times, we’re learning to celebrate differences almost as much as unity, and one of the lessons in writing the global portion of the 4thEdition has been the diversity of TV dramas overseas.
Writing the TV Drama Series teaches the craft of professional television writing, but beyond that is something of a mission. I agree with film Critic Walter Iuzzolino who told Emmy magazine, “The wave of cultural conservatism that’s sweeping Western society is strange and unsettling. So now there’s an argument for real windows onto other worlds, other cultures and other societies. More than ever, being isolated culturally is a bad thing.”
The Media Impact Project evaluates a slate of Entertainment Diplomacy programs sponsored by the US State Department. These programs posit that cultural exchange through entertainment is a valuable enterprise, so-called soft diplomacy. We are happy to welcome Professor Douglas to our pages as a guest blogger on the power of media to cross borders. Check out new program The Africa Narrative, which seeks to inspire balanced TV portrayals of Africa and its 54 nations.