Piv Bernth, the former head of drama at Danish pubcaster DR, and producer Karoline Leth reveal six things we need to know about forthcoming drama Liberty, about a young boy who moves to Tanzania with his parents. The series is produced in-house by DR and is distributed by DR International Sales.
1. Karoline Leth: Liberty is based on a Danish book by Jakob Ejerbo. Set in the 1980s, it tells his real-life story of going to Tanzania with his parents when he was a child. It’s a very famous book in Denmark and I have wanted to adapt it since it was published in 2009, so when the rights became available, I grabbed them. It’s a story about expats and Scandinavian society. They’re going to Tanzania with good intentions to do good for African people, to help them, but the problem is they’re pressing their own system on people who don’t really need that kind of help. So for me it’s also a story about colonialism, because we tried to do good but we really did a lot of bad things. It’s also about families and what happens to the individual when you’re suddenly in a country where there are no rules.
2. Leth: The book was so prescient, which is something we’ve been talking about a lot. In Denmark, there’s a lot of discussion over why people coming from other countries are always together in a ghetto. And what do we do when we go to other countries? We do the same. So it’s a mirror.
3. Piv Bernth: This is the first time a book has been adapted at DR – it’s been its trademark to do original stories. Many other people have tried to do their own take on this book, but they treated it with so much respect that they couldn’t work with it. You have to love it but also disrespect it to be able to do it – that was the case for us – and when the concept was presented to me, I really liked it. Then, because the final season of The Bridge is only eight episodes, we had the possibility of doing a five-part miniseries, and this was perfect.
4. Bernth: Liberty is brave for Danish drama because its African setting is a totally different environment from what you’ve seen before in Danish series. It takes place in the 1980s and many scenes are quite on edge, with a clash of cultures. It’s the tale of a white boy trying to be black and a black boy trying to be white, and whether that can be done. It’s a good story with some tragedy, a lot of comedy and a very human ending that shows you are what you are, no matter how much you try to be someone else.
5. Leth: We have been filming the show in South Africa, which has been hard, fun and intense. We have been living the theme of the book and series ourselves, as there has been a clash of cultures in that we have experienced two ways of filmmaking. We have been working with a tiny Danish team as well as a South African film crew, and that was fun but also challenging. We had to learn from each other.
6. Leth: The all-star cast includes Sofie Gråbøl (The Killing, Fortitude), Carten Bjørnlund (Rita, Arvingerne) and Connie Nielsen (Gladiator, Devil’s Advocate). We’ve worked with so many beautiful, fantastic and gifted people. It was 10 weeks shooting three episodes together and it’s been quite a thrill. Liberty is coming very soon. Produced by DR and distributed by DR International Sales, the show is due to air on DR1 in February, so we are editing very quickly at the moment. It’s a hectic process but sometimes it’s good too. You have to make faster decisions than you are used to.
As technology continues its assault on traditional television models, success is no longer just about overnight viewing figures. So in today’s crowded drama marketplace, what defines a hit – and how are our views of success changing?
When the BBC and FX announced there would be a second season of Tom Hardy’s extraordinary period drama Taboo (pictured above), the UK pubcaster took the unusual step of spelling out exactly why the series would return.
Taboo was a solid, if not spectacular, performer on BBC1, drawing three million viewers to its Saturday night debut and staying above 2.5 million for subsequent episodes.
Yet it earned its recommission by becoming one of the most successful dramas ever in terms of views on iPlayer, the broadcaster’s digital catch-up service, a result credited to word of mouth and social network mentions that led new viewers to seek out the series.
Within seven days, episode one’s audience rose to 5.8 million and episodes averaged seven million at the 28-day cut-off. The first episode achieved iPlayer’s third highest audience ever, following Sherlock and docudrama Murdered By My Boyfriend.
Announcing the recommission in March this year, Charlotte Moore, director of BBC Content, said: “Taboo has been a phenomenal success and proves overnight ratings are not the only measure of success, as the series continues to grow beyond live viewing. Launching in a new Saturday night slot on BBC1 provided us with an opportunity to take risks and showcase distinctive drama, and the growing talkability of Taboo has engaged younger audiences, seeing record numbers coming to BBC iPlayer, with the availability of the box set maximising audiences even further.”
The BBC went further, suggesting BARB audience data underestimated the final audience for Taboo as it only recognised iPlayer viewers using the service via a connected television and not through laptops, mobiles and tablets.
