How a Norwegian niche web series for teenagers became a global success

The Norwegian broadcaster NRK did it! Won the youngsters back that they lost to YouTube and Netflix.

DMJX
DMJX
May 16 · 11 min read

By Nikolaj Christensen, dramaturg and associate professor, Danish School of Media and Journalism

Three of the characters in SKAM. (Photo: Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation NRK)

This article suggests where the quality of SKAM as a web TV series lies, as well as why it has reached it’s popularity among both its home audience in Norway and in several other countries. The article gives an insight into the storytelling choices and the use of social media which have all played a role in the success of the series.

The narrative and relevance for the target audience

The narrative structure of SKAM follows the classical principles of TV drama storytelling where every scene should move the story forward and be a brick in the construction of the storytelling arc of the episode and the season (Larsen 2003:358). But SKAM differs and stands out on various other parameters of storytelling choices and these aspects have certainly played an important role to its huge success inside and outside of Norway, although it is mostly the successful distribution on the social media that has triggered the huge attention.

For example, some of the scenes have very little “action” compared to their length, and to some viewers it seems like nothing is happening. This is the case when the character Noora is rearranging her room for a possible visit of her boyfriend William with whom she is having serious trouble. She is rearranging the cushions again and again, and as a focus group informant put it: “I wonder why I didn’t get bored. But it was so close to reality — to what I’ll do when I expect someone” (Focus group 2017). So, it seems like the lack of action is compensated by — or turned into — a strong layer of identification and suspense in the close to real-time waiting.

And it seems like the depth of the characters, the identification with them and the sense of relevance to the viewer’s own life are keys to success.

The themes of love, jealousy, trust, betrayal, alcohol, sexual orientation, family issues, cultural differences and mental challenges are all part of teenager everyday life.

The relevance of the stories and themes for the target audience is decisive for the series to reach its audience. The writing is based on a deep insight into the concerns, problems and stories of the target group which gives it a strong relevance to its audience of 16-year-olds and creates identification as well to older age groups who will remember what it was like to be at that age. This explains why the series not only reached the targeted audience in overwhelming numbers, but also the parents of that same audience. The themes of love, jealousy, trust, betrayal, alcohol, sexual orientation, family issues, cultural differences and mental challenges are all part of teenager everyday life. One of the focus areas in the development process was to establish identification (Moslet 2016) and the key to identification is the ability of the audience to mirror their own life in what they watch in the story. And where you don’t find direct identification in the sense of “this is like my own life”, the series draws on the element of fascination when you get an insight into the life of others (Larsen 2003, Hastrup 2018).

Honesty and truthfulness in the storytelling

One of the ambitions formulated in the development process of SKAM was to give the series a sense of “truthfulness” (Moslet 2016). This stands out as a special feeling in the Norwegian version of SKAM. Even though the actors are young talents without any former on-screen careers the sense of truthfulness in their performance is very convincing and has earned them great respect (Sundet 2017). But truthfulness is also a matter of what kind of topic is at play. The sense of truthfulness comes when the series draws close to the real life of the target audience, as well as the way the stories are written and performed. One example can be found in season three when the protagonist Isak is struggling to find out how to deal with his homosexual feelings. He meets Even and at the beginning of episode 5, the two boys are lying on the floor kissing each other to the music of 10CC “I’m not in love”. The camera is steady and focuses on the kisses between the boys in a scene of homosexual affection which stands out as explicit and natural which is a rare exception in fiction with a broad audience. By portraying something that is still connected with certain taboos among the target group and in society as such in this way it is turned into something quite natural and acceptable. This understated fiction tone is noticed by the viewers and triggers an enormous number of comments on the blog where the clips are published, and one viewer expresses it like this:

“I notice how Skam does things so naturally. I mean if this was on BBC we would constantly hear stuff like “being gay is alright, yes, it’s ok?” “being muslim is cool, right?” “yes, it is normal” (SKAM 2016).

So, according to this viewers comment, what SKAM does is more “showing” than “telling”. By showing homosexuality and cultural differences in a normal and accepted setting it is demystified and becomes part of these teenagers’ everyday lives showing the way for others to accept who they are.

