Why Procedural Shows Are So Popular Abroad

Tom Selleck in 'Blue Bloods.'

Deadline’s Tim Adler sat down with a bunch of international television executives at the Monte Carlo Television Awards to find out why international audiences like American police and medical procedural shows so much. The answers weren’t as revealing as I might have liked — with the exception of the beautifully stereotypical explanation that “what appeals to the French about House and The Mentalist is that lead characters Dr. Gregory House and Patrick Jane are irreverent.”

Most of the executives mentioned higher production values in American shows than in a variety of domestic competitors. Thomas Bellut, the head of programming for ZDF, the non-profit German public television broadcaster, apparently thinks that German audiences don’t like watching shows that don’t resolve problems within a single programming hour on television, and that the’re more likely to watch something like Lost or Damages when they can consume a lot of episodes in a row, via DVD or another method (as a side note, I’d love to know how more complex, non-procedural shows do in countries like Chile, where something like the telenovela wars require audiences to tune in every night for months). But other than talking about the comfort-food, one-off factor, none of the executives said anything about cultural or values factors.

There’s no denying that shows that you don’t have to make a major commitment to are very effective at gaining casual viewers, be it Ace of Cakes or Law & Order. But police and medical procedurals also are a very effective way to get American audiences to reconcile their conflicting feelings about authority. Procedurals don’t just demonstrate police or medical effectiveness within the hour; they also let audiences acknowledge that police brutality and bullying patients are bad things while making the argument that it’s worth accepting those behaviors as long as they contribute to someone ending up behind bars or not dying of an incredibly baroque disease. In that respect, procedurals are a conservative genre: they undermine arguments for reform, suggesting that reforms might upset the efficacy of the status quo. But I have no idea how those arguments play abroad, whether they’re part of the appeal of American procedurals, or a limiting factor, and what they mean for how other countries think about justice in America.