Transnational TV PhD Course – Day Two

We expand the transnational picture through production studies, explore digitalization's impact on the industry and discuss ways of opening the industry's doors for researchers. Read all about the second day of the Transnational TV course in the blog.

2017.05.17 | C. Bengesser

Transnational Television Production – Thought-provocative lecture by Lothar Mikos

Lothar Mikos opens the second day with a closer look at the inner workings of transnational television production, particularly regarding the rising importance of co-productions. In his talk, he highlights the importance of economical, technological, regulatory and legal circumstances for how television has changed as a medium.

Digitalization has led to a multiplication of channels. In the US, for example, there are over 1.000 linear TV channels nowadays, but 99 percent of them have market shares under one percent. This not only leads to a fragmentation of audiences, but it also means that most channels, due to their position in the market, “do not all have the money to do ‘quality TV’ or to even buy it.” This is why, Lothar Mikos agrees with Jeanette Steemer’s earlier point about the importance of ordinary television.

The impact digitalization has on television as a technology is also evident in the timeline of new media inventions that Lothar Mikos presents: While up until the 1980s technological innovation happened more or less successively, the digital era has seen a lot of new parallel technological advances that come onto the market with increasing speed.

Content is much more expensive than the subscription rates.

Regarding Netflix, one of the latest additions to the media mix, he is wary of how long it will stay on the timeline: Lothar Mikos reminds the audience that Netflix has accumulated a ten billion US-dollar deficit, which raises the question, how long this can be going: “Content is much more expensive than the subscription rates.”

What remains national within the global TV business, however, are legal and regulatory frameworks governing TV rights. In the US, Lothar Mikos illustrates, production companies are hiring external creative teams to produce their shows, but the intellectual property rights only remain with the producers. In Germany, all creatives retain intellectual property. This difference in the legal framework then also makes sales abroad more difficult, because all these rights have to be cleared before a TV programme can be sold. In these cases, the networked nature of the contexts that impact on television emerges clearly.

Everybody needs content, not only the channels, but even device manufacturers.

In this current day and age of television, Lothar Mikos summarizes: “Everybody needs content, not only the channels, but even device manufacturers.” This means that there are new entrants into the market. More traditional players like public service broadcasters face the challenge of filling more and more channels with content, while their available funding stays the same. This is where co-production - the contribution of two or more parties to the budget of a production - comes into the equation. Again, this is not automatically transnational, as the contributors can also be partners from the same nation, only aiming for one market. “Transnational production”, Lothar Mikos explains, “is the bi- or multinational coproduction process of a film or TV series for the purpose of international release on a continental or worldwide market.”

Co-Productions work if people trust each other and this is to a large degree based on track-record.

Such constellations offer a range of benefits to the participating parties. Among them Lothar Mikos lists: They can finance larger productions, they get easier access to the partner’s markets and can also access nationally or regionally bound production support such as tax-breaks. Access to creative talent abroad also becomes easier in co-productions. Still, the list also includes the drawbacks of co-productions, such as co-productions’ high level of administrative efforts, while planning is both lengthy and insecure. Here, Lothar Mikos also refers back to Jeanette Steemer’s argument about television as a “people’s business”: “Co-Productions work if people trust each other and this is to a large degree based on track-record.”

The 40 million US Dollar production budget of Pillars of Earth (UK/CAN/D 2010), for example, cannot be compared to what is possible on purely national budgets. Canada, as Lothar Mikos explains, is a particularly desirable co-production partner with over 50 co-production agreements with other nations.

Also, we see new coalitions in the co-production scene, for example between public service and private partners such as the German ARD and Sky co-producing Babylon Berlin.

In his many examples Lothar Mikos also points to the local adjustments are still necessary in these co-productions. Trailers, for example, are re-cut for each market. The different requirements of TV slots or regulatory constraints of youth-protection can also alter the length of episodes or move them to a different time.

In the exercise matching the lecture the participants are then challenged to find the competitive budget that would be required for a quality drama series nowadays. The task is to gather ideas how 20 million Euros could be gathered from partners in different countries for the co-production of a Game of Thrones spin-off. It becomes apparent that certain global goals and national constraints can indeed be un-reconcilable.

Joint lecture by Anne Marit Waade and Vilde Schanke Sundet: Transnational circulation and unexpected “success stories”

In the second impulse of the day Anne Marit Waade and Vilde Schanke Sundet present some unexpected “success stories” in the transnational television world.

Vilde Schanke Sundet’s focus is on the impact of changing global industries and social media on TV drama, which she exemplifies with case studies of Lilyhammer and SKAM, two originally Norwegian series that have attracted global attention and have also become game-changers in the industry. By contrasting what both programmes were initially supposed to be in the Norwegian context and what they turned into, she exemplifies on which levels transnationalisation changes and challenges a TV product.

Lilyhammer, a show about an American Mafia boss moving to Norway as a result of a witness protection programme, was supposed to be a low-budget comedy production for the Norwegian public service channel NRK.

The lead actor Steven Van Zandt then sought to attract more money and attention to the project by pitching it to Netflix, which at that point was still largely unknown in the television business. Over the seasons, Vilde Schanke Sundet shows how Netflix’s financial stakes and thereby also the budget of Lilyhammer increased, while Norwegian audiences’ interest in the show decreased. Another tension she observes, is the influence of the partners on the content: “Was it more a comedy drama for a Norwegian PSB audience or an action drama for the paying international audience?”. The final battleground between the two partners was the issue of rights, with NRK emulating the ‘binge-watching’ model popularized by Netflix when it put the last series onto its online service in one go – a move that Netflix did of course not approve of.

