The Showrunner Effect: System, Culture and Individual Agency in American Remakes of Danish Television Series.

Research output: Book/anthology/dissertation/reportBookResearch


Scripted formats serve as iconic branding tools for broadcast and cable networks as well as streaming services such as AMC, NBC, Netflix and HBO. As a result of this, foreign scripted formats are increasingly adapted in the American television system, but this phenomenon is not sufficiently examined in media studies. Motivated by this gap in the research, I set out to examine how scripted format adaptation works. In existing theory on format adaptation, there is a divide between those who think that culture- and national-based frameworks are best suited for explaining the adaptation processes, and those who adhere to factors within the change from one television system to another. This forms the motivation for the aims and purposes of the dissertation. I have sought to examine under which conditions each framework seems justified, and which boundaries each framework has. I find that some of the disagreement on which framework is more powerful can be attributed to a lack of genre awareness. Some genres prove more culturally sensitive than others, and it appears that scripted entertainment formats and especially those based on humour are more dependent on regional and national variables than other formats. The overview of research illustrates that frameworks emphasising culture and the national can be powerful in accounting for format adaptation, also where television series are concerned. Case studies of The Office (UK/US) and the transformation from Broadchurch to Gracepoint convincingly illustrate the importance of addressing questions of culture on a national as well as a more local level, pointing out authenticity of location as an important factor in scripted formats. The overview also illustrates that while powerful in certain cases, such frameworks are also reductive and have to be used with some caution. The theory chapter examines the explanatory power of frameworks emphasising the potentially global audience and differences in national media systems, channel profiles and scheduling slots. It seems questionable whether these frameworks are better suited in explaining the processes of remaking scripted entertainment formats than culturally based approaches. That said, it is evident that such matters should almost always be taken into account when analysing remaking processes. This dissertation analyses three showrunners, three producers and one agent’s work on remaking scripted formats for the American television system. This paves the way for an analysis of three Danish television drama originals and their American remakes, as well as the contexts in which originals and remakes were broadcast, using the theory chapter as its foundation and the interview data as perspective.The Danish drama series originals and their American remakes are:Forbrydelsen (DR 2007-12)  The Killing (AMC 2011-14)Broen (DR/SVT 2011–)  The Bridge (FX 2013-14)Nikolaj & Julie (DR 2003)  Love is a Four-Letter Word (NBC 2015) The interview analysis confirms known reasons for remaking formats, such as cost-effectiveness and risk-management, but then proceeds with the following original findings:Finding 1: Scripted formats improve communicationOriginal scripted formats are used to increase the chance of a sell, and to make the pitch easier. My research finds that original scripted formats help condense complex information into something easily communicated in a picture, a single sentence or even just a few words. Furthermore, original scripted formats are used as social capital, as a way to attract desirable showrunners, writers and actors to a production. Finally, an original scripted format can be used to avoid misunderstandings in a production, because it facilitates a shared vision.Finding 2: Work-life balance and writer’s everyday reality affect locationChoice of location in remakes of scripted entertainment formats is influenced by vision, budget, writer’s everyday reality and the work-life balance of key people involved in the production. Finding 3: The showrunner effectThe showrunner is described as the key person in changing a scripted format to fit American sensibilities, channel brands and the television system. This is confirmed unanimously by the producers and the agent I interviewed. Producers and agents can only change formats to a certain degree, but they have power in choosing the showrunner. Based on this, I develop the theory of a showrunner effect: The idea that a remaking process is profoundly influenced by the adapting showrunner. The thesis analyses the texts and contexts of its original Danish television series and their American remakes, using the production analysis and the showrunner interviews as analytical perspective, testing the power and boundaries of the showrunner effect. In the case of the transformation from Forbrydelsen to The Killing, the analysis illustrates how The Killing’s greatest problems were related to fitting into and properly accounting for the new media system. Even so, the analysis also illustrates how issues of location and culture were carefully negotiated, and how the show just as easily could have stumbled in these negotiations as in the challenges the new media system posed. Finally, the analysis illustrates how Veena Sud’s interests, tastes and individual experiences had a significant impact on the remade format, in part explaining what had been read as ‘American’ obsessions with psychological explanations and culturally based hostility towards bad motherhood. Sud used the idea that Americans were result-oriented, impatient and disinterested in politics to justify changes to the original format. These constructions and statements could also be read as a way of shifting the blame for The Killing’s fall in viewership from herself to the audience, which again could be seen as a way of surviving in the competitive American entertainment industry. Read either way, Sud’s personal influence on The Killing is unmistakable. With the transformation from Broen to The Bridge, the most important aspect of the remaking process took place in the negotiations of place and culture. The analysis demonstrates how choosing a new location considerably different from that of the original one in terms of culture, power relations and history resulted in the disappearance of a substantial layer of exploration and negotiation of national cultures and stereotypes. Furthermore, the switch in location also eventually caused a shift in genres. The analysis illustrates that some aspects are neatly covered by national frameworks, such as language and power relations, while others are strictly tied to the local, such as the exploration of cross-border crimes. I posit that Elwood Reid, influenced by his perceptions of the American and global media system, his ideas about national culture, and possibly also his everyday reality and creative pride, allegedly pushed the decision to set The Bridge on the US-Mexican border. This choice was crucial in how the remake came to look and feel. Thus, the choice of Elwood Reid as showrunner became, in many ways, the cornerstone in the story about The Bridge.When Nikolaj & Julie was remade into Love is a Four-Letter Word, changes included increased diversity in terms of ethnicity, relationships and sexuality, but also a more uniform view of social classes. The divorce was deemphasised, the character developments took different paths, and the entire premise of the show was changed. Some of these changes can be attributed to the new location in time, space and media system. However, the connection between how Love is a Four-Letter Word came to look and Diana Son, the showrunner on the remade format, is hard to exaggerate. The location, the themes and the characters are so intertwined with her personal life and surroundings that it borders on the autobiographical. A different showrunner would almost certainly have adapted the original in a substantially different way, making the format a prime example of the explanatory power of the showrunner effect.The text and context analysis illustrates that the showrunner effect has great explanatory power when accounting for remaking processes – power beyond what existing frameworks of national culture or media systems have to offer. With that being said, one should still look to matters of system and culture when analysing remaking processes: Showrunners clearly pay attention to the television system in which they operate, and they interact with constructions of national culture, such as they individually perceive them. With the power of the showrunner effect established, the discussion seeks to expand upon the concept. The link between location and the showrunner’s everyday reality is reprised. The discussion then offers the following preliminary observations:1) Characters, including their personal traits and the dilemmas they are in, are primarily influenced by the showrunner’s own life and the people in it. 2) Mood or tone in the remake is primarily influenced by the showrunner’s individual perception of national culture.3) Fidelity to the original is primarily influenced by a negotiation between the adapting showrunner’s contradicting desire to honour the original with faithfulness and change it at the same time.These last observations need further testing and attuning beyond what my data warrants and this dissertation can meaningfully encompass.Summarily: With the analysis the dissertation introduces and tests the concept of the showrunner effect, pointing to the power of individual agency in media studies.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2018


  • Showrunner
  • television
  • remake
  • adaptation


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