Still late to the party? TV adaptation modes for foreign audiences

October 3, 2011
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With the new TV season already under way in the US, I can’t help but recall the years when living in Italy meant not having direct access to new (usually American) shows until months or sometimes even years after they first aired in the States. Apart from the negotiation of distribution rights, shows had to undergo the painstaking process of dubbing, by which dialogues had to be translated, adapted to the lip movements on screen and finally acted out by professional dubbing actors. Dubbing a TV episode could very well take weeks, considering also the difficulty involved in scheduling shifts for multiple, busy dubbing actors having to act in the same scenes.

However, things are starting to change now, with FOX Italia (a subscription-based channel) leading a small “revolution” by airing some of the most popular or anticipated shows on American TV within a much shorter time frame. The second part of Glee’s second season (episodes 2.11 to 2.22), for example, was aired in Italy between January and the beginning of June 2011 in two separate versions: subtitled and dubbed. The subtitled version – much faster and inexpensive to produce than the dubbed one – was aired just a couple of days after it aired in the States (on the Thursday of the same week), while the dubbed version was made available to viewers only one week later. The experiment must have gone well, since FOX Italia is offering the same format again with the third season of the show, which, as the ad campaign once again boasts, is being aired “in contemporanea con gli Stati Uniti” (“simultaneously with the US”) as of September 28th. On that day viewers were able to watch the dubbed version of episode 3.01 and the subtitled version of episode 3.02, only a week and one day after the US airing dates, respectively. According to the FOX Italia web site, the next episodes will be aired in the subtitled version just one day after the States.

While the idea is not completely new (the Late Show with David Letterman has been regularly subtitled and aired within 24 hours for some years now), FOX was the first network to try this with serial TV – in 2010 with Lost and Flash Forward – perhaps realizing their viewership’s increasing need for up-to-date programming. Apart from more specific considerations relating to translation and adaptation, I can think of a number of issues that may in the long run be impacted by this new approach to TV’s international distribution. For example, can a good linguistic and cultural transposition really be achieved for this kind of product in less than 24 hours?

What I find most interesting, though, are the changes that are clearly occurring in the audiovisual translation industry in Italy – and most likely in other non-English-speaking countries that use dubbing as well – and specifically the gradation of different modes of consumption of audiovisual products that are now available to viewers as a consequence of these changes. Viewers in Italy who enjoy Glee, for example, now have a number of different available options to watch the show: they can watch it online or illegally download it in English; they can watch it with the help of amateur, often fan-created subtitles, or fansubs, also available online from different web sites; they can watch it on FOX Italia in the subtitled or dubbed version; or they can watch the dubbed version on Italia Uno, one of the national channels owned by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Of course, different delivery modes are also related to, among other things, how soon you want to or can watch a given show. This ranges from watching a new episode of a series a few hours after US viewers with the help of fansubs to viewing the dubbed version a few months later on national TV. Considering the fact that some TV series are aired on national networks in the States but on subscription-based channels in Italy and elsewhere in the world, how does this staggering of consumption affect the viewing experience outside the US? While I personally welcome this much-needed diversification in the adaptation options available to Italian viewers, does this imply that audiences will become more fragmented depending on, for example, how much English they know or whether they can afford to pay for cable subscriptions? More broadly, are Italian audiences different from American audiences because they are culturally and linguistically dissimilar or because local distribution choices affect their consumption of a given audiovisual product?


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2 Responses to “ Still late to the party? TV adaptation modes for foreign audiences ”

  1. Mark Stewart on October 4, 2011 at 9:28 PM

    Great piece, Chiara. Being from New Zealand, I’m also fascinated by the flows of US TV into other districts, although Western Europe also poses the additional difficulties of translation/subtitling/dubbing.

    I’d be fascinated at some point to know how different US shows rate in Italy, and how those ratings might be affected by the fragmentation, or the different translation options available.

    • Chiara Bucaria on October 8, 2011 at 9:14 AM

      Great point, Mark. Yes, how US TV shows rate in Italy is definitely an interesting aspect to study, although it’s already inextricably linked to cultural and linguistic issues. In other words, how do we know that audiences enjoy a show because of its content or because of the way it was adapted/translated? For example, I know for a fact that Seinfeld and Frasier (both dubbed) were huge flops in Italy, while Friends (also dubbed) was a big success, despite the fact that its Italian adaptation was recognized by many as being of exceptionally bad quality. The cultural factor has of course a great impact when we talk about comedy. Perhaps the kind of humor in Seinfeld and Frasier is more culture-specific to the US than the humor in Friends, and therefore the former is less exportable than the latter.