Stine Liv Johansen is an associate professor researching children's media at the University of Aarhus. She started watching the Norwegian online drama SKAM as a fan first, then realised quickly, that the show and its fan engagement should be looked at academically. In this interview, Johansen gives insight in the challenges and findings of researching the show that has fans of all nationalities and ages.
SKAM (engl.: shame) is a Norwegian online drama series for teenagers that aired for four seasons from 2015 to 2017. From the third season on, the series became an international success and has been remade in many countries in Europe and America. Each season revolves around a character and their daily struggles in school, their relationships, and their anxieties.
SKAM was produced by the Norwegian public broadcast provider NRK with the target audience of teenage girls in mind. As a publicly funded organization the makers see it as their obligation to produce content for every citizen. They therefore understood it as a necessity to move into new and social media to serve the audience that does not watch TV anymore, which allowed them to create niche content in innovative ways (Sundet, 2021). The show not only attracted teenagers from around the world, but other audiences as well.
Like her teenage children, Johansen started watching the show early on.
Johansen: "I began watching it just when the second season aired. And as I went along with that, I realized how it worked and how the day-to-day episodes were published. I watched it and I talked to my kids about it. They were teenagers at the time and watched it as well. When the third season aired, I started to watch it on a daily basis like a real SKAM fan would. That’s when I started a messenger chat with my colleague Lone, where we occasionally talked about the daily clips, the episodes and how it related to things that we experience in our life or that we could remember from when we were teenagers. Then one of us said, this should be looked at in a more academic way, and then we really intensified our communication about it and talked about it day and night, weekdays and weekends.”
Instead of publishing one episode per week or a whole season at once, the seasons of SKAM are published in fractions. Short video clips and screenshots of text messages are uploaded on the NRK homepage, while accounts of fictional characters on Instagram give insight in their social lives. This scattered distribution demands that the viewer actively gathers the information, instead of simply having it presented to them, an example of transmedia storytelling. This demand for active engagement is continued in the irregular and unpredictable uploading of the content snippets. They can be published anytime of the day, resulting in fans checking their phone anxiously to look for updates.
The uploading of the content mimics real time posting, because the content is published at moments when the (fictional) actions are supposed to actually take place. If a video clip starts Wednesday at 11:01, it is uploaded at exactly that time. The seemingly real-time publishing results in a high level of staged authenticity, as it allows the viewers to imagine that these events are happening right now. Teenagers with a similar schedule might watch clips of characters in school while they are themselves at school. Similarly, the posted Instagram content fits right in with the real contacts on social media, blurring the border between reality and fiction. Less engaged fans can do without the additional Instagram content and watch an episode containing a summary of the clips at the end of the week. However, when researching SKAM, Johansen saw the necessity to experience the show as a 'real' fan:
Johansen: “At some point we realized that if we wanted to understand this properly, we had to immerse ourselves, also, in the time aspect of this show. That was something we especially realized during a specific point in season 3 where there is a long break.”
Season 3 revolves around Isak and his relationship to Even. Unsure of Even’s true feelings, Isak waits for a response from Even for several days. At the same time, viewers of the show collectively waited and suffered with him, checking their phones for updates just like Isak was checking his phone.
Johansen: “We decided that we had to get rid of a researcher's usual approach, where you want to disengage yourself from the thing you're studying. Instead, we decided to move more like an ethnographer into that community and subculture. We wanted to then experience on our own bodies how the events affected not just the characters in the show, but especially the other fans in the fan community."
Johansen:“We started documenting and screen shotting and piling stuff. We also entered, of course, the other channels, the Instagram accounts, the NRK website, but more and more also the Danish Facebook group called a Kosegruppa DK, which became a huge thing with 30,000 people. We documented what happened there because we found it quite interesting to see how especially women our age were using that group.”
Not just a show for teenagers
Surprisingly, especially middle-aged women engaged in these online fan communities. While some of the members were teachers looking for ways to implement the show in their teaching, other members were such extreme fans that they displayed inappropriate behavior when it came to ‘fangirling’ over the teenage boys.
