What a smash hit Norwegian webseries has to teach NZ On Air about teen viewers

Vanessa Ellingham brings a gift from Norway back to the motherland: an innovative teen drama that doesn’t suck. 

Earlier this year, I watched as The Spinoff found itself at war with Filthy Rich producer Gavin Strawhan over the quality of the New Zealand television shows receiving public funding. Strawhan argued that critics of his show, who might prefer to watch a “dark, moody Norwegian thriller”, are failing to recognise what ordinary Kiwis enjoy seeing on their screens.

It’s funny he mentioned Norwegian television, because Norway’s state broadcaster NRK has proven itself to be incredibly successful at engaging young viewers, both within Norway and abroad. So, as the changes to New Zealand on Air’s funding criteria take hold, I’ve looked to the success of Norwegian teen series SKAM to see how we could make the most of new funding opportunities.

SKAM is a bold combination of innovative content, format and delivery that has already gained an international following and secured a US spinoff show. Turns out if you want to engage young viewers, you don’t need a big budget – just some big thinking.

Skam is a show about a group of relatable teen characters and the drama that makes up their high school lives. Think Skins with less illegal raving and more sitting in bed with laptops, toggling between homework and Facebook messenger. Some of the most tense moments in Skam will be the main character writing and rewriting a text message that could blow up in their face, with their finger hovering over the ‘send’ button. This is the anxiety of being a young person today.

Lesson one: Tell it through teen eyes

In Norwegian, ‘Skam’ translates to mean ‘shame’. Each season features a new main character from the same group of highschoolers experiencing the feelings of shame, confusion and regret that we’ve all felt at some time or other.

Eva deals with a major friendship breakup and the loneliness of starting at a new school. Feminist Noora is ashamed to find herself caught up with a playboy and, later, revenge porn. Isak is coming to terms with his homosexuality. Sana, a devout hijabi with a dry wit who’s been the voice of reason in previous seasons, finally shows her vulnerability as she struggles to manage her religious beliefs alongside a budding romance.

Where so many shows about teens dissolve into something that feels like a cringey Year 10 health class, Skam presents these big issues through the eyes of its protagonists in a way that’s inclusive of its audience, rather than patronising. In season two, a gentle conversation between two characters suffering from eating disorders offers a helpful lesson without the shame. No preachy school dean required.

Lesson two: Julie Christie, meet Julie Andem

The emotional authenticity of Skam is a comfort for teen viewers, as well as adults who would have loved such a relatable TV show to accompany them through their teens. This sensitivity isn’t an accident. It’s something the show’s creator, screenwriter, director and showrunner Julie Andem has worked hard to make a priority.

Before the series went into production, Skam’s producers set up a focus group of Muslim girls in Oslo to hear how they would like to be portrayed on television. The result is Sana, who openly questions the gender equality within her religion but also slips into back bedrooms at parties when her phone reminds her it’s time to pray.

For the most part, Muslim fans have celebrated their representation on the show. And non-Muslim fans have taken an interest, too. On Facebook, the ‘SKAM – International fangroup’ has hosted constructive, insightful discussions between fans wanting to better understand Sana’s beliefs, with the relatively few hateful comments swiftly managed by the moderators. It might just be the world’s most accepting Facebook group active today.

The group currently has 27,100 members spanning the globe — group members regularly run polls to find out how far across the globe the fanbase has spread. Guess what? it spreads all the way down to little old Nu Zillund.

When one Muslim fan posted in the group that she was open to answering any questions about Islam brought up by the show, fans asked her thoughtful questions about dating and sex, why Sana’s mum removed her hijab at home but Sana didn’t and whether they thought Sana was a fair representation of girls like her. There wasn’t a single lame or offensive question about terrorism in that thread.

Young viewers don’t just want to watch TV, they want to engage with it. Handing them the big issues and respectful, tolerant framing has resulted in a community of diverse young people willing to communicate without judgement and hear each other out. Who knew teens wanted to talk about the meaty stuff? Julie Andem did.

