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Transnational TV Drama: Conference Report

Read about the plenary sessions and debates at the Transnational TV Drama conference that took place from 6. - 9. June 2018 at Aarhus University.

What makes Danish TV drama travel? This question has not only kept the Danish-based research project team busy, but also the project’s affiliated researchers and the project’s “fans” all over the world. The conference Transnational TV Drama: Tastes, Travels, Trends brought them all together at Aarhus University (AU) from the 6th to the 9th of June 2018, to discuss the findings from the four years of research on Danish television drama and to explore the global landscape of television drama beyond Denmark. This is a report on the debates in the seven plenary sessions of the conference.


“What if TV dramas can make a difference? What if they can help us build a better world?”

“What if TV dramas can make a difference? What if they can help us build a better world?” This is the question Anne Marit Waade, the leader of the Danish TV Drama Project, gave the 90 guests to take along during the upcoming three days, when she opened the main conference on the 6th of June 2018. She explained how Danish television has a history of making dramas that seek to make a difference. But, Anne Marit Waade, who is an Associate Professor at AU, emphasized that the conference will be about much more than the Danish television that has so successfully travelled across the world and welcomed the contributions from researchers in Europe, Asia, North-America, Australia and New Zealand, who were to present their insights during the coming days.

Insights from the industry: Moving beyond the “museum of Nordic Noir”

The first impulses for the conversation about TV drama, how it travels and how it makes a difference came from within the TV industry. Piv Bernth, producer at Apple Tree Productions and formerly head of the fiction department at the Danish public service broadcaster DR, reflected on the importance of partnerships for the success of Danish television drama at home and abroad. She highlighted the long history of co-funding in the Nordvision partnership, the trust the German ZDF put in its Danish counterpart in co-productions like Forbrydelsen and the development and the respect for the writer’s vision that were so important in making The Bridge together with SVT. Now, in her company’s partnership with ITV, she enjoys having the British as “sparring partners”.

We dare to show life as life is.

Peter Bose, producer at Miso Film, who has been active in TV drama production since the early 2000s, highlighted the recent changes in the distribution of television: “Years ago, BBC wouldn’t have shown subtitled drama. Now they also do pre-buys.” Miso’s new mystery drama for Netflix, The Rain, is immensely popular in Latin America, Bose told the audience. While Netflix does not release data on its viewership, Bose noted that the Danish actors in The Rain now have a large international following on social media. Danish drama’s key to the success with the audience, according to Bose, is that “we dare to show that life is as life is”. This statement seconds Piv Bernth’s earlier assessment that “sincerity and complexity of the characters are a key point” in Danish drama.

It’s important we are not ending up as a museum of Nordic Noir.

Concerning the future of Danish television, Piv Bernth warned: “It’s important we are not ending up as a museum of Nordic Noir.” She sees that audiences are getting better and better at watching television and thereby expect more. The main challenge Peter Bose highlighted was the fragmentation of the TV market, as it becomes harder and harder to surprise people because everyone can find their individual niche. The proposed cut in DR’s budget, which is currently under negotiation in the Danish government, worried both TV makers. Peter Bose warned that commercially-oriented TV production according only to what the viewers want will lead to commissioning according to target audiences and offer no space for surprises. Public service broadcasters, in Piv Bernth’s opinion, have a key role in offering those surprises: “You have to have someone who has the guts to go first”, she stated. At the same time, she warned that if you don’t have money, you cannot take those chances. As a taste of the new surprises the Danish TV industry holds, Peter Bose showed a teaser for Miso Film’s new production Kriger (The Warrior), currently in production for TV2.

Keynote Panel: Producing Drama for International and Domestic Markets – Or how to go “glocal”

Following on from the Danish TV professionals’ answers to the question “what makes Danish TV drama travel?”, a panel of international researchers reflected on the dynamics behind Danish TV drama’s success and on the drivers of TV drama’s transnationalisation all over the world. Andrea Esser, Professor of Media and Globalization at the University of Roehampton in London, opened the debate with an impulse on the notions of “global” and “local”. She emphasized that we should not think of them as exclusives: “It can be possible to appeal to domestic and foreign audiences.” In the late 1990s, the term “glocalization” introduced by Roland Robertson sought to encapsulate this dynamic, Esser explained.

In a global world, presumed places and spaces and desires for authenticities becomes more important.

