The foulmouthed brats of South Park don't look especially Taiwanese as they scurry across animated snow-covered landscapes, so it may seem odd to viewers familiar with the English version of the show when they open their mouths and crack jokes about Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) in a mixture of Mandarin and Taiwanese.
On other shows, Taiwanese emcees replace the original Western hosts and the formats of popular Western game shows are copied wholesale, but with the substitution of Taiwanese hosts and competitors.
Often through reformatting, rewriting entire scripts or by adding a local celebrity to be a program host, some of the country's non-Mandarin-language cable TV stations are adapting their programming by localizing their content in the hope of expanding their audience and boosting ratings.
Looking to stand out
Leading the charge to diversify their content and include more recognizably local elements are AXN, Star TV, Disney Channel and Power TV, all of which have realized that their brand recognition as foreign-language channels no longer constitute a distinct advantage in attracting viewers.
"With the number of television channels in Taiwan now, it's becoming increasingly difficult to stand out if you don't include some localized broadcasts," explained Cindy Liu (
"People presume you're just another channel that airs foreign programs. If you want to be recognized as more than another foreign-language station, then you have to include programs with local content and make more shows relevant to Taiwan. What has viewers transfixed in North America, for example, isn't necessarily going to interest anyone in Taiwan."
Early last week the latest evidence of the localization of Taiwanese TV was beamed into homes in the form of a local take on the hugely popular Survivor series which revolutionized so-called reality TV in the US, England and Australia. In the Power TV show, contestants were forced to live in a plexiglass box without food for five days.
The challenge may not have been as death-defying as those on Western versions of reality TV shows, but this didn't deter masses of viewers from tuning in to gawk at nine starving people stuck in a clear plastic box.
Lost in translation
Not all localization drives, however, are as successful as Power TV's. Many viewers are put off by what often ends up as awkward translations and stilted humor.
Billy Huang (黃炳雲), vice president of the Disney Channel Taiwan, is painfully aware of the difficulties in adapting shows to local audiences.
"Not all programs travel well. I remember we were running the Golden Girls series a few years ago and there was a joke about the smell of cheese in one episode. Well, we didn't think that the smell of cheese was relevant in Taiwan, so we replaced cheese with stinky tofu when we wrote the subtitles," recalled Huang. As a result, the station was inundated by calls from outraged viewers who felt the planting of stinky tofu on a purely American TV show was unacceptably fake. They wanted the show translated verbatim.
In a recent viewer survey, Disney Taiwan discovered that the popularity of localization depended on the type of program. According to Huang, television audiences in Taiwan don't mind the dubbing and slight alterations of scripts on cartoons, but draw the line at movies.