April 24, 2017
When it was announced late last year that Norwegian teen drama Skam—which I wrote about catching up on last week—would be adapted for American audiences, I doubt anyone was particularly surprised: it is common practice for producers (in this case Idol producer Simon Fuller) to see international television hits and think of ways to adapt them for the larger and more lucrative American market.
However, while I wasn’t following the show closely at the time, I also doubt many members of the show’s international fanbase were particularly excited. The group of people who care about Skam are not the group who would require an American version to become invested in it: while there are no doubt people out there who would balk at the idea of watching a Norwegian teen drama with subtitles, it seems unlikely that those people know Skam exists, given it remains a niche text outside of the specific circles in which it carries. Perhaps there’s people who have seen the show comes across their Tumblr dashboards and wish there was a way to invest without subtitles, but for the most part an American version of Skam—tentatively titled Shame, the English meaning of the title—exists for people who have never thought for a single second about Norwegian television.
It wasn’t surprising to find some pushback against this news, then—take, for example, this Change.org petition. The people who’ve signed it are effectively offended on behalf of the show, defending it against the suggestion that it is some way lacking such that it requires a “Hollywood” approach. These people have been burned before, with many citing MTV’s failed attempt to remake U.K. series Skins, and I don’t blame them for having a lack of trust in Fuller or the process in general. There are lots of reasons to be skeptical about the idea of turning Skam into Shame, and I have to share their sentiment that it’s unfortunate the show can’t just be enjoyed by a larger audience in its current iteration.
However, the fact is that it can’t. The idea of distributing Skam to the U.S. with English subtitles sounds great in theory, but it faces two fundamental barriers. The first is legal: the show’s substantial use of music is economically feasible because that music is only licensed for broadcast in Norway, and so the vast majority of it would need to be stripped out should it arrive in the U.S. (as compared to smaller markets where the show has been exported in Europe, notably through other non-profit broadcasters). The second, though, is the fact that the show’s target demo has not been trained to watch shows featuring subtitles: while Netflix’s push into local language production might eventually get us there, the fact is that the subtitles are a fundamental barrier to the show reaching a wider audience in the United States, and thus being seen as valuable to potential distributors. Fan subs are going to be the only way the Norwegian version of Skam will make its way to America, and that creates a logical opening for an adaptation.
That word is important, I think. Although this might be read as heresy, the idea of adapting Skam is not offensive to me—while “remaking” it would be entirely unnecessary, and calls to mind other failures of translating global teen television (see: the aforementioned Skins), the “format” is loose enough that it could be effectively used to tell similar types of stories in different regions. It’s true that the failure of Skins is telling: despite being led by the same producer and using the same production strategy—experienced writers teaming with teen writers—as the British series, Skins U.S. failed, and raised questions about whether the American market is just inherently unable to embrace distinctive teen television without corrupting it in one way or another. But intellectually, I’m fascinated by the idea of trying to recreate Skam’s success in a very different industrial context, and so I’ve been focusing my energy on thinking about how it can work rather than cursing its inevitability. (It’s also important to note that this is likely the only way NRK and creator Julie Andem will see any significant profit from the show, and I’m happy with both gaining financial stability through even a failed attempt at making the format travel).
Inevitable is the wrong word, though: although Simon Fuller is indeed developing an English language, U.S. and Canada-based version of Skam, there is no distributor attached to the project, and therefore it is not yet at the point where we fully understand what this even means. And the fact is that there is a lot of work that will have to go into figuring out how to turn Skam into Shame, including fundamentally different industrial environments and divergent cultural contexts. Over the course of these posts, divided into five parts because posting them as one long post would have made me seem exactly as obsessed as I clearly am, I want to explore some of the specifics of this challenge. Beyond exorcising myself of some quasi-scholarly considerations of the series that flooded my brain while catching up, the goal of the posts is to work through some of what’s likely happening behind-the-scenes at Fuller’s production company. By working through these logics, I hope to help myself and any other Skam viewers understand the difficult—and, at least to me, fascinating—road ahead for whatever creative forces come together to try to make Skam a viable American television—or “television”—property.
- Thoughts on the inevitable transition from public service to commercial broadcasting, and its effect on Skam’s identity.
- Considering the variety of distribution options available to the show in a “Peak TV” environment where television and the internet are more closely related than ever.
- Skam’s mystique is a huge part of its appeal, but would it ever survive in a U.S. context where celebrity functions as a central engine for program promotion?
- Exploring the central tensions between the efficiency promised by utilizing existing formats and the meaningful cultural work necessary to translate them successfully.
- Even if producers successfully navigated all previous challenges, where could you set a U.S. Skam to tap into an “average” American teenage experience?