Esser’s examples for productions that appeal to audiences at home and abroad exactly for their local specificity also point beyond Denmark: Babylon Berlin, a crime series set in 1920s Berlin that was produced for the German public service broadcaster ARD and the pay-TV operator Sky where it aired in several European territories in 2017. Another example is The Split, a British TV legal drama series set in London that aired on BBC One in 2018 and is also distributed in the USA. Esser also offered an explanation for the global success of the local: “In a global world, presumed places and spaces and desires for authenticities becomes more important.” At the same time, she pointed towards a transnationalisation of aesthetics that unites the travelling TV dramas.

While Andrea Esser focused on the settings and aesthetics of travelling TV drama, John Ellis, Professor of Media Arts at London’s Royal Holloway University, scrutinized the globalization trends in the TV industry that came with “the FAANGs”. In the British media industry, this acronym is a shorthand for Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google, the globally-operating internet businesses, which are now all entering the television market. As Ellis illustrated with Netflix’s House of Cards, TV drama “is their battering ram into the market”.

Even small players want drama.

Particularly sought-after, he explained, are dramas that can define the brand, a feature that is also important to more local broadcasters like Denmark’s Kanal5. “Even small players want drama”, he summarized, whilst emphasizing that this demand for drama is also the reason for a cost inflation in the market. Beyond the cooperation in the industry that Piv Bernth and Peter Bose already pointed to, Ellis observed two more trends that come with the recent changes in the industry: TV drama is becoming more European, as it features shorter series and is produced as a whole, in contrast to the US piloting model and higher number of episodes per season. Moreover, he pointed towards the development of global drama as a brand in itself; a trend the international expansion of the British streaming service for non-English-speaking drama, “Walter Presents” epitomizes.

We see an unprecedented globalization in production, distribution and reception right now.

These global industry trends were explored further by Trisha Dunleavy, Associate Professor at Victoria University’s School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies in Wellington, New Zealand. As she illustrated with the global success of Netflix’s Stranger Things, that scripted originals push the expansion of streaming services across the globe. She also pointed towards a shift from episodic drama, prevalent on broadcast TV, towards serialized drama favoured by the streaming providers. The rising costs and demand for drama, which are pushed by the streaming services, Dunleavy explained, create new “cross-platform” collaborations between public and private broadcasters across national boundaries. Her example for this trend was Taboo, a co-production between the British public service broadcaster BBC and FX, a US-based cable channel. Summing up, she emphasized that “we see an unprecedented globalization in production, distribution and reception right now.”

Denmark is annihilated in the new Netflix drama.

Relating the developments and challenges on the global market to Denmark, Gunhild Agger explored Netflix’s recent push into the Danish market with The Rain. Showing a still from the dystopian setting of The Rain, Agger cited a review which claimed that “Denmark is annihilated in the new Netflix drama” and summarized that the series was received negatively within Denmark.

Moreover, Agger, who is Professor Emerita at the University of Alborg, informed the international conference participants of the impending reforms of DR that are to come with the Danish government’s new Media Agreement. Currently propositions include a 20 percent budget cut for DR and a redistribution of license-fee-money through a significantly increased public service fund, which private media companies in Denmark can bid for. According to Gunhild Agger, these proposals “risk commercializing the Danish market.”

Sometimes one title is enough to cause a wave.

Adding to the assessment of the globalizing TV industry’s impact on the small Danish TV market, Tim Raats presented some of his findings on the recent development of Belgium’s two television markets: Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia. Raats, who Assistant Professor at the Vrije Universiteit Brussels, first summarized the characteristics of small TV markets. These characteristics include: a limited number of players, limited options for export, and proportionally high costs for drama. While the two Belgian markets are both small, Raats also pointed to important differences between them. In contrast to Wallonia, Flanders has a popular and comparatively large production of domestic TV fiction. These productions are not all high-end TV drama, though. They also include Flemish soap-operas, which are not exportable, Raats explained. At the same time, he showed that “sometimes one title is enough to cause a wave”, a phenomenon he illustrated with Salamander, an internationally successful Flemish crime drama that was also aired by the BBC. Adding the small-market-perspective to the previous debate about Netflix, Raats pointed to the fact that Netflix only invests in domestic productions in the big European market. Moreover, he drew attention to the fact that Netflix often masks how much it actually invests into local productions by presenting co-productions with local partners as “Netflix Originals”.

Keynote Panel: The Values of Transnational TV Drama

On the morning of the conference’s second day, the experts on the keynote panel explored the different sets of values that are and become part of transnational television drama. Sue Turnbull, Senior Professor at the University of Wollongong in Australia, started the debate by introducing the cultural and economic benefits of travelling TV drama which are epitomized by its touristic value. To highlight what film and TV can do for tourism Sue Turnbull showed the trailer for a sequel to the Crocodile Dundee films that were exported from Australia to the world in the 1980/90s.

