When you turn the TV on this weekend and sit down with a cup of coffee to watch a good show, there is a big chance that someone else on the other side of the world is watching the exact same show, but a version that is specific to their country and culture. Some time ago, we posted blogs about how shows are adapted to local cultures, so a show that might be on TV all over the world is never the exact same show. That practice of adaptation is also a huge global trade, according to Jean K. Chalaby, author of the article The making of an entertainment revolution: How the TV format trade became a global industry (2011). There are now companies solely dedicated to creating a TV format that can travel all over the world. In this post we are going to take a closer look at what elements of a TV format can be suited to an international audience, but also (and perhaps more interesting) what elements are more difficult to fit to an audience with a different culture. As a case study, we are going to look at the American news satire show The Daily Show and the Dutch adaptation of it.
What Chalaby talks about is that formats are made specifically to be bought abroad. This comes down to the bare elements, the skeleton of the format, as it were. First of all, the format must have a distinctive narrative dimension. This is achieved by a few different factors. The first and most important one is the engine. The engine is the most basic outline of what happens in the show. For example in a quiz show the engine would be: ‘the contestant gets picked from the audience and if he answers the questions right he wins and gets money and if he gets the questions wrong he loses and goes home with nothing’. Similar to the engine are the storylines, dramatic arcs and trigger moments. These are all devices to create an attachment to the story and to stimulate the suspense in the format.
Again, all these elements, like the engine, the storylines and the trigger moments of the format are designed to be universal. The tension when someone is close to either winning or losing a million dollars is something that is not only one country or one culture can feel. This is also why certain genres of television work so well for international audiences. Chalaby mentions some of these; reality tv, game shows and certain television drama’s. However it is interesting to look beyond those very obvious transnational formats and focus on a format that is way more flexible when it is being put into a different cultural context.
That’s why we are using The Daily Show as a case study: because it complicates the notion of the transnational format and it shows a more indirect practice of transnational TV. The Daily Show is a satire of the news and political situation in America. It shows clips of the current news and critiques it, often because the news reporting that they’re showing is biased, wrong, or in some other way good to make fun of. Often this news is about the political situation in America, also because the news reporting in America is not objective and often has a political bias. The show also consists of commentary on other events through comedians who pretend to be reporters on the scene. Furthermore a special guest appears on the show. The range of guests is pretty wide from authors to political figures and often a non-American guest appears on the show. The Daily Show is immensely popular and is sometimes seen not only as a source for comedy, but also as an effective news show.
Above: Daily Show host Jon Stewart in the studio.
Because of this popularity the show has inspired a few other news satire shows around the world. This is not direct adaptation because the shows model themselves in terms of style after the Daily Show but are not official adaptations. These conceptual adaptations have the same set up as the Daily Show with one host offering a comedic spin on the current news events.
However an actual local spin-off of the Daily Show did happen once in the Netherlands in 2011. Comedian Jan Jaap van der Wal hosted the show, which was called The Daily Show: Nederlandse Editie. The content of the show, the visual graphic style and the kind of jokes were very similar to the American version and to further underline the point that the Dutch version was intended to be exactly the same as the American version, Jon Stewart, host of the American version, was a guest on the first episode. So to summarize: The Dutch edition of the Daily Show was trying to be a carbon copy of the American version only commenting on Dutch news and Dutch politics.
Above: Daily Show host Jon Stewart with Dutch Daily Show host Jan Jaap van der Wal in the Daily Show studio.
The thing the Dutch Daily Show had that was nowhere to be found in the American version? Low ratings. The ratings for the Dutch Daily Show were so low that after its pilot season of twelve episodes it was discontinued. Unlike its American counterpart, the Dutch Daily Show could not get a big audience and so secure ratings that would allow it to continue.
This seems strange, considering that formats that get broadcasted in other countries are usually bought because these formats are popular and are expected to be just as popular abroad. To think about why the Dutch Daily Show failed, we have to look back at the several elements of a format that were mentioned in the beginning of this post.
The most important and most universal part of a format is the engine, according to Chalaby. The engine, in the case of the Daily Show seems to be the comedic commentary on news and the political situation, but if this is the case, why did this not work in the Netherlands? A possible reason for this could be because the engine for the Daily Show is much more specific than just making jokes about the news. The problem is that the Daily Show format means a very specific kind of show with a very specific kind of humor and set up. It might even be so that it only works with American news and American politics, and maybe it could even be said that the Daily Show can only work properly with Jon Stewart as host. The point is: the format of the Daily Show is very specifically bound to a set of elements that are very difficult to adapt because these elements are not that universal. The engine of the Daily Show is not just talking about the news, because that is seen in TV shows all over the world.
The failure of the Dutch Daily Show does not mean that satire of the news and satire of politics are not popular genres in the Netherlands. Two good examples of this are the shows Koefnoen and the clips of Luckytv that are a part of the Dutch talkshow De Wereld Draait Door. In this show and these clips, Dutch politicians get mocked, popular media and celebrities are being made fun of and so they provide the same thing as the Daily Show: a funny take on the news and the media. So why didn’t the Daily Show work as a Dutch edition even though it has the same kind of content as other popular shows in the Netherlands? Unfortunately, there are no clear statements about this specific case study, so it comes down to speculation. Earlier it was noted that the Daily Show is much more than just making jokes about the news, it has a certain feeling and a certain kind of humor that perhaps only works with American news. Maybe Dutch news just was not the right material for the Daily Show context. It’s possible that because the Dutch version stuck too much to the American aesthetic that Dutch news did not fit in with that. This shows that the Daily Show is a format that is much more suitable to the American culture than to the Dutch culture but that doesn’t mean that satire is not a universal thing in international TV.
In conclusion, this shows that some formats have certain elements that are globally universal. In this case it was the format of the Daily Show with the element of news and political satire. It also shows that these formats can still be too bound to a certain culture or other elements that are difficult to adapt to a different culture. This is why, although a format works in a different country, it does not always work in other countries because the format’s engine might seem very universal and easy to adapt, there might be more elements of the format that are less likely to do well in a different culture.
Personally, I think the Daily Show is an exclusively American show. The journalism and politics in the USA are perfect material to comment on in such a way as Jon Stewart and the Daily Show do. To adapt it in the Netherlands where the news is much less biased and where the politics are much less interesting, that would not work at all, and I don’t think we need it. Every culture needs a different way to use satire to reflect on current events and it’s useless if a country is just going to copy the way another country does it. The multitude of satire, each fitted to a different culture is something that has to exist.