Lesson three: “Finally representation for me!”

Skam recognises that young people are increasingly engaged with their own media representation. The show’s dedication to accurately representing young viewers and their experiences has fans around the world worshipping Andem online. Within fan groups they refer to her as just “Julie”, sometimes tagging her in posts when they want to draw her attention to something in the plot they’re eager for her to resolve.

And here’s the kicker: she listens to them. By season four she was using Instagram fan art as mood boards for the show, a playful way to let fans know she’d been paying attention.

An illustration by Instagram user @elli_skam was used to determine the outfits of the boys crew in their first scene in season four. Credit: Tumblr Everything is Skam

But more significantly, when LGBTQIA+ fans demanded to know whether the character Even was gay or pansexual, Julie answered them during Pride Month with an Instagram post on Even’s boyfriend Isak’s account. There he wished his followers “happy pride month peeps,” adding emojis of both the rainbow flag (for himself) and the colours of the pansexual flag for Even. Now it was Instagram-official.

As one pansexual fan wrote in the ‘SKAM – International fangroup’, “finally representation for me!”

For young viewers who can’t see themselves represented in mainstream media, the inclusivity of Skam means the world. As much as young people can control their own images online, Skam’s producers understand the importance of their wish to be seen by a bigger audience.

Lesson four: Low budget, big thinking

As if the content wasn’t forward-thinking enough on its own, the show has a bold format and delivery model to boot. The low-budget production, filmed primarily within one school (where they also sourced a lot of the talent), makes the most out of its online presence, offering huge impact with little cost.

Skam is primarily a web series, with clips posted online as-live, without warning, meaning fans check-in during the day on their mobile devices — the same way they check in with their real-life friends.

A crew of dedicated Norwegian fans lovingly translate the clips within minutes of them appearing online, enabling international fans to stay up-to-date. Not that it’s stopped many of them from learning Norwegian on Tumblr anyway.

Each Friday, a new episode is published on the show’s website and screened on regular Norwegian television. The episodes are a culmination of the last week’s worth of clips, meaning viewers have a choice between keeping up with the almost-daily clips or watching a whole episode each week (diehard fans do both). To get around NRK’s geoblocking, international fans have been sharing translated episodes in underground Google Drive folders.

Additional chat messages and social media posts from the characters, posted online between the clips, all make the world of Skam feel more real.

An Instagram post showing Sana and her brother chowing down after a day of Ramadan fasting reminds viewers that Sana hasn’t eaten all day. A couple’s selfie from Noora and William reassures nervous fans that they’re still together, despite whatever questions were left by the previous day’s clip.

For viewers who interact with their friends largely online, Skam’s characters and their lives slip seamlessly into their newsfeeds.

Lesson five: look closer to home

There is one Kiwi TV series that shows the promise of Skam. Māori Television show This is Piki is a teen soap about ambitious Piki Johnson who wants to get the heck out of “Fabulous RotoVegas” and find fame in Auckland city. Each episode is bookended by Piki’s Snapchat videos, where she broadcasts a solid mix of her innermost thoughts and impromptu performances of the songs she writes.

In the first season she navigates boys, haters, work and her boozy nana, as the dialogue seamlessly combines Te Reo and English. There’s no reason This Is Piki couldn’t find the same success as Skam. Not that an international following should be the goal of a state funded television show; a Kiwi following would be enough. This is Piki deserves a bigger audience — and a second season.

We’ve also got highly talented film directors, devastatingly good web series and solid theatre productions — all areas that should be tapped for better quality Kiwi television. We don’t lack the talent, just the vision from the people holding the purse strings.

TVNZ’s New Blood competition is at least one new way fresh Kiwi talent is being funded. And that’s great news. But as long as another TVNZ exec thinks Netflix is just a “fad”, we’re going to keep struggling to produce anything anywhere near as innovative as Skam in our country. Because the next big TV show probably isn’t coming to TVNZ 2, but to a Google Drive near you.


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