The trailer was not actually advertising a movie, but it was a televised advert by the Australian tourism board. It aired during the 2018 Super Bowl in the USA. Sue Turnbull then explained that the 36 US-Dollar campaign was, in fact, the most impactful Super Bowl ad so far. It was geared to add billions to the tourism revenues in Australia in the coming years. However, Turnbull was eager to emphasize that the economic value film and TV drama can bring to an economy does not exhaust the values created by them. The values also manifest in the benefits felt by the audience or values added to society; i.e. instances when TV drama makes a difference. Following, she presented a model of these values, that stacks them up like a layered merengue desert, a model Sue Turnbull is currently developing together with Marion McCutcheon.

Danish audiences don’t see the female characters as special.

Returning to Danish television drama, Janet McCabe, Senior Lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London explored the value in the culture and representation of gender on the Danish television screen. She did so via the depiction of female characters and bodies on Danish TV. She stressed: “Danish audiences don’t see the female characters as special”, adding that, in fact, “they perceive them as rather stereotyped.” But when they travel “they become iconic”, she said. Janet McCabe elaborated, that abroad the female characters on Danish screens like Sarah Lund or Saga Norén acquire a “cultish aura of authenticity” and different values come into being. According to McCabe, this process is significant, even if the dramas made for a Danish mass audience only reach a niche viewership abroad: “Sara Norén matters, because she matters to those who matter,” She sums up. Her talk thereby drew attention to the cultural values created by the foreign audiences in relation to the travelling TV dramas. Janet McCabe’s exploration of the depiction of the female body in The Bridge then took the form of an audio-visual essay. The video essay invited the audience to explore the materiality of The Bridge’s different adaptations, which were projected as a grid of facets.

Without public service broadcasters very few TV dramas would be made.

Following, Ruth McElroy, Professor of Creative Industries at the University of South Wales, reflected on the value of local TV drama produced in Wales. She introduced the plenum to the recently successfully exported crime drama Hinterland, which was shot in Welsh and English. Since Hinterland’s success, several dramas from Wales have followed suit. McElroy highlighted the importance of public service broadcasting for the existence of these dramas: “Without public service broadcasters very few TV dramas would be made”. In her talk, Ruth McElroy also set out to complicate the notion of a “golden age of television” by pointing towards the fragile nature of the production and financing models current dramas are based on. She highlighted the power dynamics implied in the travels of TV: “The transnational TV market is not open to all.” McElroy illustrated this point with the Welsh drama Keeping Faith, which was produced by the Welsh public service broadcaster S4C, but rejected by Netflix. Instead, Netflix co-produced the drama Requiem with the BBC. Keeping Faith, McElroy explained subsequently, was only shown on broadcast TV in Wales. In the rest of the UK, it was only available on BBC iPlayer. The latter drama, Requiem, is now widely available through Netflix, but as McElroy pointed out, it only superficially engages with Wales.

Keynote Exhibition & Film: So, What makes Danish TV Drama Travel?

The two plenary sessions in the afternoon of the conference’s second day, took different formats to the previous plenary panels. In order to present the multi-faceted answers the researchers found to the project’s question “what makes Danish TV drama travel?”, the project team took a multi-faceted approach. Posters in the foyer of the Katrinebjerg Campus invited the conference participants to explore the findings at their own pace; catalysed by drinks and snacks. The exhibition was then followed by the premiere of a film, in which nine of the researchers that were part of the project explained their findings, YouTube-style.

The discussion that followed the presentation took the form of a talk show. Moderator Trine Syvertsen, who is a Professor at the Department for Media and Communication at the University of Oslo and self-confessed “fan” of the TV Drama Project, interviewed the team: Anne Marit Waade, Pia Majbritt Jensen, Susanne Eichner, Jakob Isak Nielsen, Ushma Chauhan Jacobsen, and Lynge Stegger Gemzø from Aarhus University, as well as Eva Novrup Redvall (University of Copenhagen) and Gunhild Agger and Kim Toft Hansen from Alborg University. The session talk show provided insights into the challenges and the joys of the research in Denmark and nine other countries, into the production, distribution and reception of Danish TV drama.

