Television or “Television?”
[This is the second 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.]
In the era of “Peak TV,” there is no shortage of homes for television programming: while not all shows fit in all networks, channels, or streaming services, there are more options for more types of scripted series than ever before.
Skam is not a normal television show, however. Although it is ostensibly a once-weekly drama series as broadcast on NRK, it is primarily a transmedia webseries, distributed and consumed online through the NRK website. This is a crucial part of the format, allowing the show to build anticipation and suspense among its users, as well as reach a generation who is historically watching less and less linear television as their viewing moves to mobile devices.
Skam is built for an era where television content is inextricably linked to the internet, and for an audience that increasingly watches content online: accordingly, there are a wide range of options for its future as television channels become more deeply invested in online streaming, and as internet companies move increasingly into content production. However, all options present challenges compared to the free, open access model established by NRK, which—as noted in part one—is likely impossible in a commercial environment. Even before we consider the cultural challenges of adapting Skam, the industrial challenges are themselves something any adaptation would be forced to navigate.
[Note: After I wrote this, I listened to the Fourth Wall podcast’s conversation about Skam, where they go through a similar list and offer their perspectives on different options. If you’re interested in more talk about Skam, and the difficulties adapting it, check it out.]
To begin with, we can take the big four broadcast networks out of the equation—the show isn’t a logical fit for broadcast demos. I’m also going to disqualify The CW, which is a better demo fit but would be saddled with traditional broadcast standards and practices that would stand in the way of the show compared to the self-regulated realm of cable. We can also count out premium cable channels—HBO, Showtime, Starz—who have historically avoided programming explicitly to teens, given they are less likely to be able to afford subscriptions. (This will change as standalone offerings mature, but this is not going to be the start of that change). However, there are four other general categories where the show could theoretically exist, albeit in different versions.
Cable – MTV, Freeform
Although I imagine that few would like to see a basic cable version of Skam, these cable channels are very much aiming for the Skam demo, and the increased focus on their respective streaming apps creates opportunities to maintain the show’s web distribution. Freeform has started launching entire seasons on their app for binge-viewing, while MTV has its own app that would allow for similar experimentation. While there could be compromises in terms of content or language, the shows could still build to a weekly linear airing, and use traditional social media platforms to push the transmedia and drive viewers to the app for the latest clips (and, with it, the rest of their programming). Although these apps are not ubiquitous for young audiences, they are “on brand,” and represent traditional television outlets that might be willing to embrace the transmedia dynamics of Skam’s release. Do I want to see MTV or Freeform versions of Skam? No, based on their inability to subtle stories, but it would be industrially feasible.
Streaming – Netflix, Hulu, YouTube
In many ways, this seems like the show’s logical home: given that young audiences are increasingly watching content through streaming sites on mobile devices, launching on a platform that that generation is already familiar with would give the show the best chance at finding an audience. Although Netflix has resisted experimenting with distribution beyond its “all-at-once” distribution model, it and the other platforms can all release content in irregular ways, with Hulu and YouTube having the advantage of embeddable content. The challenge, though, becomes building a show that exists behind a clear paywall: Netflix and Hulu both require subscriptions, and any original content produced by YouTube will go under its YouTube Red service that I’m still not convinced anyone is going to subscribe to long term.* The show could function without major creative restriction in these environments, but it’s unclear how much of the shows would be able to be consumed without subscriptions, which seems important to being able to “discover” the show as the transmedia conversation spreads online. That said, the appeal of a show like Skam would be the way word-of-mouth might convince people to subscribe and stay subscribed to one of these platforms as the season progresses, so this barrier to viewership might be a part of its value to the platform behind it.
* Technically, the show could use YouTube as a platform without being produced by YouTube, but that would likely require a prominent sponsor as seen with transmedia reality series Summer Break, which is just one long AT&T commercial.
Social Media – Facebook/Instagram, Snapchat
And then we start getting a little crazy. Although neither Facebook nor Snapchat has made significant moves into original scripted content, it feels like both are on the verge of approaching it, and there are continuities with Skam’s approach. Snapchat is the social network that’s probably most directly associated with the show’s target demos (and the one who keeps threatening to develop scripted content), while Facebook has the largest reach and is the main conversational platform being used for the transmedia elements (along with Instagram, which is of course owned by Facebook). These platforms would also allow for a natural integration into the networked reality of modern teenage life, with the ability to send push notifications utilize platforms like Facebook Live for transmedia components. While either option would run the risk of turning the entire series into an ad for the respective platforms (and the inability to share Snapchat content outside of Snapchat would be a huge barrier to spreadability), it would not be unrealistic that teenagers would use these platforms, and so it seems like a way to “commercialize” the text while staying true to its goal of capturing a realistic glimpse of how teenagers experience the world.
That said, these platforms are also inherently mainstream, and could face distinct pushback over the edgier elements of the show—Facebook might not need to be concerned about standards and practices, but are they prepared for the backlash from parents (another crucial Facebook demo) who see their teenagers watching a show where kids regularly drink or do drugs? There’s no clear standard on how social media sites would navigate original scripted content, and thus I’d worry the show would have to be sanded down too much to function in these environments (or saddled with an age restriction, which feels awkward to me).
Music Streaming – Apple Music, Spotify
And then we get entirely crazy. Apple Music is already making moves into video content, and while Spotify has been a bit slower it’s picking up, it seems inevitable in a way that these platforms will look to video as a way to encourage continued subscriber growth. Given how central music is to Skam, it got me thinking about whether the show could focus its energy on that, with the “commercializing” manifesting as branding for the platform rather than more traditional advertising. There are clearly limits to their distribution, but Spotify would be able to have some content available on its free service (perhaps with ads), and the real time rollout of the show would fit the daily use of apps like Spotify even compared to ones like Netflix—I certainly use Spotify more regularly, for example, and so the idea of also using it to check in on what’s happening on Skam on a particular day is not a huge stretch. What content restrictions would exist on these services? I legitimately have no idea, but this seems like the type of experiment that might allow them to embrace scripted content without having to invest in a high-profile, expensive prestige drama.
None of these options offer the simplicity of the public broadcasting model with NRK, where content is posted online, for free, without any concern over access. But with that more or less off the table, we’re left with a range of options that would require some adjustments, but could theoretically allow for the transmedia distribution pattern to be replicated for U.S. audiences. Indeed, what’s important about the streaming and social media options in particular is how invested they are in appealing to the same demographic as Skam, meaning the show would be perceived as an attractive option for them.
That said, it’s just as possible—as alluded to above with YouTube—that you could distribute Skam independently. I don’t realistically know how that option would generate the necessary income to cover production costs, but provided the budgets stay relatively low there’s technically a chance this could exist outside of traditional distribution structures if the producers so desired (or, to be more cynical, if none of these channels or platforms can be convinced of the show’s potential).
Another barrier could be whether or not the producers are interested in retaining a key part of Skam’s mystique, however, which will be the focus of part three.