Skam’s creators on the TV show’s explosive success: “Perhaps it will save Facebook”

The creators of Skam talk future remakes, the show’s global impact, and why it ended after just four seasons.

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In the summer of 2014, the commissioner of NRK (Norway’s licence-fee funded public sector broadcaster, similar to the BBC) came up with a hard task for the organisations content developers. It was, simply: make something that will bring teenagers back to NRK. After dwindling viewing figures for youth demographics, the broadcaster would have to do something dramatic to make NRK cool to teenagers again. And that’s how Skam, or Shame, the teen web drama that became a global phenomenon, was born.

The show, which has now finished after four seasons, followed the lives of students at the prestigious Hartvig Nissen school in Oslo, with each season focusing in on a different protagonist. The web drama was released in short clips on the NRK website, published in real time – if a clip showed the characters at 8:30pm on a Friday, it aired on the site at 8:30pm on a Friday. It amassed an international following far beyond anything NRK could have expected. Fans across the globe invading sets, winning major American fan TV polls, and crashing the series’ webpage. It found a global audience thanks to the sheer dedication of its fans: Norwegian speakers create subtitled versions of new episodes in English or other languages, which were shared through a series of underground Google Drive networks. “There was a lot of piracy,” laughs Håkon Moslet, an executive producer on Skam, and the Head of TV for NRK P3 (NRK’s digital youth channel). “But we didn’t mind.”

It took a while to get there. NRK had been trying its hand at youth-focused web dramas for almost a decade, the result of fierce competition from The Disney Channel. The producers at publicly-funded NRK knew they wouldn’t have the budget to compete with glossy, glamorous fantasies like Hannah Montana. “But we could make something real,” Moslet explains during an event at City University in London. “Stories that were so close to the kids’ lives, they didn’t feel like fiction.”

Their first attempt was 2009’s Sara, a vlog-style web drama aimed at 10-12 year old girls, that at its peak was racking up 300 online comments from viewers a day. Then came 2010’s MIA, named after lead 12-year-old girls Marie, Iben and Alexandra, which ran for four seasons, and had video clips getting collective views of over 28 million. Jenter (Girls), written and directed by Skam creator Julie Andem, launched in 2013.

Skam would be pitched at a slightly older market: 16-year-old girls. It began, as all NRK shows do, with a mission statement. “I’m obsessed with mission statements,” Ole Hedemann, NRK’s Head of Formats and Content Developer, laughs. The one for Skam was simple, but ambitious: “Skam aims to help 16-year-old girls strengthen their self-esteem through dismantling taboos, making them aware of interpersonal mechanisms, and showing them the benefits of confronting their fears.”

“But to be able to do this, you have to do your research, and lots of research,” explains Skam’s producer and project manager Marianne Furevold. The team behind Skam conducted over 50 in-depth interviews with teenagers, spent time at schools and youth clubs, and immersed themselves in the online lives of young people, to try and understand the way Norwegian teenagers were communicating, what their insecurities were, and what their sense of humour was like. Would it have been possible at a commercial channel, one with less focus on the social impact of their programming? “No, I don’t think so.” Furevold insists. “We were given a lot of time to do so much research, and I think that’s a huge part of the success that we see today with Skam.”

She cites the character of Sana – the main character in Skam’s fourth season, and one of the show’s most popular figures, as proof. An outspoken, funny, sarcastic Muslim girl who often takes the lead amongst her friends, the concept for Sana came out of an in-depth interview with a 17-year-old Muslim girl outside of Oslo who felt that her peers viewed Muslim girls as victims of oppression – and only that. “She was desperate to find and see a cool smart, young Muslim girl was confident in her religion and part of youth culture.” Iman Meskini, who played Sana, would later become the first Norwegian woman in a hijab to appear on the cover of a Norwegian fashion magazine.

Sana’s season was Skam’s last – many fans were upset to see the show end just as its popularity had exploded across the world, and before the overarching plot of the four seasons could reach its most obvious logical conclusion. I ask why was it cut short.

“Because Julie [Andem], the mastermind behind Skam, said, ‘That’s enough,’” Moslet says simply. “It was kind of an extreme sport to make, this series, especially for her. It was her life, 24/7, for two and a half years. It was enough, I think. And she wanted to end on a high. So that’s the reason. I think it was the right thing.”

Now, Skam is being remade in seven countries around the world, including an American remake from Simon Fuller’s production company that will be broadcast on Facebook’s new video streaming service. It’s a deal the social media site was keen to strike as it struggles to hang on to its own teenage users. “Perhaps Skam will save Facebook,” Moslet laughs.

Andem is now working full-time on this American version – many fans found her decision to leave the Norwegian series just to take on another huge commitment with the American show disappointing. On Instagram earlier this month, Andem explained, “When Skam started my plan was to make three seasons and then hand it over to a new writer/director. But when season three was done, I couldn’t give it away. It didn’t feel right. So I made one last season. I know many of you are still sad it ended, but I am positive it was the right decision. I wanted Skam to be no less than amazing, and for several reasons I wouldn’t have been able to make a season five as good as it deserved to be.”

She emphasised that because Skam was made by NRK for license-fee payers, every choice in plot, character, and broadcast was made to serve Norwegian teenagers first. But, she writes, “it became impossible not to notice the need amongst teens everywhere. The need to open up and discuss topics like mental illness, sexual harassment and sexual orientation. This is why NRK sold the show for remakes.”

“I have decided to showrun and direct the American version of Skam,” she continues. “I didn’t want to give it to someone else. It will be a challenge to try to make it in a different culture, in a different language, to a much larger and diverse audience, but I promise that I will put all of my effort and heart in to it.”

How can the makers of Skam feel sure that the authenticity and the heart that made the original series so special? Ole Hedemann explains that they can’t promise the new show’s won’t be different – in fact, they’ll have to change to better reflect different global demographics. “But what we have done is created production guidelines that incorporate research, pre-production, production and publishing,” he says. “They cover the way we want Skam to be made. And if they follow them, it’s fine for us that they change the scripts for the local audience. From our experience, if you follow those guidelines, spend time on research, and really understand the youth culture, you just get it right. You get it authentic.”

“The most valuable thing we can bring onto the global table is the values at the heart of the series,” Moslet adds, referencing a piece from political editor of the conservative Norwegian daily Aftenposten Harald Stanghelle, who wrote this September: “In 2017, Sana, Isak, Noora, William Eva and all the others in the squad are the ultimate export of Norwegian values.”

Moslet hopes that Skam’s success will encourage others to create content that embraces diversity, and encourages society to reject us-and-them attitudes. “At a time of confusion and intolerance, it seems more important than ever.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.