The Universal Language of Laughter

TV Formats shines a spotlight on the business of scripted comedy formats.

There are many things that divide the different cultures of the world, but one thing that most people would agree on is that laughter is key to leading a happy life. Broadcasters around the globe are well aware of the demand for funny programming, which helps offset the darker fare that frequently dominates the airwaves. A good way to provide this type of entertainment to audiences is by adapting an existing scripted comedy that has already proven to be successful.

“They get to start with an established brand that kind of generates buzz right from the gate,” ***Image***says Erika Saito, the VP of sales at Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution. “Because it’s so difficult to launch successful shows, this gives our clients an affordable way to produce a high-quality show.” Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution sells Modern Family, which currently airs on ABC in the U.S., as a scripted format. Among the territories that have signed up for local versions of the family-themed program are Greece and India.

Armoza Formats boasts a variety of scripted comedies in its catalogue, including the Israeli sitcom Life Isn’t Everything and the romantic comedy ***Image***The Odds, which airs in Canada. The company also recently added to its slate the dramedies Karl & Max and Zagouri Empire. “Broadcasters across the world look for [scripted comedies] in large part due to the desired target audience they attract and the fact that they generate a wide range of viewers for the channel,” says Avi Armoza, the company’s founder and CEO. “In addition, scripted comedy has a much higher potential for re-runs than other scripted content; it provides broadcasters with a higher monetization potential than dramas might, since in the latter section of the scripted genre viewers are often watching to discover plot twists that, once revealed, leads to a lower demand for repeat viewing.”

One of the most well known scripted comedy formats represented by BBC Worldwide is The Office, a mockumentary ***Image***sitcom that first aired on BBC Two in the U.K. The popularity of the show, which is about a group of employees working in an office, led to international versions being made in several other countries, including the U.S., where the local treatment aired for nine seasons on NBC. BBC Worldwide also recently secured the script rights for the Golden Globe-winning American version of The Office. Other scripted comedies repped by the company are Friday Night Dinner, Citizen Khan and Miranda.

Traffic Light is a leading scripted comedy format on offer from Keshet International. The story centers on three male best friends who are all at ***Image***different stages in their lives. Keren Shahar, the company’s managing director of distribution, also highlights The Baker and the Beauty, Your Family or Mine, Milk & Honey and Imported. “These are very broad comedies, and I think that’s the appeal of these shows,” says Shahar. “All the underlying themes really resonate with people everywhere.”

Just because a comedy series is a hit in one territory doesn’t necessarily mean that it is guaranteed to have the same success in another. “People’s tastes can be quite different,” says Suzanne Kendrick, BBC Worldwide’s head of format sales. “That’s why when we’re choosing comedies, we’re looking for something that has universal themes. So whether it’s work or whether it’s family, [having] something at the core that everybody experiences makes it easier to find ways to translate that into a local version.”

In addition to having universal themes, producers must be sure to infuse their local treatments with cultural elements that are familiar to their target viewers in order to properly adapt a scripted comedy. “It has to be funny to the people that you’re around,” says Twentieth Century Fox’s Saito. “If it is, you will have a very successful comedy. The scripts are there so you can take the story line in its essence, but specific incidences that happen on a day-to-day basis have to be about what they’re familiar with over there.”

Although the general consensus is that scripted comedy is more challenging to adapt than drama or unscripted programming, buyers seem to be up for the challenge. “It is harder to adapt comedy to local tastes and local cultures,” says Keshet’s Shahar. “But I would say that we are seeing more and more of our scripted comedy formats traveling and being acquired and definitely generating more interest. I think buyers are much more open now to look at comedy formats than before. And we see them even move forward and go on the air very successfully for the most part.”

The future looks bright for the business of scripted comedy formats as long as there continues to be a steady stream of humorous, universal stories that can be adapted to reflect local cultures, and as long as viewers worldwide keep on embracing their innate desire to laugh.