Producing For an International Audience

Nicole Landry - Producing for an international audience
Jake Macfarlane's picture Jake Macfarlane 2 years 7 months ago

More and more television shows and video content is being created each year and with online

video subscription sites such as Netflix and Hulu, as well as free streaming sites like Youtube, Vevo, and

Viki, the consumption of online video streaming is on the rise (Grotticelli). With the power of the internet

and distribution networks, video content is able to reach wide audiences, or as some would call it, a

global audience. With this plethora of content I'm led to question, how does one stand out? What does

one need in order to create a successful international program?

For starters, I think it would be good to question and further examine whether a global audience

really exists in the first place, and if people truly care to watch programming from other parts of the world.

Razmig Hovaghimian, a regular user of the video-streaming site 'Viki', says that he grew up watching

Japanese anime in the 1980s without understanding a word. Hovaghimian states that the entertainment

value was enough, and that even without subtitles he thoroughly enjoyed watching the shows simply for

the music and themes (Trieu). However, it is likely that this is not the case for everyone. Charlotte Koh,

head of content for the video streaming paid-subscription site 'Hulu', says that Americans are more used

to exporting their culture than importing, and aren't accustomed to subtitled or dubbed audio (Willmore).

With that said, Koh also states that she feels subtitles carry an unfair negative connotation and hopes that

this view will change in the future and people will be more open to international offerings (Willmore). With

the information collected from both of these sources, it is my opinion that it may simply take time for both

content creators and viewers to adjust completely to the idea of international programs. Subtitles have

long been seen as a more challenging viewing experience, but I believe that this is changing due to more

accessible viewing platforms being created and offering the content.

The above are simply individual accounts on the global audience, but through my research I also

came across a paper by Harsh Taneja and James G. Webster, entitled "How Do Global Audiences Take

Shape? The Role of Institutions and Culture in Patterns of Web Use" which digs deeper into the question

of whether people are really interested in international content. To answer this question, this paper

examines the role of cultural and technological factors in the formation of audiences on a global scale

(Taneja and Webster, 161). The paper uses the term "cultural proximity" to refer to the power of cultural

structures such as language and geography to shape audiences; in this view it is argued that people

prefer content within their cultural proximity despite the availability of international sources (Taneja and

Webster, 164). Many scholars argue the opposite however, saying that the abundance of options

available to the public has created a sense of individual empowerment and individuals seek out their

content preferences from whichever area offers the greatest quality. For instance, those who wish to keep

up with current affairs would look to the New York Times or the Guardian, as they are generally viewed as

the best quality news sources (Taneja and Webster, 165). At this point one must wonder which is more

influential -- the power of media industries and platforms with wide availability or cultural familiarity

(Taneja and Webster, 164)? This study argues that it makes sense for audiences to gravitate towards the

best content of their preferred genre, but at the same time it seems likely that audiences would prefer to

consume content in their primary language (Taneja and Webster, 166). Overall, this article provides

evidence for both sides of the argument, but their analysis confirms that audiences tend to gravitate

towards culturally familiar content. The paper suggest that it may be the overwhelming variety of choices

available to the public that makes it hard for people to take the leap to viewing international content

(Taneja and Webster, 177).

Although at this point it seems unlikely, or at least unclear, that there is currently a solid global

audience with interest in international programs, it does seem that if there isn't already one that there will

be in the future. For this reason I still think it is worthwhile to look closer at some elements that would

seem to be essential for creating a successful international program. The first and most obvious point that

comes to mind is accessibility. This can be demonstrated in a variety of ways, but I believe that Pixar is an

excellent example of an organization providing access to their international audiences. Pixar not only

makes use of subtitles, but goes as far as altering the visuals in their films to make it more culturally

familiar to audiences around the globe. For example, in the American version of the recent film "Inside

Out" the father is daydreaming about a hockey game. In the international version this daydream

sequence is changed to show a soccer game since it is a much more common sport throughout the world

