With their cool and edgy Scandi noir series, Nordic producers have been killing it with adults. Now they’re bringing those same sensibilities to kid and teen content, putting out cult faves that are finding global appeal on streamers. And growing popularity leads to more investment, but the funding is still fractional compared to the price tags on adult dramas. So what’s the secret sauce? The Nordic success comes thanks to a digital-first strategy and a deep, well-researched understanding of today’s kids.
Take the new series Eagles (pictured, above) from Swedish public broadcaster SVT. Created by Stefan Lindén, the eight x 20-minute online drama revolves around a group of teenagers in a small Swedish hockey town who must come to terms with messy family histories while coping with love, friendship and new rivalries on the ice.
To best understand its audience, SVT interviewed more than 2,000 teens and mined results from Instagram polls prior to the production. “It’s about getting to know the audience and building on teens’ feelings of hope or hopelessness,” says SVT executive producer Sanne Övermark.
While Eagles soared digitally, it faltered on linear. Since premiering on SVT’s on-demand network SVT Play in March 2019, each episode of Eagles has drawn about half a million viewers—an impressive 5% of the total Swedish population. The series went to television two months later, but only attracted about a fifth of the audience, says Övermark. A digital-first second season is in production and expected to premiere in March.
Eagles is finding success stateside as well. Made on a budget of less than US$1 million, the series is nominated for a 2020 Kidscreen Award for best web/app series for tweens and teens.
Eagles joins the likes of other digital-first hits like ZombieLars (Pictured above, NRK), The Party (SVT) and Mental (YLE). But they all either directly or indirectly benefited by lessons learned from Skam.
Launched in 2015, NRK’s Skam delved into the daily lives of teenage students at a prestigious secondary school in Oslo. Although NRK had been experimenting with tween web drama since 2009 on shows like Sara, MIA and Girls, Skam was a game-changer for how it attracted a large web audience and lured young viewers back to NRK’s linear channel.
Created by Julie Andem, Skam adhered to the typical youth drama formula by highlighting topical issues like sexuality, relationships, mental health and racism. It was the series’ distribution format that set it apart.
To resonate with an older Gen Z audience and generate word-of-mouth engagement, daily, real-time episodes ranging from 30 seconds to five minutes were packaged as text messages and social media posts. Posted on the show’s website with little or no promotion, the content of each clip was aligned with the release schedule. If a character went to school on a Monday morning, for example, that’s when the scene would be posted. On Fridays, the snippets were combined to form one 15- to 50-minute traditional episode for NRK’s linear network.
The concept was a ratings success. Skam ran for four seasons before ending in 2017. It was remade in seven international markets, including France, Spain, Italy and Germany. Two seasons of an American version set in Austin, Texas also launched on VOD platform Facebook Watch.
NRK executive and Skam producer Marianne Furevold says one of the secrets to the show’s popularity was the extensive research the development team used to get to the heart of the audience’s needs.
“We conducted 50-plus in-depth interviews with teenagers, spent time at schools and youth centers, and immersed ourselves in the online world of Norwegian teens to create authentic stories and characters, and present problems that felt relevant to the audience, particularly 16-year-old girls,” says Furevold. “The biggest challenge was that [Julie] Andem was writing and directing while we were publishing the show at the same time. It was a hectic production cycle, but in a way it gave us the opportunity to be current, which was a big part of the show’s success.”
Gisle Halvorsen, co-creator of Tordenfilm and NRK co-pro ZombieLars and fiction exec at kidsnet NRK Super, says it’s important to not underestimate tweens and teens.
“You have to consider them as equals because they are smarter than we think and are more experienced consumers of content than we were at the same age,” says Halvorsen. “For youth dramas, though, you do need to be careful that the tone and visuals don’t become too violent or sexual.”
In Denmark, DR Ultra’s long-running school life series The Class (now in its eighth season) took its research of youth culture a step further by letting tweens co-write scripts and appointing junior editors to provide notes and co-edit all final products. Since its launch, the show has become DR’s most popular on-demand fiction series ever, and local versions have performed well for NRK and SVT.
Two years ago, as DR has upped its Danish youth fiction output to nearly 300 episodes per year, the decision to collaborate more creatively with the audience was a big part of the network’s new strategy for youth fiction, says Morten Skov Hansen, chief for DR Ramasjang (preschool), DR Ultra (nine to 14) and VOD platform DR Medier.
“We found that an essential part of research is involving the target group in the development of ideas and feedback in the final stages of the production.”
Looking forward, youth drama in the region could see further investment thanks to an initiative in the works by Nordvision, a media collaboration between Nordic pubcasters that provides co-production opportunities, funding, format support and knowledge-sharing. ZombieLars, for example, received financing from the program and collaborative support from SVT, DR and YLE.
Pubcasters within Nordvision are now exploring ways to create something similar to the Nordic 12. Launched last April by the five main regional pubcasters (including RUV Iceland) to better compete with Netflix, the joint initiative helps secure the linear and digital rights to a dozen of the region’s highest-quality TV dramas for one year. Halvorsen says a model like the Nordic 12 is being developed to unlock funding for kids dramas.
“It’s in the early stages, but hopefully we’ll have a system in place in a year or two,” he says.