Adapting Skam: Introduction

UAdapting Skam 3

Introduction

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.

Adapting Skam 3

Part One – From Public Service to Private Interest

  • Thoughts on the inevitable transition from public service to commercial broadcasting, and its effect on Skam’s identity.

Part Two – Television or “Television?”

  • 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.

Part Three – The Impossibility of Inconspicuousness

  • 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?

Part Four – Remake vs. Adaptation

  • Exploring the central tensions between the efficiency promised by utilizing existing formats and the meaningful cultural work necessary to translate them successfully.

Part Five – Finding America’s Oslo

  • Even if producers successfully navigated all previous challenges, where could you set a U.S. Skam to tap into an “average” American teenage experience?
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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Adapting Skam: Introduction

  1. Pingback: Adapting Skam: From Public Service to Private Interest [Part One] | Cultural Learnings

  2. Pingback: Adapting Skam: Television or “Television?” [Part Two] | Cultural Learnings

  3. Pingback: Adapting Skam: The Impossibility of Inconspicuousness [Part Three] | Cultural Learnings

  4. Pingback: Adapting Skam: Remake vs. Adaptation [Part Four] | Cultural Learnings

  5. Pingback: Adapting Skam: Finding America’s Oslo [Part Five] | Cultural Learnings

  6. hyperrealsg

    Hi, I’m gonna post another comment at the end of part 5 because I came to this topic with some thoughts of my own that I wanted to discuss. But I also want to do a closer reading into your insights even though I did a fast read of all 5 parts already.

    “the fact is that the subtitles are a fundamental barrier to the show reaching a wider audience, and thus being seen as valuable to potential distributors”

    This is the most paradoxical statement.

    Now I’m not going to dispute your point “commercially” but as a “statement of fact” I’d just like to offer a counter point instead. Yes, you’re probably right to an extent about an American programme being easier to sell due to the proliferation of Hollywood/US content in international markets. You’re probably better equipped to explain this point to me being a media scholar yourself. Probably have got the British colonialism to thank for some of that. I’d just like to remind you that a huge portion of the world acquires Hollywood content BUT interacts with it by way of subtitles. That’s all. (Because there are parts of the world for whom a significant proportion of the population are not as proficient in the English language /even if/ there is provision for it in the school curriculum.)

    Below is just some food-for-thought anecdotal sharing:

    I’ve grown up consuming media this way. I am very thankful that I’ve got my brain wired for subtitles as opposed to people who find so much difficulty with it. (I absolutely abhor dubbing over the original language. There’s something very incongruous and artificial about the experience.)

    Now I come from Singapore where English language is our official language, and I consider it my first language. If you look at the colour of my skin or hear my accent I’m not exactly what one would call a ‘Native’ speaker but in fact that’s exactly what I am. My ethnic language (or rather, my ‘Mother Tongue’) is the spoken Mandarin, and the written Chinese language. I’m so glad for it, because it’s been tremendously useful to be able to consume content in other languages as a bilingual person. If I can find an amazing foreign language show subtitled in either English or Chinese, I’m good. I’ve consumed a lot of Japanese and Korean content this way. European shows as well. English language shows too, because sometimes you can’t quite catch if someone is mumbling or if there’s a lot of technical jargon (watching medical shows initially when I was in “high school”) or even regional accent and unfamiliar slangs (e.g. watching something like Atlanta or Outlander). Due to the tonal nature of Mandarin language, Mandarin shows from either Mainland China or Taiwan are almost certainly subtitled in Chinese as well. On any Korean or Chinese or Taiwanese variety show, there would be what seems like a daunting amount of busy texts on screen for people not used to processing subtitles. There’s the action on screen, captions describing the situation, witty commentary in speech bubbles and so on. While it looks like a nightmarish lot to process, they do add to the enjoyment by emphasising the hilarity or providing context, all done so efficiently within mere seconds.

    Anyway, as someone who enjoys shows in their native tongue, there’s something really interesting about observing the ebb and flow, inflections and intonations of dialogue in a foreign tongue. It tells you quite a bit about the culture of people as well.

    • Thanks for your insights—for the record, though, and I’ve edited to reflect this, I was speaking specifically about the American market in that section you’ve quoted, rather than the global one. It does read as deeply ethnocentric when you remove it from the context of the paragraph, and I did not intend it to read in this way: obviously lots of other countries regularly interact with content featuring subtitles, but my specific interest here was in the American audience for a show like Skam, which is also inherently a young audience that I’d (anecdotally, admittedly) identify as more resistant to subtitles than an older one.

      I absolutely agree that there’s a fundamental value to subtitles and it can be a fulfilling viewing experience: I just don’t think any U.S. distributors is going to be able to convince the average U.S. teenager of that, such that a captioned version of Skam would be a commodity to them.

  7. Pingback: Sana Shares a Season: Skam Season 4, Episode 9 | Cultural Learnings

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