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Breaking Bad To Deutschland 83, Why Some TV Series Do So Well Abroad

Audiences have an insatiable desire for new series, with Netflix alone planning to release more than 30 new ones in 2016. But why are more and more going international?

Deutschland 83 is a big hit outside of Germany
Deutschland 83 is a big hit outside of Germany
Paul Katzenberger

BERLINDavid Bowie may be dead, but the British artist's influence can still be felt. For example, consider the future of television. The producers of the French series The Last Panthers landed a coup by choosing Bowie's last single as the theme song for the celebrated series.

Director Jonathan Renck says that Bowie's album Blackstar embodies all aspects of every character from "dark to pensive to beautiful and sentimental," which is why his music is perfect for the protagonists of The Last Panthers, who must face the suppressed fears of their past.

TV series in general are very much trending at the moment, which means producers are able to get famous celebrities such as Bowie involved in small-screen productions. But it wasn't super celebrities that made TV series so popular. The rebirth of series can be credited to producers such as Piv Bernth of the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (responsible for the world-renowned series The Killing) and Bruce Tuchman of U.S. TV channel AMC (Breaking Bad).

So who better to ask for advice than these pioneers? They allowed an audience of industry experts a peep behind the curtain during a discussion at the recent Berlinale Festival.

And one thing became clear quite quickly. The hype around the successful revival of series could become dangerous to those who are only now jumping onto the bandwagon. Netflix alone is planning to release more than 30 new series this year alone on its streaming service. Even the most dedicated binge viewer won't be able to see everything.

What works?

So what's the recipe for a good series? Stories with deep roots in their regional settings are the most promising, says Bernth, "because the authors of these series know their backyard so well that the multi-layered and complex plots that are now expected can come to the fore best."

But Tuchman adds that the regional reference is not an end in itself, as "it really is the story that has to be excellently written."

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"Say my name..." — Breaking Bad à la française

Local stories that have a global breakthrough explain why foreign-language series with subtitles have become so popular in the U.S. It's significant seeing as there wasn't even the slightest affinity towards foreign-language series until recently, and no trace of a tradition that utilizes subtitles when dubbing films.

AMC appears to be particularly successful in this regard, Tuchman says. The audience is becoming increasingly demanding, and this includes that je ne sais quoi that a foreign language provides and that viewers find appealing.

Caroline Benjo, of the French production company Haut et Court (The Returned, The Last Panthers) can only agree. "When we sold The Returned to Channel 4 in the UK, we even broadcasted the trailer exclusively in French, and the audience was delighted."

RTL didn't go that far with its German export Deutschland 83, which was nonetheless celebrated internationally. The eight-part series is broadcast and dubbed into English for an American audience, though aide-de-camp Rauch and General Edel converse in Swedish when broadcast in Sweden.

But it seems that Deutschland 83's recipe for success — to broadcast something very specific and typical of a country globally — was especially effective. The U.S. audience became engrossed in the story about a divided Germany during the Cold War. And German ratings? Very disappointing.

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