A few things in our world transcend national boundaries or even language: laughter, music, pathos — and, apparently, “Deal or No Deal.”
The suitcase-of-dough extravaganza could be the United Nations of TV shows, with 68 countries having shown some version of it in the past few years. But before your heart swells with American pride for our cultural export, hold on: The show first debuted in 2001 in the Netherlands under the title “Miljoenenjacht” — or “Hunt for Millions.” In fact, in countless countries you’ll see versions of “Big Brother,” “American Idol” and “Dancing with the Stars,” all of which started outside of the United States, too. (The U.S. can proudly claim “The Apprentice,” since our natural resources include an almost unlimited cache of Trump.)
But thankfully, when you turn the global dial you’ll still see plenty of culturally unique shows — some fascinating, and some plain kooky. In fact, international TV is a lot like traveling itself: Just when you think something is familiar, you’re reminded that you’re far from home. After all, you can find a cousin of “The Daily Show” where the host wears nightmarish clown makeup; a game show where losers are beaten with sticks; and a reality show contest with a lavish, “American Idol”–style set, but where the contestants are bookish poets.
A big reason why many shows come off as weird to us, of course, boils down to a different sensibility, or just a sense of humor. “Humor is the most difficult to translate, since so much of comedy and satire is so rooted in a particular culture,” says Denise Bielby, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Santa Barbara and co-author of “Global TV: Exporting Television and Culture in the World Market.” “In Germany, for instance, they have a hard time with humor — producing their own, or appreciating humor from other countries,” said Bielby. “Action, adventure, crime dramas — those things are better able to transcend borders.”
Just like here, sitcoms are on a downswing around the world — though a remake of “Married With Children” just finished a successful run in Russia, and several versions of “The Nanny” and “Who’s The Boss?” have bounced around the continents.
Certainly, one thing that crosses plenty of borders but doesn’t always make it to our basic-cable shores is skin. “In Europe, they’re willing to go that extra step, and show people naked after 10 p.m.,” says Scott Sternberg, a U.S.-based TV producer known for Fox’s “The Academy” and TLC’s “The Singing Office.” “It’s that one extra step we won’t go here, perhaps the advertisers here won’t go for it, or Americans are just more prudish than Europeans.” In Italy, for example, a scantily clad (and often silent) “showgirl” is a common co-host for sports and talk shows. But Italian TV can be plenty old-fashioned, too. A new reality show pits white-ball-gowned debutantes competing against each other in a polite frenzy of dancing and curtsying.
So then, are TV debutantes — or at least celebrity debutantes — going to be America’s next imported hit, or might it be those poets? “It’s hard to know why some things translate and others don’t,” Sternberg says. But the TV exec’s credo is a pretty simple one: “If it makes sense and gets an audience, then there’s no reason why not.”