Beyond the Script: What Format Adaptations Tell Us about the Global Circulation of Culture

Curator's Note

Television formats seem to rely on a simple logic: it is the inherent adaptability of the original formulas that makes them attractive to TV industries worldwide. Formats are “program ideas” that are exported to different countries and adapted locally by TV producers. The template remains the same, while the programs are supposed to meet the expectations of culturally specific audiences. Looking at the adaptations, though, we find out that this is not really the whole story.

This scenario seems well suited to the interests of format owners because it treats the adaptation as a seemingly uncomplicated search for local color. Yet what happens when TV formats begin to “travel” is not so predictable. Format adaptations involve creative imitation. Formulas are stretched and bent, and sometimes cannibalize each other. Moreover, adaptations generate opportunities for one culture to look at, mimic, or respond to another. As it turns out, what happens locally often exceeds the parameters defined by the format business.

Here is an example, an ice skating contest called Dança no Gelo. This is the Brazilian version of the show known in the United States as Skating with Celebrities. Produced by Brazil’s main network, Rede Globo, it featured national TV stars and occasionally included musical numbers drawn from American popular culture. And this is where things get interesting. For the references to American musicals were not part of the original template. Instead, they were related to locally recognizable attitudes toward a particular foreign world. In this example, the characters from The Wizard of Oz are expected to represent a foreign imagery (Hollywood, high production values) already associated with consumer culture and social privilege. Dança no Gelo capitalized on this popular fascination with “imported goods,” thus complicating the way the local intervened in the adaptation process.

It may be wise, then, to see format adaptations not so much as regulated processes but rather as occasions or encounters in which cultural relations can be actualized, reproduced and, sometimes, reinvented. It is the specificity of each encounter that shows how TV formats help shape the way (television) culture circulates across borders.


 I am really curious Vinicius if you could elaborate on how the references to american musicals "complicated" the format. Does complicating refer to undermining the limits set in the format, and if so, what were the limits?




Thanks, Lauhona and Maria.

I have always been somewhat uncomfortable with the idea that format adaptations simply add local color to an existing formula, partly because the adaptation may not leave the formula unchanged and partly because the local itself is less predictable than we might imagine. I, too, am often tempted to look for local difference and creativity. But cultural specificity itself can be a tricky concept. Sometimes, what makes the local distinct is the way it interprets, endorses, or caricatures the foreign. (This is what I have in mind when I say that we should think about format adaptations as opportunities to look at how cultural relations are actualized.) Many of the format adaptations that are popular in Brazil, not surprisingly, mobilize existing sentiments about social privilege and class distinction. Some do it explicitly, others not. In the example I used, the references to American culture seem to serve this purpose. They “speak to” local sentiments and attitudes—and that’s more complicated than adding local color to an original formula.

I agree Vincinius. Formats provide a site for cultural relations. I am repeatedly amazed by how a formats can at the same time seem so familiar and so "foreign." With user driven platforms such as youtube I have more access now to programming from outside the United States than ever before (and thanks to devoted fans who provide subtitles in many cases I no longer have have to deal with language barriers). I can watch the Finnish version of The Voice or the Dutch version of Big Brother and feel both connected to the familiarity and intrigued by the differerces each program offers.

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