Keynote Marianne Furevold-Boland

CONNeXT Day Two

Marianne Furevold-Boland, executive producer with Norway’s NRK Drama, rounded out this year’s CONTeXT, the Flanders Image CONNeXT industry event, with a one-woman presentation about web-dramas and success.

Furevold-Boland, who trained at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts as an actor, brought dynamism and humour to her presentation on creating an international web-drama hit, working with audiences and communities, remakes and discovering the next big thing.

Internationally renowned as the producer of the Norwegian web-drama series Skam, Furevold-Boland is now an executive producer at the country’s broadcaster NRK Drama. As well as currently working with different projects both in development and in production at NRK, she also oversees the various Skam remakes that are being produced in more than eight countries around the world.

She described Skam as an “amazing journey” and began her keynote showing a taster montage of the Norwegian youth web show that broke down barriers, revolutionised content creation at a state broadcaster and travelled the world, “hailed in some quarters as the future of television”!

“We never thought that when we started out,” Furevold-Boland said. “It has been overwhelming how Skam has been embraced by the entire world it seems.” She showed the audience a map, not indicating all the remake territories across the globe, but rather one fans oft he show made themselves during the fourth season so they could see where other ‘Skamaniacs’ were checking in from.”

Web Content Origin

Furevold-Boland said it all started in the north of Norway and was far from an accidental success. “We are standing on the shoulders of giants because Skam is the result of many years of exploring and development of the web-drama concept. NRK’s super youth drama department has produced these kinds of series for many, many years,” she noted. “The format and the stories are all based on interviews and inside work.”

It all started when Furevold-Boland and her team talked to a girl in 2007 about why there were no Norwegian local alternatives to Hannah Montana and her peers.

“NRK was not specifically cool among girls between 10 and 12. So then we created Sara and that was the first web-drama. It was all about this young girl in Norway. Her parents get divorced, she has to move from her home town, and we published short films, diaries, confession videos on our website which were very popular at that time. It was kind of a vlog of its day. We were using a narrative to target platforms that our audience also used.”

Various shows, such as Mia, Emne and Liekmar were developed via extensive research, interviews and conversations with the target audience, such as what they did when they wake up, the platforms that they used at that time. Emne, one of NRK’s biggest successes, followed Sara. “It’s a brand, it has ended up in its 10th season, but maybe because it was for younger audiences it slipped under the radar, who knows? And now we have Liekmar which is also a huge success.

“It didn’t just happen. There are so many people who have worked on and developed this kind of material through the years,” Furevold-Boland added. “We have sharpened the format and the content based on the inside work that we have done constantly through these projects.”

Skam

In 2014, she was asked to “make something that will bring the teenagers back to NRK”.

“So, what do you do when you have to make something for an audience that believes that your channel has absolutely nothing for them? You go out and talk to them. As we had experienced, the most important thing you can do is to listen to the target audience, take them seriously and see them for what they are.”

NRK did a lot of research, went out to schools, youth clubs, conducted surveys including 50 in-depth interviews based on the research-based NABC method, and also used social media – a great way to get to know your viewers, she maintains.

“We went out there and talked to them. The NABC method is a tool we have been using in NRK for many years when we are creating new formats. It was originally created by the Stanford Research Institute. It has been a good tool.”

SKAM Mission Statement

After she and her team had gathered all the research, they created a mission statement and that has been the backbone for Skam. “It permeates all of our decisions we made through the production. It starts with finding the needs and goes on to show the approach to meet those needs. For Skam it was: ‘Skam aims to help 16-year-old girls strengthen their self-esteem through dismantling taboos, making them aware of interpersonal mechanisms and making them aware of the benefits of confronting their fears.’”

It was not an easy task but it was a very important task, Furevold-Boland believed.

Early Episodes

All the decisions for the early outings of Skam were based on the research and the interviews with the target audiences. Some of the characters were also based on the interviews. One example was the character Sana in the show. “During an in-depth interview we did with a Muslim girl, we uncovered a need we thought was important to meet. In her experience, a lot of people viewed Muslim girls as victims of oppression, and only that. She felt that she needed to see something different. She felt unfairly represented in the media and she wanted to see a Muslim girl who was strong, independent and confident in herself and her religion. OK. Then we created Sana.”

Iman Meskini, who played Sana, was the first woman ever to wear the hijab in a Norwegian fashion magazine, Furevold-Boland noted. So, hopefully, that 17-year-old girl got what she needed.

