The Impossibility of Inconspicuousness
[This is the third 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.]
The “lore” of Skam is a huge part of its appeal. The story, as understood through the various “What is Skam?” articles floating around and the show’s Wikipedia page, is that there was no promotion done on the series, with none of the actors allowed to speak to the media. The show simply appeared, designed as something for kids to discover on their own rather than something sold to them by the media, or introduced to them in spaces their parents might inhabit.
I am fascinated to know how those on the ground in Norway experienced this particular rollout, and how word of mouth functioned within it, but this strategy is very much specific to that context. As public service broadcasting, it didn’t matter how many people watched the first episode of Skam: the entire season had been commissioned, and therefore it had time to find an audience, and a mission—of discussing key issues facing young people—that might be worthwhile even if a small audience was watching. The show wasn’t promoted because there was no reason for it to be promoted, and what little press the show has done has been a victory lap of sorts, an acknowledgment that the show had become too large for them to ignore the media frenzy around it entirely.
Once the show is removed from that context, though, could a U.S. version of Skam fly in under the radar in the same way? On a basic functional level, the show would be an adaptation of a successful overseas series, and therefore garner certain types of coverage from the trade press (building on the existing coverage). But so much of the way many of the channels or streaming sites I discussed in part two market shows is now built on hyper-saturation to stand out from the crowd, and could those rules be rewritten in a culture where celebrity matters considerably more?
The challenge, really, is that Skam is all about building connections between the audience and the characters, and that closeness comes with a closeness to the actors involved. And in an American television context, audiences are increasingly expecting that they will have access to their favorite stars, whether through their Snapchats, Instagram accounts, or their tweets. Networks and channels, too, are increasingly expecting actors to work on the show’s behalf to help promote it, livetweeting with fans to continue the charade that social media gives them a direct line to the people behind the show. One of the byproducts of Peak TV is that content distributors are working harder than ever to find ways for their content to cut through the clutter, and so the idea of actively not promoting a series is antithetical to the modern landscape.
On paper, retaining the sense of mystery should be easy: cast unknown actors, limit their time on social media, and build enough transmedia content to “replace” traditional celebrity posturing. But if the show—as a fairly high-profile format adaptation, all told—lands at a traditional distributor, I’m not convinced this is something they’d be wired for. Netflix has occasionally had shows fly “under the radar”—Stranger Things is probably the biggest example, as the show saw minimal press ahead of its launch and was very much “discovered” by its audience in ways that helped it spread rapidly and turn into a legitimate cultural touchstone. But in addition to casting some higher profile stars, those Stranger Things kids were everywhere the second the show became a success, and Netflix was quick to maximize the show’s cultural footprint. Any commercial entity that gets control of Skam might be willing to play things close to the vest when the show launches, but there is a clear incentive to capitalize on any early success that wasn’t there for NRK, and would fundamentally alter the show’s growth trajectory.
Skam‘s cast did eventually become “celebrities” in a traditional sense, but it happened gradually: can you imagine an American distributor waiting almost a year before allowing its actors to speak publicly about their roles in the show, as seen in this Fall 2016 talk show appearance by Josefine Pettersen (Noora) and Tarjei Sandvik Moe (Isak)? In an ideal world, U.S. producers would see that their celebrity emerged because of their sheltering from the media and the ability for the characters to connect with audiences through the transmedia components, but with the default being actors livetweeting along with each episode, I don’t know if I would trust American producers not to try to use social media as a shortcut to greater visibility, and promotion.
Part of the challenge is that producers won’t be able to unlearn Skam‘s success. When you know that your show has the potential—as evidenced in Norway and other Nordic territories—to become a phenomenon, it would be infinitely harder to replicate the very inconspicuous marketing strategies used back during the show’s 2015 launch. It becomes easier to think about and market the show as a proven success, which has never been the primary context in which the show has been produced. Skam, as a format, isn’t really designed to scale depending on the size of its audience. The show is the show, to the point that it’s ending after four seasons despite only growing in popularity. While you could argue that elements of the third and fourth season reflect the producers’ desire to appease the show’s growing audience, the overall storytelling approach has not shifted dramatically, or toward any particular larger goal of success.
The chances of this being the same for the U.S. adaptation are pretty slim: it’s very rare for American series to go without some degree of outside intervention to maximize their potential, making adjustments to be “bigger” despite this perhaps being against the show’s best interests. The examples you might think of—let’s say FX’s The Americans, for instance—are typically prestige dramas, and no show aimed at teenagers will be perceived in this way: it will be perceived as a way to reach a lucrative demographic, and therefore as something that should be tweaked to reach that demographic more effectively to better appeal to advertisers, or position a platform brand to potential subscribers. That is Skam‘s American future, and would likely reshape its launch in ways that push away from what allowed Skam to connect with its core audience so successfully.
The first three posts in this series have focused on the industrial incongruencies that will make Skam—or at least the format of Skam—a challenging show to mount within the American television industry. These are not insurmountable obstacles: technically speaking, it’s possible that a platform like Spotify could step in to give producers creative freedom and—given their lack of previous television marketing experience—be totally comfortable with the show retaining its mystique and resisting more traditional forms of commercialization. However, that result seems unlikely, and there is no doubt that Skam’s format would mutate as it works its way through a very different industrial context.
However, even if the format survived that process, the question remains: how do you translate a Norwegian teen drama for a country with a vastly different cultural makeup, especially given the tendency to use as much of the existing format as possible? In the next post, we confront this particular problem, and why the most likely path to success is also extremely unlikely to play out based on the available evidence.