Sue Gray, the pubcaster’s head of audiences, added: “The live broadcast audience remains important and we know audiences highly value collective viewing experiences. However, an emerging younger audience group is increasingly influenced by social recommendation and will come when the ‘noise’ around a series becomes compelling. The broadcast moment can fan this flame, with BBC1 and iPlayer providing a virtuous circle which maximises audience opportunity to engage. Broadcasters and commentators increasingly need to play the long game in their quest to understand audience behaviour.”
In truth, the emphasis on viewing figures has been waning for several years as box set binges have become a worldwide phenomenon. Ratings for a single episode no longer provide a clear picture of how many people have watched – and will watch – a programme over the days and weeks after it airs, while digital platforms ensure programmes can be watched and rewatched long after their initial debuts. So how do those in the industry now define a successful series?
Despite putting less focus on overnights, writers, producers and commissioners will admit to still keeping an eye on the ratings just to see whether they have an instant hit on their hands – unless you happen to ask people at Fox, the US broadcaster that decided overnights were “no longer relevant” in November 2015.
In a letter to staff, co-CEOs Dana Walden and Gary Newman explained why the network would no longer be publishing Live + Same Day ratings. “The connections between viewers and our shows today are more complex and, in many ways, deeper than ever – but they no longer only happen overnight,” they wrote. “So why do we, as an industry, wake up every morning and talk about those Live + Same Day numbers?
“This has to stop. It’s time for us to ‘walk the walk’ and change the conversation. The Live + Same Day rating does not reflect the way people are watching our series. It leaves out the vast majority of fans who choose to watch on DVRs, and virtually ignores those who stream our shows or watch on-demand.”
Though they might not admit it quite as openly, other US broadcast networks are clearly taking less notice of overnights, if the decline of early cancellations of freshmen scripted series is anything to go by. Once upon a time, it would only have been a matter of weeks, or a handful of episodes, before the first series would be cancelled each fall as a result of low ratings. But for the past two seasons, shows that have received a lukewarm reception have been allowed to play out their first-season orders to try to generate the catch-up numbers that are now such an important part of the business.
Only those dramas seemingly without any hope – see 2016/17 examples Doubt (CBS) and Time After Time (ABC) – are unceremoniously pulled from the schedules.
The Walking Dead aside, most cable shows would be happy to have the ratings scored by cancelled network series, as pay TV provides a supportive model for dramas tackling niche genres – particularly science fiction.
That’s why IDW Entertainment, producer of Wynonna Earp and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, defines a ‘hit’ on a case-by-case basis. “It’s looking beyond the ratings, as the audience varies widely from network to network and digital,” says president David Ozer.
“IDW plays in the genre space, so the fandom plays such a huge role in determining a ‘hit’ for us. What’s happening on social media? What’s the audience saying? Are they trending? Who’s showing up to cast promotional events? We obviously need to deliver as large an audience as possible for the network and/or streaming platform, but there are other factors definitely involved now beyond traditional ratings.”
These days, actors can often be found live-tweeting along to their show as it airs, speaking directly to fans, while events like Comic-Con can propel a drama’s popularity, often before it has begun airing.
“Wynonna Earp is fascinating to watch,” Ozer says. “Week after week, we saw ratings growth [on Syfy], but also social media growth where we were trending weekly. The series gained a large LGBTQ audience because of one of the storylines, and you felt momentum. When it came to time for a renewal, Syfy was inundated with fan responses, and not just the usual letters but genuine notes about how important the series was to them.
“With Dirk Gently, BBC America saw immediate time-period growth and, again, a lot of activity across social media, and a second season was ordered. There was a buzz about the show that continued to grow, and reviews were very positive. While we don’t see actual results with Netflix [where both shows are available in certain territories], we were able to see success based on the social media conversations internationally.”
At Irish broadcaster RTÉ, acting MD of television Dermot Horan describes a hit show as one that “delivers more than its timeslot’s average consolidated audience, but which also delivers well on the RTÉ Player and gets positive social media and press coverage.”
That definition has emerged because much drama is now consumed via DVRs or VoD services, due to “the increase in linear channel competition, the rise of SVoD players in Ireland, the numbers of homes with PVRs and the increase in homes without TVs,” Horan adds.
