Remake vs. Adaptation
[This is the fourth 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.]
Format sales are the heart of the international television market: although the export of shows from the United States or Britain remain significant sources of revenue for the television industries in those countries, other countries which might not be able to export as much of their TV content can still generate significant income by developing formats that can be licensed for use in other markets.
And so rather than suggesting that Skam is getting an American “remake,” it is important to acknowledge the ways this simplifies the exchange happening here. Simon Fuller purchased the rights to create a U.S. version of Skam, but he was really purchasing the format: this includes the show’s narrative, true, but it’s also the transmedia storytelling approach, the production bible on how the show constructs its real time stories, and likely even the promotional blackout that I discussed in part three. What Fuller does with this remains an open question, but he has bought more than the rights to create American versions of Eva, Noora, Isak, and Sana and playing out the same stories but with English language dialogue and fewer references to Russe buses.
And yet that’s often what happens. The challenge with adapting formats is that there are two competing instincts. The first is to make significant changes to reflect a different market, particularly in cases like this one where Norway and the U.S. are—I know this is shocking—very different countries. However, the second is an industrial belief that the reason you use formats is to take advantage of their proven success, a belief that pushes producers to change as little as possible to ensure they’re not wasting the opportunity to have a successful show with minimal additional effort.
The only way to successfully adapt Skam for the American market is to throw out everything but the show’s core values and start from scratch. This is also something that is extremely unlikely to happen, given the context in which it is being developed.
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.