Tag Archives: PBS

Adapting Skam: From Public Service to Private Interest [Part One]

Adapting Skam 3

From Public Service to Private Interest

Part One

[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.

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Cultural Interview: PBS Digital Studios’ Frankenstein M.D. [Part Two]

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The relationship between Pemberley Digital and PBS Digital Studios—the two producers behind Frankenstein M.D.—makes a lot of sense to those familiar with both parties involved: both have taken their respective “projects” as creators and translated them for an online audience, taking advantage of the affordances of platforms like YouTube to create content that connects with those consuming content outside of “traditional” spaces of distribution. In this way, the idea of combining the former’s literary webseries development with the latter’s investment in creating STEM-related content on digital platforms with an adaptation of Frankenstein makes perfect sense to those following along.

At the same time, however, their inherent philosophical compatibility must nonetheless negotiate the fact those philosophies have been heading toward two different goals: whereas Pemberley Digital has been developing web franchises that can be spun off into ancillary projects like books or merchandise, PBS Digital Studios remains bounded within the logics of public television where its primary goal is serving the public interest.

And so while web content has proved a valuable tool to both producers within the contemporary web video environment, building connections with audiences from both profit and non-profit perspectives, the convergence of these two companies nonetheless requires each to adapt accordingly. Whereas unscripted YouTube content related to science and culture showcases PBS translating its interest in documentary programming into a more web-friendly format, how does one design a scripted webseries to fit into that mission? And if you’re the one designing that webseries, how do your goals for audience engagement change when views might become less important than connecting with audiences in an educational—or at least informative—way?

While the interview I posted yesterday touched on a number of these issues, and the series itself will ultimately stand as the answer to this question, I wanted to create a second part to the interview focused on this intersection of approaches to web video content. Some of these questions and answers also appear in the previous interview with executive producer Bernie Su, star Anna Lore, and PBS Digital Studios senior director Matthew Graham, but they’re presented here to isolate the relationship between the two companies and their relationship with webseries, transmedia, and the various component parts that will make up Frankenstein M.D. as it rolls out over the next few months.

Cultural Learnings: From a PBS Digital Studios perspective, this is the first time you’ve developed a fictional webseries of this kind—what drew you to Pemberley Digital as a partner for this milestone?

PBS Digital Studios senior director Matthew Graham: What was great was that they had this amazing track record, and the qualities of Lizzie Bennet and Emma Approved that we really look for: audience engagement, smart content that’s innovative and totally different from anything else you see out there, etc. It’s unique, and it appeals to the kind of person that is drawn to PBS, and a big push behind Digital Studios is reaching those 13-34 year-olds that are on YouTube and consuming lots of content. And Bernie’s a great guy. [Laughter]

During the PBS executive session [at July’s TCA Press Tour], president and CEO Paula Kerger was talking about how PBS has audiences at a young age, and then it gets them again when they’re older, but sort of loses them in the middle. So you see this specifically serving a similar function from an educational perspective for one of those generations in between?

Graham: Absolutely. I think it’s an incredibly exciting opportunity to reach these younger folks with higher-quality, educational, entertaining content. The mission’s a little different when you’re talking about very young kids: there the PBS kids team does incredible work structuring the content so that it’s age appropriate and they’re actually learning letters. Here it’s a little bit more “Sure, there is science information that the audience is consuming, but it’s a little bit more of a cultural exposure: STEM careers are cool, this is an exciting space, there’s a lot of exciting stuff happening around it.” So it’s more kind of inspiring people to think about these career directions as opposed to trying to teach them science.

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Cultural Interview: PBS Digital Studios’ Frankenstein M.D. [Part One]

FrankensteinMD

On the one hand, Frankenstein M.D. is very familiar: the third full series from Pemberley Digital following the Emmy-winning The Lizzie Bennett Diaries and followup Emma Approved, the series is a webseries adaptation of a classic novel featuring a female protagonist (in this case reimagining Victor Frankenstein as Victoria). Fans of their previous series will find both a similar sense of humor and a similar sense of purpose when the series debuts its first three episodes tomorrow, with the series settling into a familiar Tuesday-Friday pattern until its finale on Halloween.

On the other hand, though, Frankenstein M.D. is a departure in two keys ways. The first is that, by departing from Austen and arriving at Mary Shelley, Pemberley is heading into new generic territory, balancing its direct address vlog style with the well-known results of Dr. Frankenstein’s experiments. However, the second—and I would argue more substantial—difference is that they’re working with a traditional “network,” partnering with PBS Digital Studios in launching the series. In the first part of this wide-ranging interview with executive producer Bernie Su, star Anna Lore (Victoria Frankenstein), and PBS Digital Studios senior director Matthew Graham, they discuss the development of a series that one might classify as an experiment for all parties. Part Two of the interview explores the industrial side of the series’ debut in greater detail.

Cultural Learnings: From a PBS Digital Studios perspective, this is the first time you’ve developed a fictional webseries of this kind—what drew you to Pemberley Digital as a partner for this milestone?

