Ivar Køhn, one of the main theater decision makers in the Nordic countries, is the head of a Norwegian pub broadcaster NRKsince 2013. Under his leadership, some of the most internationally acclaimed Norwegian television shows have been produced or co-produced, from “Nobel” (Prix Europa, 2016), “Mammon 2” (International Emmy Award, 2017), “ Home Ground ”(Best drama, Nordic Series Days, 2018),“ State of Happiness ”(Best screenplay, Canneseries, 2018), at“ 22 July ”(Nordisk Film & TV Fond Award for best Nordic screenplay).
NRK’s lavish historical drama “Atlantic Crossing”, starring Sofie Helin and Kyle MacLachlan, is currently shortlisted for Best TV Movie / Miniseries at the upcoming New York International Emmy Awards, while “Countrymen”, co-created by Anne Bjørnstad ( “Beforeigners”) has its world premiere this week in competition at Canneseries.
Køhn tells Variety on his vision for public service broadcasting in the streaming age.
“Countrymen” is in competition at Canneseries and “Atlantic Crossing” for an International Emmy. What does this mean to you and how do these premium dramas represent NRK’s DNA?
It’s exciting to have “Countrymen” competing at Canneseries and we are naturally very proud to have the period drama “Atlantic Crossing” nominated for an International Emmy. I would also quote the recent winner of the Prix Europa “July 22”. These international accolades on three very different TV shows are extremely important to us and celebrate what NRK stands for: the highest quality, uniqueness and diversity.
You have been head of fiction at NRK since 2013. What major changes have you put in place to adapt to the digital shift?
NRK was among the first to adopt digital television, and in 2016 the group decided to put its NRK.TV streaming platform at the forefront of its strategy. It paid off today as our streaming platform is even bigger than Netflix in Norway. Drama is crucial to attracting viewers, and NRK agreed early on to invest even more in children and youth, premium entertainment and drama. We then went from ordering content for specific niches to ordering shows that people choose to watch, competing directly with thousands of others. It was a major change.
I feel like I’ve come to the best time of my life in the TV series. The industry has evolved tremendously and improved dramatically since 2013. It has been a fantastic journey to be a part of.
How would you define your dramatic strategy and what is your overall budget for 2021?
We want to tell stories about Norway, primarily for our national audience and hopefully for a wider international audience, relevant, bold and unique stories. Our theater department commissions three to four serialized shows per year – a mix of historical and contemporary dramas and more daring content such as “Exit” or “Countrymen”.
Our other Entertainment and Kids and Youth divisions then commission their own programs. “Skam”, for example, and the latest blockbuster youth show “Rod Knock” were commissioned by our youth division. We are a small group of producers / executive curators and we work closely together on editorial and budget decisions. It’s a very fluid process.
In terms of budget, we have about 40 million euros ($ 46.3 million) in all drama departments for 2021, and within that I have about 13 million euros (15 million dollars). dollars) per year for serialized premium dramas.
You recently hired seasoned producer Hans-Jørgen Osnes [“Oslo, August 31st,” “Blind”] as the first person in charge of the international financing of the dramas of NRK. Why did you create this new position?
We have noticed that in recent years it has become more and more difficult to raise funds for our premium shows. Our funding through our utility tax is not increasing, as competition from global streamers and production costs intensify. Independent producers find it difficult to fund their projects without selling all rights to global streamers. So we felt that we needed to meet this challenge in two different ways: by making TV series cheaper, profitable and smart, and by raising more money in the international market.
Hans-Jørgen Osnes will therefore take care of international financing within NRK’s relatively new content sales department and strengthen our collaboration with the international community.
Previously you had a contract with the global distributor DRG / Nent Studios UK, now acquired by All3Media. But your dramas now seem to be handled by a variety of distributors …
We have no obligation to any distributor or sales company. We understand that the best way to finance a project is on a case-by-case basis.
Do you view global streamers as friends of enemies? What type of collaboration do you have with them?
The point is, global streamers aren’t really interested in co-investing in our shows, because contractually we require producers to have exclusive rights for at least seven years to protect our own streamer. We want Norwegians to identify NRK.TV with the best place to find great Norwegian content. But we are in a time of change, so it is possible that we and global streamers will shift positions over time.
What is your strategy then to raise co-funding for your high-end TV shows and continue to compete with the big spenders like Netflix or HBO?
I believe in the role of public service to tell relevant human stories, where the audience recognizes itself and is challenged. For the future, we want to remain the number one storyteller for the Norwegian public, and at the same time, expand our activity in the international market, working better and more with global partners. This means co-producing beyond our traditional Nordic partners. We regularly co-produce with European partners on Norwegian projects, such as “Countrymen” with Arte, but our idea now is to study the possibility of acting as minority co-producers on foreign projects.
You mentioned the role of public service television. What do you think of the proposal from the members of the EBU (European Broadcasting Union) to join forces to produce a series of big budget projects per year, with a 30-day window to enter as co-producers, such as announced in Variety?
Today, it is crucial to unite our forces in Europe and to collaborate between the pubcasters to have a better control of our content, of our market. And thanks to the EBU partnership [115 media companies in 56 countries] it won’t cost each broadcaster much more to invest in those few mega-fiction projects. However, there are issues to be resolved: many EBU members are not at the same stage of digital development. Some still think with their “linear hats” and for example want more crime, which is fine for traditional TV but less for streaming, where you need more drama, YA and high concept drama. We also need to build mutual trust, as it’s easier for many to simply go to a single streamer for co-funding, instead of pitching a project to a group of over 30 broadcasters who make decisions based on their own market and strategy.
I feel the Nordic Alliance 12 [in which DR, Yle, SVT, NRK, RÚV commit to co-producing 12 Nordic TV shows together a year] is a good model. Each broadcaster selects the drama package to offer to its partners. It is a simpler and more reliable system. “Countrymen” and “Atlantic Crossing” for example were co-financed by the members of N12.
What major Norwegian TV shows are planned for 2021-2022?
We can’t wait to see how audiences at Canneseries and then Norwegians react to Rubicon TV’s “Countrymen”. It’s a never-before-seen type of series, countering extremism through satire.
Then we will have the high class Christmas calendar children’s series “Kristiana’s Magical Tivoli Theater”, produced by Monster, the oil industry drama “State of Happiness” Season 2 of Maipo, which will be bolder than the season. 1, reflecting the 1977- Epoque 1980 – the church will turn into a bar! Then we have a little show from Monday Media: The rapsical “I Am Earth”, created by Amy Black Ndiaye and “Rod Knock” Season 3 of Fenomen and Storyline. Finally, I have high expectations for the political drama “Power Play” by Motlys and November Film, about the former Norwegian Prime Minister and leader of the Labor Party Gro Harlem Brundtland.
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