Overseas television markets serve as important media gatekeepers, routinely adapting imported TV shows to fit local cultural norms and values. The phenomenon of adaptation in television imports directly challenges the cultural imperialism thesis that maintains U.S. hegemonic media messages are shipped out to the global village in a wholesale manner. Previous work has focused largely on anecdotal evidence of adaptation in audiovisual products, relying on small samples and isolated examples.
The content analysis undertaken was empirically based, examining modifications occurring in the Japanese and French dubbed versions of The Simpsons. Based on Hofstede's (2001) cultural distance, the study hypothesized that the Japanese adaptation of the animated series would be modified more frequently. The sample was based on a random selection of 20 episodes from the first five seasons, utilizing international DVD formats. Back translations of the foreign language versions into English enabled a side-by-side comparison with the original U.S. version.
Adaptation in the Japanese and French dialogue of The Simpsons was measured along two key dimensions: occurrence of change (omissions, additions, replacement, and softening) and nature of change (linguistic features; intertextuality; cultural references; violence; profanity, crudeness, insults; sexual content; religion & morality; and stereotypes & portrayals). Qualitative methods were used in conjunction with the quantitative results.
Overall, the Japanese adaptation contained a significantly higher number of modifications. All together, 3,106 changes were coded in both language versions, with 1827 modifications occurring in the Japanese version and 1279 modifications in the French version. The Japanese dubbing omitted and softened dialogue at significantly higher proportions than the French adaptation. The hypothesis relating to the replacement of dialogue skewed in the opposite direction of expectations, with the French using this strategy to a greater extent than the Japanese.
The Japanese version was more polite and less insulting, losing the satiric edge of the original version. The Japanese adaptation also frequently inserted moral lessons into the show. In contrast, the French adaptation tended to intensify insults and reinforce negative stereotyping, as well as to dramatize language. The dubbing for the French market succeeded in reproducing the spirit and playfulness of The Simpsons to a greater degree than the Japanese version. Approximately one-third of the changes originated from the same precise dialogue in the U.S. script, signaling that many of the show's references may be too culturally specific to travel beyond American borders and register with foreign viewers.