American Television Reinventions: Family Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

American Television Reinventions: Family

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Introduction
Comedy | Drama | Family | Game Shows | Reality

Many of the programmes based on British television series and remade for American audiences have been family focused, intended to be enjoyed by parents and their children. Of course, children can be any ages from toddlers to teenagers, so 'family programming' covers quite a wide range. This articles compares and contrasts just a few examples.

Differences

Many family programmes are animated series. With these, rather than remake the whole series from scratch it is an increasingly popular trend to redub voices when they are broadcast in America, even for British cartoons where all the characters are speaking English. For example, British television series Octonauts (2010+) when broadcast on the American Disney Channel has a different voice artist for Peso. Similarly, many, though not all, voices for British animated series Chuggington (2008-12) were redubbed when broadcast in America.

One main difference between television shows shown in different countries concerns their ideal length. British commercial channels may have different length advert breaks than across the Atlantic and Britain's most popular children's channels, CBBC and CBeebies, do not have advert breaks at all. For a British programme to succeed in America, it ideally should be the right length to fit neatly into their broadcasting schedules.

In order for this to happen, some British programmes that are too long have had parts edited out when shown in America. This happened with The Muppet Show, which as we will see was specifically designed to be a shorter show when shown there. More commonly, programmes for children are too short. A frequent approach to rectify this is to double-bank. Here, two or more episodes of a short cartoon are shown one after the other, rather than broadcasting each episode individually in isolation from the rest of the series.

Double-banking does not always make the programme the correct length either, so linking material may be made with the American market in mind. This linking material could be broadcast as a spin-off programme on British television. So for instance, an animated series such as Octonauts or Chuggington in the United States would be shown with two or more whole episodes back-to-back along with additional short material. In the United Kingdom only one episode would be shown at a time, with the linking material broadcast as separate series Octonauts: Creature Report and Chuggington: Badge Quest at different times and often on different days to the parent programme.

The Muppet Show / Muppets Tonight / The Muppets

The Muppet Show (1976-81)

The Muppet Show was a puppet-based variety show in which audiences not only see the acts performed, but also the frantic behind-the-scenes activity of the varied cast and crew. The series was made in Elstree Studios in the UK by Lew Grade's company ITC as, although creator Jim Henson had made pilot versions of the show in an attempt to sell his idea in the US, no American television company was interested in making a family programme featuring puppets. Grade, who specialised in selling television shows worldwide and had made programmes like Thunderbirds, knew it would be successful and it became one of the world's most successful television series, even in the US. The version broadcast in America was two minutes shorter than that seen in the UK, due to American television having longer advert breaks at the time. The missing two minutes from each episode usually revolved around Rowlf and/or Fozzy singing songs.

Key characters included Kermit, the leader of the Muppets, Miss Piggy, the diva pig who wanted Kermit all to herself, Fozzy Bear, the nervous comedian often heckled by two old men in the audience named Statler and Waldorf, Gonzo, a strange stuntman, Rowlf, the piano-playing dog, Dr Teeth and the Electric Mayhem Band, including Animal on drums, Janice on guitar, Floyd Pepper on bass and Zoot on saxophone, scientist Dr Bunsen Honeydew and his assistant Beaker, as well as the Swedish Chef.

Muppets Tonight (1996-98)

Muppets Tonight followed roughly the same formula as the original show, only with the Muppets trying to make television episodes rather than a theatre show. It featured an expanded cast that now included a television host named Clifford, security guard Bobo the Bear and Pepé the King Prawn. This, though, was made in Hollywood rather than in the UK.

Curiously, although it was made in America, like The Muppet Show each episode of Muppets Tonight was two minutes longer in the UK. Like The Muppet Show, in Britain it was broadcast on the BBC which does not have advert breaks. Sadly only 22 episodes were made and although enjoyable, it did not have the same impact as the original.

The Muppets (2015)

The Muppets was another show made by Disney-owned television company ABC in America. Rather than the variety performance format seen in both previous series, this show uses the mockumentary style popularised by The Office. The story behind The Muppets involves the making of a popular chat show, Up Late With Miss Piggy, a show featuring only Miss Piggy with music supplied by the Electric Mayhem Band. Kermit the Frog and the other Muppets are involved in the production, with the behind-the-scenes goings-on being filmed. Made by Bill Prady who had previously been involved in Fraggle Rock, the show aimed to ensure that the Muppets retained an adult audience while remaining child-friendly. Despite this it attracted complaints that the series was not suitable for children and only 16 episodes were made.

Fraggle Rock (1983-87)

Following The Muppet Show's success, Jim Henson was determined to create international appeal with his follow-up. When he made Fraggle Rock with his new company Henson International Television, it was made as a British-American-Canadian co-production and it was intended to allow each country that broadcast it to have its own bookending sections. So in the UK Fraggle Rock was set beneath a lighthouse1, while North American countries had it set beneath a barn owned by an inventor, etc. Most of the regional characters owned a dog named Sprocket. A later animated series of Fraggle Rock was made. Henson International Television, renamed HiT Entertainment, now make shows like Thomas and Friends.

Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends

Thomas and Friends, though still more commonly known as Thomas the Tank Engine, is a children's programme based on the Railway Series by Reverend Awdry that has drifted across the Atlantic in the early 21st Century.

Thomas the Tank Engine (1984-86, 1991-95, 1998)

Initially famously narrated by Ringo Starr, the original series involved a narrator describing the adventures of a series of engines that ran on the fictional island of Sodor, under the organisation of the Fat Controller, Sir Topham Hatt. Later series were narrated by fellow Liverpudlian Michael Angelis, with different narrators in America.

Shining Time Station (1989-95)

As Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends had proved so popular in the UK, producer Britt Allcroft was keen to launch the series in America. However the original episodes' four minute format did not appeal to America's PBS network. To get around this a wrap-around live-action show, Shining Time Station, was made, bookending the original show's episodes. This initially starred Ringo Starr, the narrator of the first two series of Thomas the Tank Engine, as the Conductor. Later series starred George Carlin who also narrated the American dub of the Thomas the Tank Engine segments rather than Michael Angelis.

Thomas and Friends (2002+)

The Shining Time Station format was a key influence on the film Thomas and the Magic Railroad (2000), in which Alec Baldwin played Mr Conductor. Yet when this was released in cinemas it was condemned by critics as having Americanised a British classic and it flopped, forcing producer Britt Allcroft to sell the rights. These were bought by HiT Entertainment who made Thomas and Friends from 2002, initially sticking close to the original series before replacing the theme tune and later changing the original models to CGI characters. From 2009, the series was made in Canada rather than Britain in order to take advantage of tax incentives.

The Mr Men / The Mr Men Show

The Mr Men and Little Miss stories are a series of children's books by Roger Hargreaves. The first one, Mr Tickle, was published in 1971. These characters have proven popular all around the world.

The Mr Men (1974, 1983)

The first television series based on these stories was made in 1974. Sticking very closely to the original stories, the series consisted of 28 episodes narrated by Arthur Lowe, with a catchy theme tune by Tony Hymas. In 1983 a series based on the Little Miss books was made, although as Arthur Lowe had died in 1982, these were instead narrated by John Alderton and Pauline Collins. A series entitled Mr Men and Little Miss was made in the mid-90s, although this was dubbed when broadcast in America.

The Mr Men Show (2008-09)

The American version made many changes to the original format. Controversially many of the characters' appearances were drastically altered for this series, most notably Mr Strong. Originally conceived as a red square, for this series he was redesigned as a red triangle. Other characters' appearances and colours changed slightly. Some characters changed names, so Mr Fussy became Mr Pernickety, Mr Jelly was renamed Mr Nervous etc, while whole new characters were invented, such as Little Miss Calamity and Little Miss Daredevil. Little Miss Stubborn and Little Miss Scatterbrain were changed to Mr Stubborn and Mr Scatterbrain.

The series features far more interactions between all the episodes, with episodes based on different themes rather than concentrating on a specific character. All the characters now live in the same town, Dillydale.

SuperTed

SuperTed was a Welsh cartoon series that proved popular internationally. The creator, Mike Young, was determined to prove that it was possible to make a successful television series in Wales, rather than in London where Britain's film and television industry was based. In 2014 it was announced that a new series was being developed.

SuperTed (1983-85)

SuperTed (Derek Griffiths) was a rejected teddy who was brought to life by Spotty (Jon Pertwee), a visiting alien, and given super powers by Mother Nature. Living in a tree house and also having his own space station, he fights the evil schemes of cowboy Texas Pete (Victor Spinetti) who is assisted by the effeminate Skeleton (Melvyn Hayes) and Bulk (Roy Kinnear).

The Further Adventures of SuperTed (1988)

The original series was considered to have been made to such a high quality that it became the first British animated series to be broadcast on America's Disney Channel. This popularity led to an American version, with new characters created. Of the original voice cast, only Victor Spinetti and Melvyn Hayes stayed as Pete and Skeleton when it was made, but for the British broadcast the BBC redubbed the series with original voice artists Jon Pertwee and Derek Griffiths.

The Tomorrow People

Unusually a series whose reinvention saw it going from Britain to America via an island in the middle of the ocean.

The Tomorrow People (1973-79)

The Tomorrow People was made by Thames Television as ITV's answer to Doctor Who through the 1970s. A group of teenagers learn they have super powers: telekinesis, the ability to communicate with their minds, and the ability to teleport if they wear special belts or bracelets, a process they call 'jaunting'. They live in an abandoned London Underground station and have a sentient computer called TIM. A key part of the series was when Tomorrow People were developing and discovering their powers, a process they call 'breaking out'. They believe themselves to be the next step of human evolution, hence Tomorrow People, and call themselves 'homo superior' to distinguish themselves from homo sapiens, who they nickname 'saps'. Unlike homo sapiens, they are incapable of killing.