Time and slowness

According to the executive producer of SKAM, Håkon Moslet, time and slowness also played a role in the production choices (Moslet 2016). As they were producing for the web there were no restrictions as to scene length, apart from what the budget could afford, so the producers wanted to give SKAM the feel of real-life pace with room for pauses, reflections and emotions. The result was scenes that were sometimes very long compared to average broadcast drama — often more than five minutes. This has underlined the fact that SKAM is a “native” web series not constricted by normal time limits and has given a different tone to the story and the actors’ performances, as well as it has made SKAM stand out from what the target group was used to. Looking closely at the viewer comments and dialogues on the blog it is also clear that SKAM is not just seen as a short-term entertainment, but also as a universe you want to pass time in and keep alive. A comment on the day of the last clip of season four to be aired puts it this way:

“Does anyone know when the final party clip will be on? If I should stay tuned tonight or just go to sleep and wait till tomorrow? (Crying emoji with two tears) can’t believe Skam is gonna be over for good in just a few hours (crying emoji with one tear)” (SKAM 2017).

An example of a scene of remarkable length is in the fourth season when Sana is the main character. Sana comes from a Muslim home and considers the Muslim faith a value and guideline in her life. The topic of the season is how Sana deals with the conflict between the values of her friends at school, party-going, drinking and having sex and her own values and those of her home. In episode 7, Sana has got herself into trouble because of her anonymous negative posts on Instagram, and now her best friend Isak is blamed for the deed. In a ten-minute long scene Isak and Sana meet on a bench in a park and discuss morality, friendship and responsibility.

Problems are solved and no one dies — showing the mutual acceptance among teenagers

In SKAM, we follow a lot of personal and relational problems and worries which turn out to be not that big a deal, anyway. It almost seems like SKAM is quoting Mark Twain:

“I have had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened”.

Isak is worrying about how his friends will react to his homosexuality and about being together with Even. (Photo: Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation NRK)

Several of the characters in SKAM have many worries about how their surroundings and friends will react to things they are doing. Three examples are when Isak is worrying about how his friends will react to his homosexuality, his concerns about being together with Even, whom he discovers is bipolar, and Sana who finds herself in a deadlock and feels that she has committed social harakiri after her intriguing, anonymous posts on Instagram and her friends are about to find out. In each case their friends react with a great deal of acceptance and forgiveness. In the case of Isak and his homosexuality, he tells his best friend Jonas that he is in a relationship with someone. Jonas asks about her name, and Isak answers nervously that it’s a “he”. Jonas simply keeps on talking about their plans for the weekend without putting any emphasis on the “breaking news”. Later, when Isak tells a friend that he had to break up with Even because he found out that Even was bipolar, his friend is a little surprised and asks something like why Isak can’t be with a bipolar person. Bipolarity is just an illness — and it can be treated. In the case of Sana who finally feels that she must confess to a group of girls she has offended anonymously on Instagram, the girls’ reactions are that it’s not a big deal and that many of them have done the same at some point. These examples can be seen as concrete ways of putting spotlight on interpersonal mechanism and confronting your fears, as it was formulated in the mission of the series.

Creating a sense of real time

As earlier mentioned, SKAM was a native net TV series with a strong reference to social media, both in the storytelling as well as in the way it is published and by its connection to the viewers. Thus, the series was published and experienced as if it were part of the viewers’ own social life and activity on social media, and this is how a sense of real-time experience is created (Sundet 2017, Magnus 2016). Clips were published five times during a week on the blog together with messenger posts where the characters communicated actual issues in their lives. Each of the five main female characters as well as the young boys had an Instagram profile with frequent posts. The blog posts, whether they were clips or messages, were all posted at the time corresponding exactly to the fictional time they were taking place in.