PBS Digital Studios senior director Matthew Graham: What was great was that they had this amazing track record, and the qualities of Lizzie Bennet and Emma Approved that we really look for: audience engagement, smart content that’s innovative and totally different from anything else you see out there, etc. It’s unique, and it appeals to the kind of person that is drawn to PBS, and a big push behind Digital Studios is reaching those 13-34 year-olds that are on YouTube and consuming lots of content. And Bernie’s a great guy. [Laughter]

From your perspective, Bernie, were your discussions with PBS always centered on Frankenstein? Were there other projects considered for this partnership?

Executive Producer Bernie Su: It was “How about Frankenstein? Let’s do that!” It was literally that. It never got past it. I don’t think we even mentioned a second project. It was like “That’s great. What would be your take on that?” And then it was the idea of the modern medical student and how we can touch upon modern science and how we’re actually close scientifically to doing stuff—bringing people back to life, what is life, all that stuff—that Frankenstein does in the novel. So it made a lot of sense given that our audience has been wanting us to push toward STEM, so this was just a great opportunity that seemed like a really good match right out of the gate and it was really easy.

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PBS at TCA: Frankenstein, M.D. launches on August 19

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Technically speaking, Pemberley Digital’s relationship with PBS Digital Studios is not that dissimilar to their relationship with DECA, or with any other Multi-channel Network operating in the space of web video (specifically YouTube). When Frankenstein, M.D. launches on August 19 with three episodes, beginning a 24-episode run that those videos will live on YouTube through a range of different channels, and follow the Tuesday/Friday distribution model that fans of Pemberley Digital’s The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (which I’ve written about here and here) and Emma Approved will be familiar with.

At the same time, though, PBS is the first major “network” that Pemberley Digital has partnered with, in the sense that it expands beyond the digital space and into the realm of traditional television. Whereas I imagine most audiences of even The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Emma Approved couldn’t describe what DECA is or what it does, PBS is a known brand entity, with certain expectations and a place within cultural discourse. It is also a public broadcaster, with public interest mandates distinct from DECA, and which have never been connected to scripted web content on this level previously.

I spoke with PBS Digital Studios senior director Matt Graham, Pemberley Digital producer Bernie Su, and series star Anna Lore (who plays Victoria Franktenstein) about Frankenstein, M.D. earlier today, and I’ll be posting that interview before the August 19 launch. In the meantime, though, here’s what we know about the webseries.

  • In the words of the press release, Frankenstein, M.D. “reimagines the title character as Victoria Frankenstein, an obsessive, eccentric prodigy determined to prove herself in the male-dominated fields of science and medicine. Her medical experiments are revisited in a modern university setting.” The specific focus on confronting women in STEM fields was presumed based on the choice to reimagine Victor as Victoria, but it is notably central to the series’ framework in the press material. She is also a Ph.D./MD student, similar to the framing of Lizzie Bennet as a Masters student in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.
  • As noted, Frankenstein M.D. will run for 24 episodes, running—similar to Pemberley Digital’s other webseries—five to eight minutes each, with its final episode not-so-coincidentally scheduled for Friday, October 31st.
  • In advance of the August 19 premiere, Pemberley Digital will unveil the first two episodes of the series at LeakyCon in Orlando, which runs from July 30-August 4.
  • Anna Lore‘s Victoria will be joined by four other characters: her colleague Iggy DeLacey (played by YouTube comedian Steve Zaragoza, and the series’ take on Igor), her mentor Dr. Waldman (Kevin Rock), as well as her childhood friends Eli (Brendan Bradley) and Rory (Sarah Fletcher).
  • They’ll be part of her in-world YouTube science series, in which she will be “explaining complex biological and medical concepts to a general audience.” Su suggested during a Reddit AMA that there would be videos that exist outside of the PBS Digital Studios channel, so it would seem possible we’ll be seeing videos featuring these characters interacting outside of the context of the “formal” YouTube series that she is creating.
  • In terms of plot, I imagine our general understanding of Mary Shelley’s novel gives us a sense of where things are headed, but the press release suggests that “as Frankenstein pursues her boldest line of research yet, she makes a shocking series of discoveries that could potentially endanger not only her career, but her life and the lives of her friends.” It definitely sounds like the most high-stakes plot Pemberley Digital has taken on.
  • Joe Hanson, host of PBS Digital Studios’ It’s Okay To Be Smart, is serving as the science consultant for the series, and it’s being filmed at YouTube Space LA.
  • We’re reportedly getting our first glimpse of the series—which began production over the weekend—ahead of the panel, so there will likely be more details available later today.

Update: The footage screened was pulled from multiple episodes. It features Victoria welcoming the audience to Frankenstein, M.D. (suggesting the name of the webseries is also the name of the in-world YouTube series), and then shifts to a scene featuring Iggy hooking himself up to some sort of electrocution device. The tone is fairly comic (Iggy reminds Victoria they’re not officially doctors yet, before electrocuting himself), although the subsequent scene between Victoria and Dr. Waldman is more plot-driven, as she focuses on another Doctor who sounds like a beacon of misogyny.

