"Life" in the USA


DVD cover of original version of the programme...
I was rather surprised when I came across this trailer, released some years ago in the US to advertise the BBC/Discovery Channel series Life: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2_mBj09YEfk

DVD cover of USA version of the programme.
Despite the current shift occurring in the general format of documentaries, where often we seem to get more about the presenters or theoretical creators of the programmes than the intended subject matter itself, I was surprised just at how much they have needed to portray a documentary series as an action film to get viewings in the USA.

(Until I realised, the Americans aren't alone on this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RMuUcoDySpU. Although this series isn't one of those "let's film the camera crew filming the animals for an hour", I feel obliged to point out how the public worldwide, Britain and the BBC's audience included, seems to need to get a movie out of a documentary: "we want pictures, not words").

But did you note the name of the narrator in the American trailer?

Although it's a shame documentaries have to be sold as action films to get a sizable audience, I agree that this is a good marketing strategy. It works, and that's what's important. The subject will be treated in the programme, there is no need to do so while advertising it.

What struck me recently was realising that Life, narrated by none other Sir David Attenborough, was re-written for "American audiences" (i.e. the USA, Canada broadcast the original series) and narrated by Oprah Winfrey.

Having grown-up in Spain, I'm not actually sure just how much of the general English-speaking populous knows who Sir David Attenborough is and associate him with his work, so I won't make speculative assumptions. But let's face it, he is a pretty big name whether you are interested in the natural world or not; undoubtedly anybody watching British television in the last 50 years will recognise his voice, at least – I just thought this extended to the the English-speaking public around the world (I've known his name since I was 10, although my Spanish classmates certainly didn't).

So now I just wonder whether this is a frequent phenomenon – how often documentaries have to be adapted to an American palette and how much the format has to change to appeal to the appetite across the water where everything is bigger. I actually think it'd be more interesting to know whether this change in delivery is actually effective in any way. In this instance it would appear that it is a celebrity matter: Winfrey will undoubtedly be a bigger name to sell – but was it necessary to re-write the programme? What difference does it make?

Here's a clip from the first episode of Life in the States:

And the original:
NB - I do not own ANY of the content displayed in these YouTube clips or the accounts that posted them. Nor do I claim rights to the cover images of the DVDs, which I found on a sharing site.

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