Keynote Panel: Audience perspectives – Far away, so close

Audience research in foreign markets was a big part of the Danish TV Drama research project. The first keynote panel on the morning of the last conference day reflected this facet. Alessandra Meleiro, Associate Profssor at the Universidade Federal de São Carlos, reported on her field research with audiences in Brazil. Among these audiences were viewers of Danish TV drama as well as journalists, blogger and members of the TV industry. The Danish dramas that have made it to Brazil are The Killing, The Legacy, Borgen, The Bridge, and Rita. Meleiro explained that TV content which is not in Portuguese is a reserve for the country’s cultural elite. Moreover, she highlighted that Brazilian viewers are usually more interested in culturally proximate TV content. Nonetheless, in her tracking of social media activity around the Danish dramas, Alessandra Meileiro noticed that audiences were highly engaged in the Danish dramas; even though some of her examples of online comments revealed that audiences sometimes did not actually understand what was being said on screen. While she found few reviews of the Danish dramas in Brazil, Meleiro highlighted how reviewers sought to emphasize the similarities to Brazil that can be found in the Danish dramas.

The audiences feel that Australian series are not reflective of how people live their lives.

Pia Majbritt Jensen, Associate Professor at Aarhus University, gave an insight into her study of Australian viewers of Danish TV dramas, exploring why they feel so close to faraway audiences. Australian broadcasters began showing Danish dramas way before they had their break through on British television. When speaking to audiences, Jensen found that they enjoyed Danish dramas because they are different from the Australian and US content on TV: “The audiences feel that Australian series are not reflective of how people live their lives.” The multi-faceted characters in the Danish dramas, Jensen explained, appealed to the Australians because they felt more “authentic” and less glamorous than their US counterparts. Yet, Danish audiences, according to Jensen, actually claim that they do not see themselves in the Danish characters. Pia Majbritt Jensen summed up this dynamic in the Australian reception as “reverse cultural proximity”, a process of “othering the self and same-ing the other”. At the same time, Jensen highlighted how the exoticism, such as the (bad) Danish weather also appealed to the Australians, which led her to speak of a “cultural mark-up” rather than a “cultural discount” which Australian audiences find in Danish drama.

Danish is a convenient different.

Yesim Kaptan, Assistant Professor at Kent State University in Ohio, gave an insight into her study of Turkish viewers of Danish TV drama. She emphasized that the Turkish audiences all used illegal channels to access the Danish dramas. When speaking to them, she found a commonality in their feeling of “joining a global community”. This feeling, for example, materialized in an enjoyment in recognizing Danish actors, Kaptan told the plenum. She explained this to a be a phenomenon of “striving for the affirmation of differences” for which “Danish is a convenient different” that enables the viewers to distance themselves from Turkishness and the national as an identifying factor.

Matt Hills, Professor of Journalism and Media at the University of Huddersfield, provided an insight into the dynamics of cult and fandom that come into play in the reception of Danish TV drama. He capitalized that scholars and reporters often speak of “fan-like” or “cult-like” behaviour in relation to the Danish TV drama, which signifies a refusal to adopt the fan-label in full. Like Kaptan, Matt Hills emphasized the potential for cultural distinction offered by Danish drama, which he found in his study of British Nordic Noir fans. Hills also reflected on the important role of cultural intermediaries and para-texts and for bringing the dramas closer to the audiences. Para-texts which accompany the foreign dramas are also found on Netflix. With its distribution of foreign TV drama, Hills explained, Netflix is creating a “transnational fan zone”. However, he stressed that fan-practices are still rooted in the national, a phenomenon that can be observed in fans “Brit-picking” British shows on Netflix. This means that they examine the authenticity of the depiction of Britain they are presented with on screen.

Industry Panel: Reaching “unfaithful” young audiences with stories of their daily struggles

The first panel in the afternoon of the 9th of June was dedicated to young audiences and the question how to reach this “unfaithful” target group in a multi-platform era. Lene Heiselberg, audience researcher at DR, kicked off the debate with some insight from her department’s research. Her data showed that Danish teenagers and young adults have already left “flow TV”, as their preferred platforms are now: Youtube, Netflix and DR TV, the streaming platform of Danmark’s Radio. This is why DR is now actively looking for streaming-friendly content for its services to young viewers and why it is looking to move its young channels DR Ultra and DR3 online, Heiselberg explained. For reaching the young audiences, Heiselberg pointed to the importance of TV drama in Danish language. Her examples of broadcast ratings showed that children between 7 and 12 are most engaged by Danish TV fiction; not only by dedicated kids programmes and new productions but also by series like TV2’s period drama Badehotellet and Danish classics like Matador and the Olsen-Banden films. For older children US content, particularly blockbuster movies, become more relevant. Summing up, Heiselberg emphasized that content for young viewers needs to be relevant to them and their life-world, offering insights into human relations.

We need children’s content for future citizens.