Notably, for existing Pemberley Digital fans, the format is also shifting once more—there is slightly more of a sitcom-style filming energy, in which direct address is paired with a more dynamic camera style that takes an entirely different angle (versus the “second camera” that Emma Approve has used to occasionally get a second perspective).

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Ch-Ch-Changes: Thoughts on January’s British TV Invasion

Ch-Ch-Changes: January’s British TV Invasion

January 19th, 2011

While television in general has become inundated with adaptations of British series, or shows about adaptations of British series, or shows which have been imported from Britain, the past few days have been particularly overwhelming for me. Having put off watching Showtime’s Shameless (a British series being adapted for American television) and Episodes (a show about a British series being adapted for American television) the week before, and then pairing them with a marathon of PBS’ Downton Abbey and Monday’s premieres of MTV’s Skins and SyFy’s Being Human, I gave myself what has to constitute an overdose of transatlantic television.

And, unsurprisingly, I ended up with quite a few things to say about it. The process of adaptation is hardly a consistent one, and its function in these various texts is wide-ranging: It is the subject of satire for Episodes, a topic of debate for Shameless, Skins and Being Human, and a complete non-starter (albeit not without a controversy of sorts, as I’ll get to in a moment) for Downton Abbey.

The response to these various shows has been diverse, but beyond the legitimate concern that the industry has become creatively bankrupt there lies a shifting understanding of change and how we respond to it. Do we want adaptations to be “true” to the original, or do we want them to change in order to find a distinct identity? What, precisely, makes a good adaptation, and does the degree to which a series changes from the original alter our critical focus beyond how we would consider original pilots? And, if it does, should it?

The following is my attempt at answering these questions.

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Top 10 Episodes of 2010: “A Study in Pink” (Sherlock)

“A Study in Pink”

Aired: July 25th, 2010 (BBC)

[Cultural Learnings’ Top 10 Episodes of 2010 are in no particular order, and are purely subjective – for more information, and the complete list as it goes up, click here.]

In making my various lists, it was difficult to determine just exactly what Sherlock is. I decided at a certain point that TV Movies/Miniseries wouldn’t be included in my lists, which means that Temple Grandin and The Pacific will just have to settle for their respective Emmy Awards, and yet what do we call Sherlock? Sold as part of Masterpiece Theater in the United States, and yet very much sold more as a series in Britain (and Canada as well, more or less), its weekly format suggest a short-run series while its running times relate more to Prime Suspect or, to use an American example, Tom Selleck’s Jesse Stone movies.

However, whatever term we end up using to define Sherlock, I’m comfortable considering “A Study in Pink” as a 90-minute pilot for a television series, and thus comfortable with considering “A Study in Pink” one of the 10 best episodes of the year. It’s the one installment in the series which feels as if it needs its running time, using the additional room to great effect in drawing its two lead characters, finding its point of view, and creating a charming yet haunting world in which Sherlock Holmes can enter the twenty-first century.

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The Pleasure of the ‘Unnecessary’: BBC’s Sherlock

The Pleasure of the ‘Unnecessary’: BBC/PBS’ Sherlock

July 31st, 2010 / October 24th, 2010

Before I watched it, I found Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ Sherlock [which premiered tonight on PBS in the U.S., but which aired on the BBC back in July] to be quite perplexing.

Trailer: BBC’s Sherlock

First of all, I wondered whether we really needed another take on Sherlock Holmes considering that Guy Ritchie’s movie (which I thought was solid, but unremarkable) was released only seven months ago. Now, before you jump on me, I became aware in doing some research that the original pilot for this series was shot long before the movie debuted, but considering how late the series is arriving it was nonetheless the first thought which popped into my mind.

Second, does Steven Moffat really need to write for another eccentric problem solver? The Doctor is, in many ways, a detective in his own right, along with being both an outcast and a genius, so one can’t help but feel that Moffat is developing a type (albeit one that, in the case of the Doctor, I quite enjoy).

And third, and this is speaking from my North American experience, television is littered with series which owe much of their structure to Conan Doyle’s work. House has both the eccentric problem solving and the Holmes/Watson dynamic in House and Wilson, The Mentalist has the eccentric, observational crime solver with the archnemesis, and every single crime procedural on television has the whole “crime solving” part of things.

While it may have been received differently had it made it out before Ritchie’s film, or before Moffat took over Doctor Who, the fact remains that Sherlock is emerging in an environment where it feels “unnecessary” for those of us not entirely familiar with the source material, which can lead one’s mind to words like “disposable” (which, for North American viewers accustomed to 22-episode seasons, isn’t helped by the short three-episode order). So, it is perhaps that much more impressive that I really enjoyed Sherlock, a sentiment shared by the British audience which helped it garner some pretty substantial ratings which could get it a second season late next year.

It’s a well-made show building from a well-made premise, which may not make it “necessary” but which certainly makes it something I am glad to have on my television, and hope to have on my television in the future.

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