23 Apr 2017

Danish dramas vs Kiwi soaps

From Mediawatch, 9:09 am on 23 April 2017


A quarter of Denmark's population regularly watch Danish TV dramas, while the highest-rating Kiwi drama attracted an audience of just over 250,000 last year. Mediawatch asks a Danish expert what their secret is.

Sidse Babett Knudsen as Birgitte Nyborg, the first female prime minister of Denmark, in the TV series Borgen

Sidse Babett Knudsen as Birgitte Nyborg, the first female prime minister of Denmark, in the TV series Borgen Photo: Mike Kollšffel

Eva Novrup Redvall says a key difference between Denmark and New Zealand when it comes to audiences is that Danes have been trained to expect high-quality dramas while New Zealanders' expectations have been shaped by Shortland Street.

Novrup Redvall, the author of Writing and Producing Television Drama in Denmark: From The Kingdom to The Killing, visited New Zealand last year to study the local television industry. 

Danish series, such as the award-winning The Killing, Borgen and The Legacy regularly attract audiences of well over a million viewers. And in recent years they've been picked up by broadcasters around the world. Borgen – a political drama about a fictional woman prime minister – has been sold to more than 70 countries.

New Zealand’s highest rating drama last year was Filthy Rich – which at its peak attracted an audience of just over a quarter of a million. The Almighty Johnsons – a comedy about Norse gods relocating to New Zealand – is the country's most successful local drama in terms of sales overseas, having been sold to Australia, Canada, Ireland and the US.

Novrup Redvall said part of the difference between the types of dramas being produced by the two countries can be put down to what audiences expect to see.

No tradition of soaps in Denmark

Eva Novrup Redvall

Eva Novrup Redvall Photo: supplied

"You have primetime soaps like they have in the UK. In the UK they have Coronation Street, East Enders. You have Shortland Street, and I think that's a way of teaching audiences that television drama is a certain kind of product," she said.

"It's a style we don't really have in Denmark. We don't have soaps. So when people expect television drama they expect this kind of high-quality, high-end quality drama."

New Zealand TV professionals appear to have learned their craft on programmes like Shortland Street, Novrup Redvall said, whereas in Denmark they tend to come out of its broadcasting school, which works very closely with the country's public broadcaster.

Denmark’s public broadcasting model is also very different to the situation in New Zealand. In 2011, Denmark spent more than five times per capita than New Zealand.

Danes pay a licence fee of more than $500 per household the bulk of which goes to the public broadcaster, DR, which broadcasts four separate TV channels 10 national radio stations and another 10 regional ones; and funds the National Symphony Orchestra, a big band and five choirs. On top of that there is contestable funding for dramas appearing on Denmark’s commercial channels.

All of that for considerably less than half of what New Zealand households pay for a Sky subscription.

Here, television dramas - except for Shortland Street -  are made by private sector production houses with funding from New Zealand on Air. The production houses need to convince one of the country's commercial television channels to screen a drama before it will be considered for funding by NZ on Air.

It’s difficult to compare exactly how much the two countries spend on each hour of TV. For starters, an hour of TV drama in New Zealand is usually just 44 minutes, compared to 58 in Denmark because they don’t have to accommodate advertisements.

Mediawatch took a stab at comparing what half an hour of Borgen cost compared to half an hour of Westside and found the Danes spent just over US$400,000 versus US$360,000 for Westside.

So can the popularity and success of Danish TV dramas be put down to its public broadcasting model and audience expectations or is Denmark simply in something of a golden age of television?

NZ on Air chief executive Jane Wrightson told Mediawatch she doubted Denmark's success could be put down to its different funding system.

Multiculturalism makes it harder to hold an audience

Jane Wrightson

Jane Wrightson Photo: supplied

"Denmark is a much less multicultural and diverse country than New Zealand. I think what that means is that it might be easier to find and hold an audience," she said.

"And also the international success of Danish television is relatively new, by which I mean the last decade. So something else has happened. And I would posit that that's something to do with the long tail in international drama content and a lot to do with the streaming services and the rise of drama-focused paid television." 

Jane Wrightson said one difference between the two systems might be that New Zealand broadcasters were more risk averse.

"In New Zealand, the appetite for risk in the broadcast community has diminished in the last little while, largely as a post-GFC thing when the money dried up a bit and latterly because of the challenge of multiple media outlets screening multiple things and a huge of choice that an audience has," she said.

Partly as a result of the risk-averse nature of local broadcasters, NZ on Air recently launched the Diverse Development Initiative, she said. The programme encourages writers to develop ideas without first having to convince a commercial broadcaster to green-light them.