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For Sony, it's a small world, after all.

Sony has discovered there's business to be done by serving an old whine in a new bottle.

The whine, in this case, began with "The Nanny," which starred Fran Drescher as the sonorous overseer of a rich widower's kids. Almost five years after the show ran its course on CBS and ceased torturing eardrums across America, the sitcom is again delivering boffo ratings--albeit reshaped into a Spanish-language version, "La Ninera," produced specifically for Telefe in Argentina.

"La Ninera" has been a smash since premiering in January, pulling in a 48 share of audience among five networks during its most recent week. "It's doing great for us ... an amazing number," says Alejandro Parra, chief exec of Telefe Intl. in Buenos Aires.

Just to get the flavor, I watched a couple of episodes to see how Florencia Pena fit into the title role and the garish outfits that go with it. And while I only know a few useful phrases in Spanish like "Thank you" and "I meant no disrespect to you or your daughter," damned if I don't like the Argentine version better.

It's no secret that international markets have matured they have gradually increased their appetite for homegrown hits, as opposed to the days when the U.S. provided the vast majority of the world's TV content and simply dubbing "Bonanza" and "The Beverly Hillbillies" passed for entertainment.

Moreover, there's been a freer flow of series concepts across borders in recent years, especially in the unscripted realm, from "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and "American Idol" to "Survivor" and "Big Brother."

What's interesting, though, is that Sony keeps slogging along in the format game with scripted fare, mining its vast library to transform series--as opposed to just translating them--for consumption abroad. And while some of those shows were clear-cut winners originally, others well off the beaten track have found new life through this peculiar makeover process.

Listening to the various deals, in fact, sounds like a flashback from my TV-viewing youth. A new version of "The Jeffersons" has proved to be a major attraction in Turkey (where it's known as "Tatli Hayat"), yielding more than 160 episodes. A converted version of "Bewitched," meanwhile, is airing in Japan.

Other studios have put considerably less effort into this practice, which is at best a bunt-single business revenue-wise, at a time when everyone's obsessed with home runs. Yet Sony persevered and "kept trying until we got it right," says Steve Kent, executive rice president of international production at Sony Pictures Television Intl.

Sony learned in part by getting it wrong, such as an early version of "Married ... With Children" for Germany, where teleplays were pretty much translated verbatim. "It just didn't work," Kent says.

So now the studio participates in the adaptation process--helping figure out what part of Istanbul, say, would be the equivalent of Queens.

"Instead of sending them the script and saying, 'Here's where to send the check,' we'll go down there--wherever 'there' is--and work with them ... to help the broadcasters localize it without getting carried away," Kent says.

Perhaps what's most fascinating is that thanks to the vagaries of differing tastes, even an outright failure can occasionally find new life. Take "Tequila & Bonetti," a deservedly short-lived 1992 CBS series that featured Jack Scalia as a cop paired with a large French mastiff. Inexplicably, the program was popular enough in Italy that Sony eventually produced additional episodes for Italia Uno, having the central character (again played by Scalia) relocate to Rome. At Sony, Kent says, "We considered it a major hit."

Not that there's major money to be made relative to the kind of dollars harvested from domestic production and syndication. Per-episode production costs general]y don't exceed $30,000 or $40,000, a pittance by U.S. standards.

Still, it's a creative way to branch out and develop programming tailored to specific territories while employing local talent. Sony chalks up any incremental gains as a plus, since it's not like the company is going to lose out by undercutting demand for decades-old "Bewitched" reruns in Tokyo.

"We don't view what we're doing as cannibalizing any sales," Kent says, explaining that a small team of execs is "constantly looking through the vault" to see what can be dusted off and sold.

A first-of-its-kind arrangement for Telefe, Parra says "La Ninera" actually carne about in part because "The Nanny" itself was successful in Argentina, whereas "Friends" died on the vine there. Again, go figure.

"For us, obviously, it was a bet to introduce this new version in the market," he says, noting that more than 60% of the network's programming is produced domestical]y. Characterizing "La Ninera" as "a first step," he'd ideally like to see more programming ideas shooting in both directions, including sitcoms, reality and telenovelas.

Just watching some of the British series reconstituted for the U.S.--including NBC's recent misfire with "Coupling" and past wipeouts such as "Cracker"--demonstrates there's no guarantee something that works in one country will travel well. In fact, the whole idea of using a hit as the seed to grow one somewhere else often feels like just another means to mitigate risk offering execs the old "But boss, it worked like gangbusters in Fiji" excuse to fall back on.

Still, some of Sony's experience with formats indicates that with patience and a little luck, the language and cultural barriers that divide us aren't always as impenetrable as we might believe. Or, as they might say on "La Ninera": "Es un mundo pequeno," after all.
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Title Annotation:Tuning In
Author:Lowry, Brian
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 15, 2004
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