The series featured Nicholas Young as John, the leader of the Tomorrow People, and new break-out character Stephen who is guided by Carol as well as other cast members who came and went. The cast was deliberately chosen to reflect a variety of different cultures and ethnic backgrounds in the hope of encouraging worldwide sales and was sold to over 50 countries worldwide. A returning villain was a shape-shifting robot named Jedikiah. A Galactic Federation also played a key role.

The Tomorrow People (1992-95)

The original series, despite being cheaply made, continued to prove popular and so the early 1990s saw a cross-Atlantic remake by Thames Television's American subsidiary Reeves Entertainment and Tetra Films. Instead of living in a base in the London Underground, Break Outs were drawn to a psychic spaceship hidden in a South Pacific island (although the island only appeared in the first series for budgetary reasons).

The international cast played different characters from the original, with Neighbours' Australian actor Kristian Schmid starring as Adam, aided by American, British and Canadian Tomorrow People, including Naomie Harris2 OBE as Ami Jackson. The music and title sequence were different. There are notable changes from the original series, as not only does TIM not appear, the ability to teleport no longer requires belts or bracelets.

The Tomorrow People (2013)

In the early 21st Century many of the most successful films were about superheroes, including the Dark Knight, X-Men and Avengers series. Similarly, television series Heroes (2006-10, Heroes Reborn 2014-15) also dealt with people with powers. Following this popularity, it is unsurprising that a remake of The Tomorrow People was made. This remake stayed closer in plot to the original than the 1990s series, although like the 1990s series characters could teleport without wearing belts. The series was aimed at an older, teenage audience.

The series follows Stephen as he breaks out, learning that he is an especially powerful homo superior and has powers known as the three Ts:

  1. Telepathy
  2. Teleportation
  3. Telekinesis
  4. Time Distortion3

Stephen tries to balance having a normal family life with ensuring the safety of the Tomorrow People. He aids fellow Tomorrow People led by Clara, a similar character to the original's Carol, and John in trying to learn why his father, one of the first Tomorrow People and their leader, disappeared years earlier. They hide in an underground lair near New York's subway system as they are hunted by a secret organisation called Ultra. Ultra is headed by Stephen's uncle, Jedekiah, and was set up to prevent humanity from being replaced by the Tomorrow People.

This new series had a much bigger effects budget and, unlike the original, contains moderate sex references, showing it is aimed at an older audience. Nicholas Young, the original John, even appears in a couple of episodes. Sadly the series' ratings were unremarkable, leading it to be cancelled after only a single series.

Primeval

After the BBC brought back Doctor Who in 2005, ITV wanted something similar. In the 1970s their answer had been The Tomorrow People, but for the early 21st Century they responded with a series in which time portals from different eras in the past carry prehistoric monsters to within easy commuting distance of a top-secret organisation in the present. It starred former S Club 7 singer Hannah Spearitt as pants-wearing Abby Maitland, accompanied by geeky Connor Temple and dinosaur hunter Nick Cutter.

The five series made by the same people behind Walking With Dinosaurs were highly enjoyable silly fun, but ITV budget cuts led to the series being cancelled.

Primeval: New World (2012)

This time a Canadian reinvention, Primeval: New World was very similar to the original, but set in Vancouver, Canada. Instead of a team of professionals, the characters focus around the friends of Evan Cross, a rich inventor who spends his time investigating anomalies after one led to the death of his wife. This series had a new theme tune and opening sequence, but kept its connection to the original by book-ending the series with appearances by Connor Temple.

Robot Wars

Robot Wars was a show in which home-made 'robots', remote-controlled vehicles with weapons, fought each other in a championship competition. Broadcast in Britain between 1998 and 2004 and revived in 2016, it was extremely popular and soon there were World Championship competitions in which robots from all around the world competed to become World Champion. An American series was made in 2002, although this only lasted one series.

LazyTown (2004-07, 2012-14)

Of course, it is not just British family shows that garner American remakes. One popular Icelandic show is LazyTown. This show mixes actors and puppets to tell about the people of a small town whose inactive ways are challenged by visitor Stephanie and a superhero named Sportacus, much to the annoyance of Robbie Rotten, the bad guy. In 2008 a spin-off show, Lazy Town Extra, was made for Britain's CBeebies channel. In 2011 Turner Broadcasting, part of the Warner group, bought the rights to LazyTown and in 2012 began making new episodes. The girl playing Stephanie was changed (from Julianna Rose Mauriello to Chloe Lang) and the puppet voices were altered to have American accents.

1Of the 96 episodes of Fraggle Rock, reportedly only 29 of the British introductions still exist. They were made by TVS, which lost its ITV franchise in December 1992. Subsequently many TVS programmes, including Fraggle Rock, were lost.2An Oscar-nominated actress who is perhaps most famous for being Eve Moneypenny in Bond films such as Skyfall.3Arithmetic not being one of the Three Ts.

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