For Piv Bernth, head of drama at Danish pubcaster DR, a successful drama is one that both attracts a strong audience and stands out from the crowd. “Of course, the enormous competition makes you look more over your shoulder, but I think the conclusion so far is not to get confused by the oceans of TV series and instead to keep the focus on what kind of content you think will make a difference,” she says.
“From a public service point of view, the choice of story and the way it is told is as important as the obligation to tell stories that reflect the lives of the audience and create a debate. At DR, we try to do original stories, like Avingerne (The Legacy), Bedrag (Follow the Money) and, coming soon, Herrens Veje (Ride Upon the Storm) – all series with complex stories told through relatable characters and, therefore, entertaining and understandable. That is still the way to measure a success – get good viewing figures on series that makes a difference.”
Jakob Mejlhede Andersen, broadcast group MTG’s exec VP of programming and content development for the Nordic region, found success this year with comedy-drama Swedish Dicks, which set viewing records on MTG’s Nordic streaming service Viaplay. “We believe a hit happens every time a viewer is engaged by our content,” he says. “That’s why we’re doing everything we can to create an inclusive portfolio that speaks to everybody while raising important questions. We’re on a journey to become the Nordic region’s leading producer of original content, and today we have more than 50 projects in the pipeline.”
MTG is reaching viewers across streaming, free TV and pay TV services, and Mejlhede Andersen says the multi-platform approach allows the broadcaster to differentiate its content depending on where it is being made available. For example, Viaplay’s latest original series, Veni Vidi Vici, explores the descent of a struggling Danish movie director into the adult film business – a story the exec says “works much better on-demand through a streaming service than on primetime linear TV.”
Beyond ratings, MTG is now also using international distribution deals to measure success, with Swedish Dicks being picked up for global sales by Lionsgate. “Of course, we’ll keep listening to our audiences to ensure our stories always entertain and engage,” Mejlhede Andersen adds.
Christophe Riandee, vice-CEO of Gaumont, which produces Pablo Escobar drama Narcos for Netflix, says that while the way people watch TV today means it is harder than ever to define a hit, “one way that speaks the loudest is when you have volumes of fans engaged with your shows.”
He continues: “From social media engagement to consumer products, fans across the world let you know that you have a hit. Netflix does a great job activating fans, developing extensive campaigns that are unique to different platforms, creating hundreds of original assets for social media channels and engaging directly with fans.
“Within the first three months of the launch of Narcos, Netflix had amassed a social following of two million fans [of the show] across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and, over the course of the campaign, afforded Narcos the title of the most mentioned Netflix original series on social in 2015.”
Gaumont was also behind another Netflix drama, horror series Hemlock Grove – and while the streamer famously keeps even its own suppliers in the dark about viewing figures, Riandee highlights one surefire way you can judge ‘success’ online: “I would say by the number of seasons a media partner is ordering. Netflix ordered two additional seasons of Narcos at the same time; we are currently in production on season three.”
Despite their reluctance to release ratings, SVoD services are now key to building audiences, often long after a drama has debuted, and later seasons can see a bump in live ratings after viewers have caught up online. AMC’s Breaking Bad was one of the first to enjoy that kind of success in a world where TV shows are finding it harder and harder to break through.
“First and foremost, a show has to be good.It needs compelling storytelling and quality production with a best-in-class team and talent,” IDW’s Ozer says when asked what it takes for a show to be deemed a success in today’s crowded market. “We are spending quite a bit of time ensuring we’re bringing unique properties to the market, with major elements attached. Our recently announced Locke & Key deal with Hulu is a great example, where we have bestselling author Joe Hill, Carlton Cuse as our showrunner and Scott Derrickson as our director.
“With so much programming in the market now, it has to stand out. There are shows that are perceived as hits now based on outside influences, series that have catapulted through word of mouth. There is also the ‘hang around theory,’ meaning if a show is around for multiple seasons, because of content distribution platforms like EST [electronic sell-through] and SVoD, more people can find it later in its run, creating value for the networks.”
In an ideal world, RTÉ’s Horan would like to see a single rating – combining live and non-live views – used to judge the success of series, but that may be several years away.
“The other point to make is that less can be more these days,” he notes. “For free-to-air channels, it is all about cutting through and having programmes in your schedule that make an immediate impact. Thus short-run series like Doctor Foster, Happy Valley and The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story can work better than the longer-running US network dramas.”