Excitement creation

As the viewers never knew exactly when a new post would appear with a continuation of the series and the viewers were eager to follow the stories, it created some excitement as to when something new would happen, so the viewers would constantly check the blog to see if a new clip was on. Through the message conversations of the characters, viewers would get a hint of an approximate time when a new clip would be published. Altogether, the fact that the publishing time and the fiction time corresponded, the uncertainty of when new clips would be published and the conversation appearing at any time during the day strengthened the truthfulness of the story, the characters and their struggles to the viewers who followed them online. Interviews with viewers (Focus group 2017) as well as comments on the blog made it clear that SKAM was an experience which transcended the normal experience of identification with a fictional story.

The character Sana (right) comes from a Muslim home and considers the Muslim faith a value and guideline in her life. The topic in one season of SKAM is how Sana deals with the conflict between the values of her friends at school, party-going, drinking and having sex and her own values and those of her home.(Photo: Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation NRK)

120.000 unique visitors

An example of this real-time experience and the impact it had on its viewers and fans could be seen in season 2 with the love affair between Noora and William. At one point, their relationship is challenged and William stops talking to Noora. She tries to get in contact with him through several messages which are posted on the blog. Finally, he answers that he is on his way out of the country but that he will see her Friday afternoon around 5 p.m. When Friday comes, the viewers don’t know what will happen and exactly when, but everybody expects a new scene around 5 p.m. As expected, just before 5 p.m., a clip is posted and in the time slot between 5–6 p.m., the blog had around 120,000 unique visitors checking in to see what was going on, and this was targeting teenagers in a country of a little over 5 million inhabitants (Sørensen 2017). Comments from the viewers stating that while the character Isak is waiting several days for Even to answer his messages in season 3, the viewers are not only waiting to see what happens, but feel themselves that they are also waiting to hear from Even. This had a direct effect on those viewers who followed SKAM on the blog and who experienced that they were waiting in real-time for a message from Even along with the character Isak. As one informant put it:

“When I was following the blog I could feel it in my stomach. There was a day when I had to pin myself in the arm, telling myself: it’s not you waiting for an answer on the phone” (Focus group 2017).

This is a unique example of real-time information held back (Larsen 2003) which often occurs during screen time but seldom is felt that strongly in between episodes in a series. In this case, it’s also the result of a successful creation of a transmedia story world with various media outlets where each does what it’s best at (Harry Jenkins referred by Magnus 2016).

Final perspective

Our research on SKAM indicates that it’s difficult to point out a single element making the success. In contrary it seems to be the combination of many factors and choices that has given SKAM its strength and impact on the audience. Factors like the thorough research in the target group, the public service approach and mission statement, the innovative way of distributing the series and the ability to create a simulated live experience, and of course, strong writing and directing. Our interviews with the producers also shows that even though the choices have been intended and conscious, some of the effect has surprised the creators of the series. Behind the creation of the series seems to lie a certain Scandinavian solidarity with the target group which has influenced both the mission sentence and the stories, and that this might be a kind of “X factor” for the series and its impact. Therefore, despite the success and the apparent effectiveness of the creative and distribution choices, one should be cautious to think that the success of SKAM could be transferred to a commercial context and reproduced with the same result.

References

Focus group (2017) Focus group with 5 media student informants, Danish School of Media and Journalism, Copenhagen 7. March 2017.

Larsen, Peter Harms (2003). De levende billeders dramaturgi 2, DR Multimedie 2003.

Magnus, Mari (2016) ”SKAM — når fiksjon og virkelighet møtes”, Nordicom Information, vol. 38:2; 31–38.

Moslet, Håkon (2016): Presentation in Copenhagen, 8. november 2015.

Sundet, Vilde Schanke (2017): From ”secrect” online teenage drama international cult phenomenon: The global expansion of SKAM and its public service mission. Retrievewd from https://www.vildessundet.org/#

Sørensen, Håkon (2017) Media researcher: Person interview, Oslo 22. March 2017.

DMJX

Written by

DMJX

Danmarks Medie- og Journalisthøjskole.

MediaJournal

Danmarks Medie- og Journalisthøjskoles online-tidsskrift med bidrag fra undervisere og forskere. Udkommet løbende siden oktober 2018.

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