Johansen: “I think it was more a grownup thing to actually be that immersed in the show. Because my own children watched it just one episode every week and perhaps followed the Instagram account, but they didn't engage with them in any way. So that soon became a grownup thing, a mother thing, and a Facebook thing. And of course, when grownups are acting out on Facebook, then teenagers move away.”
Johansen didn’t watch the show together with her children, but through them she experienced SKAM as both a mother and a teenager.
Johansen: “I remember one night I was sitting at home in a room upstairs, because my daughter had a party with her classmates, and I had to leave the living room. And while I was sitting there and listening to the sounds from that party and very loud music, there was something happening with SKAM. That balance between being around real teenagers and looking at teens on a show has made it a very intense experience. We can all remember how intense everything felt when we were teenagers, and I could at the same time feel how intense it is to be a mother of a teenager.”
A reason the show has become so popular is the authentic portrayal of teenagers and their everyday struggles with school, their identity and relationships. This was possible because of a new way of preparation and research before the production of SKAM.
Johansen:“SKAM was exceptional because it was so close to a very recognizable reality for teens, not only in Scandinavia, but apparently in many, many countries across the world. Especially in season three where for one of the very first times they portrayed not only a gay couple but also what it's like to live with a mental vulnerability.
Before the producers actually started making the manuscript, they had a lot of interviews with 16-year-old girls and boys. They asked them about their life, their preferences, their taste in music, their clothes, their relationship to their parents and to each other, and to technology, all those kinds of things. They made some really, really big research before they actually started producing the show. That is in my opinion perhaps the most important thing. Julie Andem and the whole team behind the show really did something that was original.”
This method of production has influenced how media in Scandinavia is produced and talked about still today. Even years after the show stopped, Johansen notices how SKAM has changed academia.
Johansen: “When I recently went to a conference on children's media, I could see how SKAM and its agenda for making public service content for teenagers has really been incorporated in the whole production area. Especially when it comes to the part about involving the users or viewers.
One of the most interesting things about SKAM is how it's actually built on knowledge from the users. It's built on focus groups, it's built on long term ethnographies among young people, it's built on their input to the narrative. But also, how the words, or how the clothing will be. Everything in the show is really based on teenager’s own input.
And the inclusion of teenagers, hearing their opinions and taking them seriously, was something that everyone talked about. Whether you did some research or data mining on websites, but especially when it came to actually including young people or children in the production process.”
SKAM as Scandinavian culture
Although SKAM was produced for a specific Norwegian audience, the relatedness of Scandinavian languages made it accessible and popular in the neighboring countries. When a Danish character appeared in season 3, this was understood as a shout-out to the big fan community in Denmark. There, SKAM even initiated political discussions about relations in Scandinavia.
Johansen: "There was a debate in Denmark one time because of limited access to the NRK website and the live content. The NRK closed it down so that Danish viewers could not access unless they had a VPN connection. There was one quite old politician in the Danish Parliament, who used to be the Minister of Culture, many years ago. He raised his voice in that debate, saying we need access to each other's each other's channels, because this is so important for the inter-Scandinavian community. It's so unique that we can access this and that we as Danish, Swedish and Norwegian can understand each other's languages, and we can engage with this.
We spoke Norwegian all the time, there were so many phrases and slang that went into the Danish language as well. There were a lot of people talking about how great it was that we had a renewed interest in each other's languages and how important it is to get a sense of each other's languages. We are three very small countries, but we have a lot in common, and we have a shared language."
While the Norwegian show ended after the fourth season, remakes have appeared in countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, France, Germany, and the USA. The multiplicity of shows established a sense of connection and an awareness for other cultures and languages across Europe with a strong international fan community. Right now, fans from across the world experience the seventh season of Druck, the German remake of SKAM, on Instagram and Youtube.
Andem, J. (Director). (2015-2017). SKAM [Online web series] NRK.
Sundet, V. (2021). “Youthification” of Drama Through Real-Time Storytelling: A Production Study of Blank and the Legacy of SKAM. Critical Studies in Television, 16(2), 145–162.