For now, though, Riandee believes success will continue to be measured through a combination of ratings and social media. “But to have that success, now more than ever we have to provide the market with shows that are compelling,” he says, “with novelistic and addictive storylines, AAA showrunners to deliver highly visual cinematic programming and, of course, relatable actors.”
What makes Denmark’s DR so successful when it comes to drama? DQ hears from its drama boss and examines two of its lesser-known series.
Danish public broadcaster DR has been one of the world’s most influential drama commissioning channels over the past decade, responsible for acclaimed series such as The Killing (pictured above), Borgen and The Bridge (aka Broen/Bron, a coproduction with Swedish public broadcaster SVT).
But how did this network become one of the biggest signatures for quality drama in international television, and what is the secret to its success?
“For me, it started with the theatre,” reveals DR’s respected head of drama Piv Bernth. “I was a stage director for five or six years before a colleague of mine went to DR and brought me over. For a while I directed theatre and TV and then another colleague at DR asked me to come and work there as a producer.
“As a director, I had complained a lot about working conditions, so he said, ‘Why not come over and do something about it instead of bouncing off the problem from the outside?’ So I signed up with DR on a three-year contract.”
After a couple of productions in the late 1990s, Bernth’s first big breakthrough was the comedy Nikolai and Julia. Written by Soren Sveistrup, it won an International Emmy.
“Then Soren talked to me about an idea he had for a 90-minute movie,” she recalls. “I said to him that it felt like it should be a longer story, so he went away and worked on it for a few months. He came back with a concept that would eventually grow into The Killing.”
Also crucial in developing The Killing (known locally as Forbrydelsen, which ran for three seasons) was lead actress Sophie Grabol’s involvement. “Sophie had been the lead in Nikolai and Julia and was used to playing talkative, emotional women,” says Bernth. “At first she wasn’t interested in The Killing because she was expecting a baby. But after giving birth she read the script and agreed to do it. She played a big part in the development of her character and the show.”
The Killing was the series that got DR noticed internationally. For this, Bernth expresses gratitude to BBC head of acquisitions Sue Deeks: “Sue saw season two of the show by accident and immediately wanted to see season one. The BBC buying it was a turning point and it went on to do well across Europe.”
The Killing was unusual because it told the story of a single murder across 20 episodes. “People said we were crazy at the beginning,” admits Bernth. “But it started with something a policeman said to us – which is that if you don’t get the killer in the first three weeks, your chance of doing so gets much lower. So this was about solving the case in 20 days. But it was also about the other storylines running throughout the series.”
The carefully controlled pacing of The Killing is something that now stands out as a hallmark of Nordic drama. “The Americans are more impatient than we are,” Bernth says. “It takes them 24 hours to save the world, whereas it took us 20 days to catch a killer – that’s the difference.”
In hindsight, Bernth believes part of the show’s appeal was that it presented an unexpected side of Denmark: “It showed Denmark as a country with a dark side, which took people by surprise because they were used to us all smiling and being friendly. I also think the look of the landscape appeals to people. In The Killing it is Copenhagen, but in another of our shows, The Legacy, it’s more about the countryside.”
Bernth says the production process at DR has a lot to do with the success of shows like The Killing. “We have an advantage in the fact that DR is a public broadcaster, so we have a large part of our budget in place very early, which makes it easier for us to plan years ahead. We also have our own in-house facilities, which means we can make our budget go further.” DR dramas typically come in at about €1m (US$1.1m) per episode.
In terms of individual shows, “the ideas come from the writers who are then teamed with producers,” Bernth explains. “This isn’t so much about talent as chemistry – the two really have to want to do something together. Recently, we’ve looked at other ways of doing things because we don’t want to be in a situation where this becomes a routine we can never get away from. But we do always try to keep to the central idea of one vision.”
Supporting show development is the team at DR Fiktion, Bernth’s department. “All of our producers meet every Wednesday from 09.00 to 11.00 and we talk about everything,” Bernth explains. “It’s important they are all free to discuss any issue. At the same time, they are all there for each other during the week. If they want someone to come and look at a sequence in the edit suite and give them advice, they are always able to do so. That collaboration is very special and it’s the kind of environment we also encourage between the writers. The writers are very important to us. Without them, we have nowhere to go.”
The success of The Killing and The Bridge has led some to pigeonhole DR as a Nordic noir producer – though Bernth prefers to place the primary credit for The Bridge with DR’s Swedish partner, SVT. She says the reality is that DR is backing a much wider range of shows: “Everyone is doing crime. There’s a lot of good crime, so we are looking the other way.”