(Anderson). In the film "Up", visuals are used to make sense of words that wouldn't be familiar to

international audiences: the money jar that reads "Paradise Falls" in the American version is replaced with

a picture of the falls in the international version (Anderson). These methods of accessibility are

exemplary; subtitles are a step in the right direction, but the extra steps that Pixar takes are even more


Another element to be considered when creating an international program is diversity. I did some

research on international collaboration and came across a project 'Bodies at the Border': a play about the

shared experiences of people and borders. 7,837 miles stood between the collaborators, but writers and

actors held meetings and rehearsals over Skype (Glaser). One of the collaborators stated the following:

"Our goal for the play is for it to supersede migration we're all exposed to languages we

don't understand, so the audience will encounter words they don't understand and that's an important part

of the experience." (Glaser) In each location that the play was performed, new actors along with

languages were added (Glaser). I not only thought that this was a really interesting project, but also that it

demonstrates that in order for content to feel inclusive to international audiences, diversity should be

considered both on the production team and in performance.

During my research in this area, I came across a case study of 'The Cosby Show', a show which

became an international hit in the late 80s and early 90's. This paper, written by Timothy Havens, outlines

what made the show a global success. Regardless of whether or not the show producers initially intended

for this international attention, the successful elements of the show can hint at what it takes to be a global

hit television show. One of the main points brought up about the show is the marketing techniques. The

show was priced to sell and although exact dollar amounts earned from marketing are not available to the

public, it is obvious that the strategy worked (Havens, 378). From this I can take that it is important to

price for who you want to sell to. If you're aiming to reach more developed countries this may not be as

big of an issue, but less developed countries, many of which picked up 'The Cosby Show', take price into

greater consideration. 'The Cosby Show' was innovative in its representation of race and set higher

standard for black media representation. As this paper puts it, "Race is seen as a transnational identity

that can bind together audiences across national lines" (Havens, 372). People around the world identified

with the show's innovation in this sense. As mentioned before, diversity is key in the development of

shows, but the way that 'The Cosby Show' portrayed race brings up another important element of

successful international television -- universal themes and topics. The show presented race in a way that

avoided touching upon the race related issues in America. Although issues of race were brought up, they

were done so in a broad sense, thus making the show understandable and relatable to international

audiences (Havens, 382). Additionally, the show focused on themes of personal growth, sibling rivalries,

and relationship issues (Havens, 383). These themes were universally understood and appealed to a

wide demographic. 'The Cosby Show' later gave rise to sitcoms like 'A Different World', 'The Fresh Prince

of Bel-Air, and 'Family Matter's' and overall, was an unquestionable success.

My research offers many contradicting points to whether or not a global audience with interest in

international programs exists, but I do feel as if it is unquestionable that one is growing alongside online

distribution platforms. Along with this it is clear what the key elements of a successful international

program are: accessibility, diversity, marketing, and universality. I remain to think that the idea of a global

audience is incredibly fascinating, and can't wait to see what the future of international television has in



Work Cited

Trieu, Rosa. "Primetime TV Shows That Flopped Find International Success On Viki." Forbes. 19 May.

2014. Web.

Willmore, Alison. "Who's Afraid of a Few Subtitles? The Rise of International Television." IndieWire. 19

Dec. 2013. Web.

Grotticelli, Michael. "Internet audience watching online video in ever-larger numbers." ProQuest. 1, July.

2011. Web.

Anderson, Ethan. "VOTD: Learn How Pixar Animation Changes Their Movies for International Audiences."

Slashfilm. 21, February. 2017. Web.

Glaser, Linda B. "International collaboration results in play about borders." Cornell University. 20,

February. 2017. Web.

Taneja, Harsh, and James G. Webster. "How Do Global Audiences Take Shape? The Role of Institutions

and Culture in Patterns of Web Use." Journal of Communication. 2015. Web.

Havens, Timothy. "'The biggest show in the world': race and the global popularity of The Cosby Show."

Indiana University. 2000. Web.