So, the case illustrates the legal, cultural and economic tensions emerging from transnational co-production. Vilde Schanke Sundet sums up that over the series’ three seasons, Netflix has turned from an unknown face in the industy “to NRK’s worst enemy.”

SKAM - It is fun, but it is still important television for the teenage audience.

The online drama SKAM is about Norwegian high-school students’ everyday-life, but it is also addressing issues such as sexual identity or mental health. Vilde Schanke Sundet characterizes it: “It is fun, but it is still important television for the teenage audience.”

She unfolds that what started as a “secret teen drama” aimed at 16-year-old Norwegian girls has attracted a huge transnational fan-base that translates the show to audiences in very different parts of the world. In March, the shows characters Isak and Even were even voted 2017's TV's Top Couple at Entertainment Online. This transnational following also creates interesting transnational fan-practices, such as a viewer of a Norwegian broadcast of the national TV awards live-streaming the event from the TV screen in Norway to fans worldwide on Twitter, where the viewers can comment on the broadcast live.

So, while the TV show blurs the lines between reality and fiction in its use of fictional social media profiles, the fan practices are blurring the lines between national borders. SKAM, as Vilde Schanke Sundet’s talk shows, has drawn in a truly transnational audience. In the conclusion she highlights that this also creates problems for researchers, as data about the followers of the show outside the Nordic market is hardly obtainable.

Location now is a commodity within the production industry.

In her part of the lecture Anne Marit Waade presents her work on screen tourism, a term which usually describes tourism practices that seek to explore the ‘home’ of a foreign television series. Examples of this are the Nordic-Noir-/crime-themed tours in Aarhus, Malmö or Stockholm. However, the example she is studying are attempts at reversing this relation: “We see screen-induced tourism, but this is a case of tourism-induced screen production.” Under the label “New Nordic Noir”, a transmedia TV drama crimes series set on Denmark’s West-Coast is currently in pre-production. The project aims for international sales abroad, but there is also the desire to involve the local community.

The aims of projects like this, Anne Marit Waade explains, are branding, generating attention, stimulating growth in the regions and also building a business model for further screen production. To make this happen the collaboration is not of the same kind as the co-productions Lothar Mikos elaborated on, because the intersection of TV and tourism also necessitates collaborations with partners outside the TV industry. One of these partners in this case is the University of Aarhus, which has engaged students into the research for the project. Furthermore, Anne Marit Waade herself contributes her academic expertise to the project.

So, in this case, we see a local production at much earlier stages than TV researchers usually encounter their objects. But this local production has transnational ambitions from the start in its function to promote tourism, i.e. travel across borders.

Individual feedback on the students’ work

The afternoon of the second day is dedicated to the feedback on the participants’ papers and ‘work-in-progress’ documents, which they submitted to their peers and the experts leading the workshop. While the debates are focused on the individual projects and papers, there are some general issues shared across projects. In many pieces the students talk about the quality and the success of transnational television. While we think we know quality and success when we see it, these categories call for definition and exemplification in each case. A second issue is finding one’s way through the riches of data, archives and potential contexts. Also, the experts agree that initially one always wants to do everything, but a PhD thesis ultimately needs to tell a story that is a unique contribution. Particularly concerning this challenge the peers’ and experts’ pointers towards what they find interesting in the research presented is helpful.

Following from the feedback session, the conversation about shared research concerns continues in two knowledge exchange workshops. One focused on audience studies, the second focused on production research through the method of elite interviews.

Knowledge exchange workshop Production studies & elite Interview

In the latter workshop the most discussed issues where the ethics of interviewing and the question of getting access to informants.

The experience of trying to get an interview might tell you a bigger story than what the interview would have told you.

In her research, Janet McCabe has encountered shut doors at the industry, particularly when companies became very protective of their product and brand. However, she sees a positive side to the cases in which researchers are denied access: “The experience of trying to get an interview might tell you a bigger story than what the interview would have told you.”

Following from this Jeanette Steemers points to the “interview fetish” in the research field. “Some interviews”, she argues, “are not worth doing”, particularly when they emerge from a tightly controlled environment. Also, she stresses: “You cannot just rely on interviews alone. Sometimes it is just background information.”

Concerning the question of research ethics Eva Novrup Redvall recommends cross-checking quotes with interviewees at the stage of publication, not least because some publishers require this. But the experts agree that this does not mean one should send entire articles or transcripts.

What we take home

Sometimes the small picture is much sharper than the big picture.

The feedback sessions provided each student with concrete tips and ideas about how to improve their research, but the gain goes further. Looking critically at the structures and arguments of others’ work also helps to develop a criticality towards one’s own writings. Also, the day has opened up another new context: the impact of digitalization on the phenomena we have studied and it has again increased the complexity of the tensions and interrelations between the national and the transnational. The image, therefore, appears to be ever expanding - both in reach and in depth. But while we aim for that bigger picture, it might be helpful to keep Lothar Mikos’ advice in mind: “Sometimes the small picture is much sharper than the big picture.”

PhD students