There is The Legacy, for example, and Follow the Money, which has been sold to the BBC. And now DR is working with Borgen creator Adam Price on a show called Rides Upon the Storm. “This is about the impact faith and religion have on our lives,” Bernth says. “It’s about a family of priests and it asks questions like what if you lose faith – how do you get it back?”
Bernth makes no excuses for the tough subjects DR chooses, adding that she is grateful to the channel’s higher authorities for backing her department’s judgement. “We want to tell complicated stories in an accessible way,” she notes.
“My ambition is for us to continue to be courageous in the themes we pick for our stories. So one area we are looking at is multiculturalism. If we do another crime series, it won’t just be a crime story.”
That, says Bernth, is the way it should be for a public broadcaster. “The commercial broadcasters have to be safe, so it is our job to take on the complicated stuff. We try to give the audience what they want – but challenge them as well.”
Follow the Money
Follow the Money (aka Bedrag) recently aired on DR and achieved strong ratings, debuting to 1.3 million viewers in January this year and adding a further 150,000 for episode two. It has since sold to broadcasters including the BBC.
Explaining the genesis of the financial crime series, creator and writer Jeppe Gjervig Gram says: “When the financial crisis hit the Western world in 2008/2009, I found it frightening but fascinating. As a writer, I didn’t see it coming and realised how terribly important it is to understand big finance.
“I thought everyone would do a series about financial crime but nobody did. So after I finished working on (DR’s hit political drama) Borgen, I started Follow the Money and it is still one of the only shows on the subject.”
Gram says the idea was to “construct a story about the whole of society. So we have the big money of the upper class, the middle-class cops and the working-class underdogs who stumble upon some money that belongs to the bad guys.”
Producer Anders Toft Andersen says the challenge was to turn a complex theoretical construct into something definite. “We made everything as physical as possible and very specific,” he explains. “We also knew from the get-go we had to make it a story about greed and how it takes many shapes. It might be the desire for money and material goods, but it could also be the search for the perfect life.”
Gram echoes this sentiment: “We used greed like a fixed point when telling the story. A lot of people looked the other way and didn’t ask questions about why their house rose in value – instead asking, ‘Who did this to us?’ The way we dealt with greed was that something done out of necessity was not greed. Greed was about characters always wanting a little more.”
The Legacy (aka Arvingerne) is a relationship drama about four siblings who come together to sort through their famous hippy artist mother’s possessions after her death.
The process becomes the focal point of their relationships with each other and leads to a re-evaluation of their feelings towards their parents. As such, The Legacy of the title is not just what they have been left, but how, as adults, they process their feelings about their childhoods.
The show is an evolution from the usual producer-writer relationship found behind DR dramas in that it also involved a third participant, production designer Mia Stensgaard.
Producer Karoline Leth says: “The production design was central to how we scripted the show. The props (mainly works of art left behind by the deceased mother) represent the mother.”
Stensgaard says this meant she had to have a close ongoing dialogue with writer/creator Maya Ilsøe: “It would start with me interviewing Maya about what is going to happen and how we could integrate people through art. And we’d look at how the props could make the dead mother live forever.”
Ilsøe says the actors also played an important part in the development process: “We work with the actors early in the story and if they tell us a character would not do something, we adjust it. Everything has to be very specific to each character. We can’t just have them sitting around the table.”
The way the creative team works on The Legacy was completely new, says Ilsøe, “so it was very stumbling at first. But now we have a system for working as an ensemble.”
The show, which is about to enter its third season, addresses tough family issues – including the fact that one of the siblings had been given away by the parents as a child.
Ilsøe calls it “a psychological drama where, through the rooms, the props and the ghost of Veronica (the mother), the siblings’ childhood is everywhere. They are people struggling with their histories.”
She stresses that The Legacy is not easy to pigeonhole, with light and dark elements driving the story forward. DR head of drama Piv Bernth says this is one of the things she likes most about the show: “The complexity of character in this series is amazing. One minute you think ‘she’s crazy’ and then you think the opposite. That’s wonderful. It’s a story that asks how you create a family when you have no role models of your own.”
In terms of oversight, Bernth says: “I read the scripts, but I trust these guys. That is how you get creativity and innovation.”
Ilsøe adds: “Trust is essential. It gives the calmness and freedom to develop the language the way we think it should be.”