Primary Platform

“Web was our primary platform and we published our content on our own website and we published something every day – small clips, chats, pictures, videos and we published in real time,” Furevold-Boland explained. “If there was a scene from a party on Friday night at 9.30, we published that scene on a Friday night at 9.30. We could also be current. For example, when the tragedy [terror attack] struck in Manchester [at a concert], we could send out some love. By doing that the audience felt we saw them in a contemporary light, we were there with them and they were there with these characters. The different characters also had social media accounts. We published stuff that was related to the narrative and in the storyline but also just random teenage stuff. One of the fictional characters had more than 700,000 followers! It’s amazing, isn’t it?”

By exploring the different platforms that Furevold-Boland and NRK knew the audience used themselves, they could also explore myriad different ways for content and the narrative.

“Another thing that was both exciting and a bit scary was we were evaluated by our audience the second that we published something,” she said. “They were commenting on platforms and among each other.”

Community Connection

Furevold-Boland talked about the show’s reach. By way of example, she said, it helped one boy to come out as gay to his parents after watching one episode. Social media posts from Skam fans supported him in his decision to do so. “’Skam has opened the door, I need to walk through it’, said the viewer on social media.’ Do it, do it, doit, heart, heart, heart… Then, how did it go?” was across social media in reply.

Audience As a Part

“It is very nice to give something back. Season 4 opened with a scene recreating a painting done by a South Korean fan at the end of season 3,” Furevold-Boland pointed out. “We like to implement our fans into the show but also give them a real shout out because we are nothing without them.”

Remake

Now there are around eight different remakes of Skam with Furevold-Boland describing collaborating with different countries as “a joy. We invited all the producers and the directors to a Skam university in Oslo where we told them the background of the show, how we worked and I visited all the different productions,” she said. “It has been important for us to maintain the Skam essence, but it has also been crucial that the remakes are authentic to their target audience.” The audience were treated to a scene from Skam and its Belgium counterpart, wtFOCK (“a great success”).

Following the clip, Furevold-Boland confessed to getting “a bit emotional seeing that because there are now so many kids, human beings, all around the world have their own Skam tool.

“We never imagined that when we started out but it is amazing. It’s great for me to be here. I can be a rock star in the TV drama world and travel and meet you guys but the most important thing is how the target audience receives it.”

Audience Feedback

This is what matters, Furevold-Boland said. She described how a girl had written in to a newspaper about an article penned by a 19-year-old who had been raped at a party. She said that the characters and the stories in Skam had given her some valuable tools that she desperately needed to confront her own fear.

“She says, ‘Thank you for giving me a voice.’ That is the most important thing isn’t it? That is why we strive to get to work in the mornings, to find stories that can open up hearts and minds and hopefully make the world a bit better.” She played another clip in which a girl confronts the brother of her boyfriend about nude pictures of her he had taken when she was drunk to indicate the sorts of issues and social situations Skam aims to tackle.

Remake Lessons

“I think it worked very well in all the other countries. We learned a lot but what we learned from the productions that had some challenges is that coming from NRK we have a lot of freedom.” she said. NRK had strategies and content that didn’t work on a larger scale in countries where the competition and the culture of television is different.

In Belgium

“We learned that we were a bit cocky regarding our strategy and some of the things we wanted to throw to you guys. This was a couple of years ago now so it is inspiring to watch how wtFOCK [for example] is using social media to be current in a world that is so different from what it was two years ago. It shows the momentum in the cultural war between generations. It is inspiring.”

Going Global

Audiences were able to see the first three seasons of Skam, even if they were in Spain. But now, because of the music rights, viewers cannot see the original Norwegian show in any other territory outside Norway. “We were making a show for a Norwegian 16-year-old girl and using their music meant sticking to making the show for that girl and a Norwegian audience,” Furevold-Boland pointed out.

Success Guaranteed?

“I wish I could say young audiences are now back on NRK,” she noted, somewhat ruefully. “I think they are now more aware of what kind of content we make. But when I ask teenage audiences: ‘Have you been watching NRK’?, they say ‘No. Then you ask, ‘Have you been watching Skam or 17, and they say, ‘Sure’. They are not really aware of the fact they are watching NRK content.

“So I think that in the aftermath of Skam there is now a lot more content targeted to that audience.”

It gives NRK a bit more credibility but whether or not it has a huge effect [on attracting youth audiences], Furevold-Boland remains unsure.

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Keynote delivered by Marianne Furevold-Boland, October 8, 2019
By Stuart Kemp