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The long and short of it


By Andrea Jackson 25-02-2019

Every time I visit the Nordics, I come home inspired. No other region is as creative when it comes to new ways of making, watching and interacting with content. As a boutique distributor, I’m lucky. I get up close to creativity on a regular basis, listening to innovative minds and helping them to shape their brave new ideas into marketable form.

One area that’s providing a real shot in the arm to the formats business is shortform scripted – in particular, concepts with social purpose at their core. A disproportionate number of these are coming out of the Nordic territories, which has a long and strong track record in ‘entertainment with a purpose.’

It should be said that shortform scripted formats are not new in themselves. It would be rude not to mention Camera Café, which, with 20-plus global iterations, is a format legend. But it launched in the early noughties, well before the multiplatform age. What we can do with an idea today is infinitely more engaging.

If I had a pound for the number of times I’ve read the headline ‘The rise of the SVoDs’ I’d have enough to buy the Love Island villa. But the forces shaping our industry are, of course, more complex. Scandinavian broadcasters were among the first to tackle declining youth audiences head on – by tearing up the public service broadcasting rule book and following their young viewers into the places and spaces they wanted to be.

YLE launch Mental via a YouTube channel to help it find a youthful audience

YLE’s scripted format Mental, which strives to de-stigmatise mental illness via the real-life stories of four teenagers, in a good example. The Finnish pubcaster realised that only a multiplatform strategy could reach the show’s target audience of 15- to 24-year-olds, so it launched Mental via a rap artist’s music video on YouTube.

The series was then published in shortform on YouTube, accompanied by a carefully orchestrated social media campaign, which sparked a national conversation about the mental health challenges confronting young people. Only then, having found its audience rather than waiting for its audience to find Mental, did YLE broadcast the half-hour show on its linear platform. In a country with a population of five million, Mental was watched 2.8 million times online.

There’s a real opportunity here for format specialists. First, shortform scripted is a far less risky option in terms of investment than longform scripted. And second, the skills needed to put together shortform deals are not dissimilar to those needed to sell factual and entertainment formats.

However, managing producer relationships and cultural adaptation is more of a challenge. Developing Mental in, say, New Zealand, which has a very different mental health infrastructure to Finland, would require a different approach, but that’s where the job gets interesting. And preserving the role and relevance of public service broadcasting, including its transparency and social-purpose mission, has to be a good thing in the Wild West of the SVoD gold rush.

The Camera Café shortform format has been adapted more than 20 times

At this year’s Berlinale, shortform drama was on the screenings schedule for the first time – another sign that shortform is emerging as a distinct genre. The line-up included Norwegian teen drama Skam (Shame) from NRK, with whom Magnify is currently working on another shortform scripted project called 17.

The show is a powerful examination of immigration and belonging. And its clever early morning publishing strategy should ensure that its young viewers head into school eager to discuss the storylines as they unfold.

Another NRK format to have sparked a national debate is Anti TV’s True Selfie, which follows eight troubled young people through intensive therapy. It’s a show that’s close to my heart, since it was the first format I acquired when setting up Magnify in 2015. It was a good find. It’s now in its second season on NRK and has spawned successful local versions in both the Netherlands and Canada. The power of True Selfie is amplified via different platforms, including audio podcasts that dive deeper into the therapy sessions.

In my view, the international industry can learn a lot from the Nordics’ success with social-purpose formats that educate as well as entertain, and their intelligent distribution strategies that provide real competition to the streamers and social media giants, with their relentlessly commercial agendas. In the end, it’s not about platforms, it’s about people. They understand that up in the Nordics.

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