From Public Service to Private Interest
[This is the first post in a five-part series about the pending U.S. adaptation of Norwegian teen drama Skam. You can find the other parts of the series here, as well as my other posts about Skam here.]
As noted in my introduction to this feature, the U.S. adaptation of the E4 drama Skins has been a natural part of the dialogue around Skam being translated for American audiences. The case studies are not identical, admittedly: Skins was already in English, and had actually already been distributed in the U.S., meaning that the idea of making a U.S. version was especially redundant. But it happened, and it was a creative struggle, and it’s been used as a touchstone for why a U.S. version of Skam is a bad idea.
It’s important to note, though, that Skins was a commercial television program that found an American home on MTV, a commercial cable channel. Although the show ended up a disjointed mess, perpetually confused over whether it wanted to carbon copy the U.K.’s storylines or forge a new path for its characters, I would argue that MTV was a logical home for the series. Could it have been a better show if it had arrived at a time when Netflix was making original programing, and they were allowed to embrace the racier elements of the story? Perhaps, but I don’t think ending up on MTV was the primary reason it failed. I firmly believe there could have been a good version of Skins on MTV, provided that the creative team had picked a lane, and the executives in charge had been more open to making drastic changes in their approach as opposed to making a shot-for-shot remake early on for no discernible reason.
Skam, however, is not a commercial television program, and that is a huge part of its design. As a production of Norwegian public television, NRK, it is not concerned about selling ads or long term commercial viability. It was designed to connect the network’s public service mission to younger audiences, a vessel through which key issues facing adolescents could be discussed through content that directly connected with those audiences. Its producer is NRK P3, a youth-focused subnetwork of the larger NRK, and its transmedia components are designed to drive traffic to NRK’s website, and invest Skam viewers in the larger project of public media.
And so while Skins’ failures of adaptation were a byproduct of forced errors on behalf of those involved, the challenges facing Skam are distinct, as it is inevitably going to be a public service television show that will be adapted outside of a public television context.
A lot of what Skam is stems from its non-commercial roots. Although the stakes of its storytelling have expanded over time, its resistance to more sensationalist twists—see: Skins—points to a lack of concern over viewership numbers. The show is now a phenomenon, but it is under no pressure to fully embrace that phenomenon, remaining invested in quiet introspection when more salacious storytelling would probably be better matched to the level of fervor around the show. While I am not someone who believes that commercial networks and channels are incapable of producing great television, the series’ focus on low budget, realist aesthetics works in part because of how it feels untouched by the hallmarks of such programming. There’s no sense the show is being influenced by celebrity (more on this in part three), or inundated with product placement: the show is just the show, because that is all it has to be to serve its public service mission.
But it is incredibly unlikely that Skam will remain public service broadcasting when it arrives in America. Technically speaking, PBS should be interested in Skam: America’s public broadcaster has historically struggled to connect with the core demos of the series, with strong brand recognition with kids and older adults but struggling to engage with adolescent or now “millennial” audiences. However, while NRK has P3 as a youth-culture focused production arm (with deep roots in public radio, in particular), PBS has no such area of focus, and would be starting from scratch with an ambitious transmedia project that doesn’t fit into the network’s larger digital strategy.
That digital strategy does have a home: PBS Digital Studios, a production arm that produces a variety of different YouTube series, in addition to distributing some web content developed by local PBS stations. But the vast majority of these stories are focused on science, technology, and (to a lesser extent) popular culture, without really delving into the type of social issue storytelling that drives Skam’s technically educational mission. PBS Digital Studios has created one scripted series, the Pemberley Studios-produced transmedia adaptation Frankenstein M.D., but that show was again rooted in teaching scientific principles, and failed to garner enough success to convince PBS to continue investing in scripted shows as opposed to much less expensive documentary-style content.
Nothing about PBS Digital Studios suggests it would be interested in expanding into scripted drama like Skam, especially given the inherently precarious nature of PBS’ funding: in a political climate where Congress could vote to abolish the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS will depend more than ever on corporate sponsors and wealthy donors, and the type of programming that draws those groups is not going to be an edgy, realistic look at teenage life. Moreover, young audiences are unlikely to find the show if it’s on PBS, given how disconnected the brand is from the key demos of the show, making this a terrible fit despite the fact it would provide the most unburdened environment for the series.
Technically, it’s possible for Skam to remain public television: given the language of “for the U.S. and Canada” being linked to discussion of the adaptation, Canadian public broadcaster CBC could theoretically—although probably won’t—end up a production partner on the series, and that would offer a closer parallel to NRK (albeit with its own funding challenges, and some weird co-production realities we can break down later in the week). But in the U.S., Skam is going to become a commercial television program, and that comes with expectations that may require significant changes, shifting from a service-oriented model to models where even a low budget series will face certain expectations in order to draw, maintain, and serve advertisers and/or subscribers.
The specifics of these expectations, though, will depend on where exactly Skam ends up, which is the subject of part two.