The second keynote impulse came from Jeanette Steemers, Professor of Culture, Media & Creative Industries at King’s College London. She reported on preliminary findings from a research project on Children’s Screen Content in an Era of Forced Migration, that she is currently involved in. The research project investigates the diversity and representation of migrants in children’s television. So far, there is only “little European content that shows diversity or explains the world to children”, Steemers told the audience. A clear overall trend she identified, is the problem that filmmakers often make content about children. Yet this content is not necessarily made for the children, either because it is overly didactic or poorly scheduled, if it is shown beyond festivals at all. Among the positive examples she mentioned the Danish production Hassan og Ramadanen, a series about an 11-year old boy and his experiences of fasting for the first time, which was shown by DR Ultra. Jeanette Steemers stressed the importance and potential impact of good children’s content by reminding her audience that “we need children’s content for future citizens.”

Hassan og Ramadanen (episode 1) - Vil være sej som sine brødre from Det Danske Filminstitut on Vimeo.

We want to make content that sparks conversation.

Jonas Kryger Hansen, commissioning editor for DR Ultra, then gave an insight into the production of the popular Danish children’s series BaseBoys and Klassen. He seconded Lene Heiselberg’s assessment that fiction is a key driver for young viewers, but highlighted that this is a relatively new phenomenon. The main challenge for DR’s children’s content is having to compete with US productions, but with a fraction of the budget. This is why DR focuses on reflecting Danish children’s lives and does not produce fanciful content with magic, Kryger Hansen explained: “We want to make content that sparks conversation”, he added and presented DR’s strategy for bringing these conversations back into the programmes. For the production of Klassen, a series about school, DR holds workshops with children, in which they are asked to speak about their experiences and about what they would like to see on screen: “We need to get the details right, so we ask them”, he explained, whilst emphasizing that the participatory projects need resources in order to yield useful results.

You are fighting the biggest fights of your life when you are a kid.

An insight into the creative side of producing children’s content was then given by Toke Westmark Steensen, the screenwriter of BaseBoys and Klassen. He reminded the audience that “you are fighting the biggest fights of your life when you are a kid” and emphasized that we need to respect these stories as much as we respect the big crime stories. His writing is very much rooted in the memories of childhood experiences, Westmark Steensen explained and urged that “if we want to create children’s TV for them and not just an ingredients list of what we think they like.”

Reaching-Out Panel on collaborations between the industry and researchers

It is he beginning of a film era in our area.

The final plenary session of the conference was dedicated to the existing and potential collaborations between academics and the TV industry in the training of talent, development of local TV production and in innovation. Peter Høgh Sørensen, from the Ringkøbing-Skjern municipality in West-Denmark introduced the project “The New Nordic Noir” to the audience, a project that is a strategic partnership between the local municipality, Filmby Aarhus and Aarhus University. “It is”, Høgh Sørensen said, “the beginning of a film era in our area”. The aim behind the initiative is a development of tourism in the area that shall be boosted by TV series that start out from “its great landscape”. In a series of workshops potential stories to be set in West-Jutland were developed. Two stories are now in development, one of them written by Adam Price, the writer of Borgen and Ride Upon the Storm.

Ruth McElroy from the University of South Wales gave some insight into the collaborations between the University and the Welsh media industry in the education of future talent for local production. She stressed the importance of the sustainability of such training. Her example was a project with young people outside of the formal education system, who are – for example – trained as “sparks” for TV production, i.e. on-site electricians These transferable skills will ensure their employability even if film and TV production in Wales subsides again, McElroy explained.

Katrine Rasmussen from the Danish Film Institute who is responsible for the coordination of Creative Europe funding in Denmark told the audience about plans for strategic partnerships with researchers, in order to create documentary projects. The collaborations are envisioned to yield films about the research and its findings. At the same time, they are also seen as a potential tool for doing research. Thereby, Rasmussen explained, the two worlds and languages of filmmaking and academia shall be bridged.

Lothar Mikos, Professor for TV Studies at the Film University Babelsberg in Potsdam, illustrated his institution’s strategies for educating people for the industry. On the one hand, he cited courses where specific skills such as TV scheduling are taught. On the other hand, he mentioned intitiatives like the international student film festival Sehnsüchte, organized by Babelsberg students. Mikos explained how the students running the festival have been invited to training with the head of the Berlinale Film Festival, thereby experiencing the industry hands-on.

To round the picture of partnerships between the universities and media industries in Europe Jakob Isak Nielsen, Associate Professor at Aarhus University, reported on the fruitful meetings between his department and representatives from the Danish media industry where needs and ideas for the curricula are discussed. He emphasized, however, that differences in objectives do occur and that institutions need to act from their specific perspectives.

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