The ubiquitous presence of the Internet has allowed for greater accessibility to an extensive range of streaming media. The Internet already has its own established audience – according to the ABS, in 2014–15, for households with children aged 15 years and younger, a massive 97% had access to the internet (ABS 2016). As a result, web production creators have the potential to reach millions of people around the world with their media. Anything that has the ability to reach large majorities of the world also has the ability to generate a significant impact on societal norms and cultural values. When I think about Norwegian web series, Skam (2015-2017), with its international success and cultural impact, I consider three things. These are content, distribution, and reception.
Skam encapsulates all of the common features of an online series, and uses it to its advantage. The small snippet clips released throughout the week would be edited together to form a weekly episode. Each episode would vary from 18 to 30 minutes. The lengths of each episode would change from week to week because (while it was eventually cut down and shown on Norwegian television), there was nothing regulating how long each episode needed to be. Instead, the length of an episode was determined by plot and what kind of events would keep the audience engaged. In comparison, if this show was broadcast nationally in Australia, (as the television experience that I am familiar with), it would have to stick to a rigid schedule. It wouldn’t be the mode of ‘event sequence and audience attention span affects length of episode’, but rather ‘television slot from 10 to 10:20pm causing episode to be exactly 20 minutes long’. It makes me wonder, how is it possible for a show like Broad City (2009), initially independently produced for the web only, to make its transition to television, and embrace a TV schedule with such ease? With no effect on the episode quality or timing?
The majority of the Skam actors had no professional performance background, and were selected on the basis that they fit the aesthetics of Norway’s teenage culture. While this gave a more natural performance, it also made the show seem amateur and less refined than a drama we might see on Channel 10, with professional actors and experienced crew. Perhaps this was also part of the appeal of the show. Either way, it’s placement as an online screen production as opposed to broadcast television means that the creators were able to make a drama with inexperienced actors and avoid the feel of an overproduced show. While the use of inexperienced actors and rash editing techniques isn’t impossible for traditional television, it is certainly rare.
The series also handled sensitive topics such as mental health, sexual orientation, terrorism, eating disorders, religion, and sexual assault appropriately. By doing so, they were able to remain current, and maintain their vision of a modern series – for teenagers, about teenagers. Each episode only took a few days to produce (written, shot, edited and marketed) and thus every time a key moment would occur in – politics, for example; Donald Trump being elected the 45th president of the United States – the show could react to it in ‘real time’. While it handled these controversial topics with severity, we should consider whether it would be able to do this if it was produced for national television. Television shows take months – even a year – to create, and if all the scripts have been written in advance (to obtain approval from the respective network), how would it be possible to add these reactions and respond to world-trending topics? The answer, is that it would be far more difficult. And this is one of the reasons why Skam benefits from distributing the show on the internet, as a piece of online screen media.
The producers created an entire Skam universe through real-time distribution. Each character had their own Facebook and Instagram accounts that were updated regularly. So not only were the episodes released on the NRK website, this content was also supported by social media activity. If two characters engaged in a text conversation on a Friday at 7:35pm (on screen or off screen), we would be privy to this exchange on the same Friday at 7:35pm Central European Time. This cross-platform distribution of content meant that Skam could reach a wider audience. Can you imagine, 20 years ago, a television show releasing text conversations outside of the scheduled episode?
The amateur nature of the show I talked about previously, also gave it an independence. The audience of Skam supported its online distribution through recommendations and posting ‘edits’. Once the music geoblock hit the show, and the website Skam was shown on became only accessible in Scandinavian countries, audience members took it upon themselves to download the episodes, add Spanish, English and Mandarin subtitles, and proceed to upload them to Google Drive and share them with the rest of the world within mere minutes of the initial release. My view is that, because Skam was mostly viewed on the internet, and not on a popular channel like Channel 10, despite legalities, nobody really followed up on the links being shared internationally. Especially when the process benefits the show and its reach.
“[A]udiences—and studios and networks—have a newfound interest in different, and especially interactive, forms of storytelling,” writes Sarah Burke (2017). In contrast to the traditional model of television-viewing, one of the most common qualities of screen media produced exclusively for the web, is the ability for an audience to influence its progression. With regards to Skam, this interactivity was present in the creation of each script and actors’ execution. Viewers would comment recommendations for the direction of the show and it would be taken into account. There were even episodes inspired by the fan-made artwork created for the series. Characters would mention topics and tag words created by fans, and that had no real place in the Skam world – in turn, breaking the fourth wall. I would consider this kind of model of production a collaborative process. And perhaps it worked so well because the younger generations – that seemed to make up Skam’s largest proportion of viewership – are not accustomed to being passive audience members. We have not come to know the act of merely consuming a show. My dad grew up watching Bonanza and not being able to have a chat with David Dortort. In contrast, viewers of Skam spoke to the show’s creator via the online platform. Their opinions were heard, and also became genuine influences for the weekly scripts. But my concern is, what if the direction of the show is not the one most popular with viewers? How does a production team deal with the backlash that comes from an audience accustomed to directing a show, but then for one episode, not getting what they expected? It makes me wonder about how much of a divide should be in place. There should be invisible boundaries indicating ‘you are the audience and we are the creators. We consider your opinions valid but we make the ultimate decisions about our work’. How does one go about that without disregarding the power of an interactive show? These are some things to discuss if I ever choose to create interactive online screen content, especially one as successful as Skam.
Australian Bureau of Statistics 2016, ‘Household Use of Information Technology’, Australian Bureau of Statistics, 18 February, viewed 1 March 2018, <http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/8146.0Main+Features12014-15?OpenDocument>.
Burke, S 2017 ‘Is Steven Soderbergh’s New App the Future of TV?’, WIRED, 10 November, viewed 2 March 2018, <https://www.wired.com/story/steven-soderbergh-future-of-storytelling/>.