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Exporting Shame: Competing Ownership Models in Pirated Transnational Media Flows

Published onDec 15, 2022
Exporting Shame: Competing Ownership Models in Pirated Transnational Media Flows

When Skam (NRK 2015–2017) premiered in Norway, it was done with little fanfare: no advance promotion, no cast interviews, just a three minute and twenty second clip of three teenagers hanging out after school. By the end of the first week, the series broke viewership records for the public service broadcaster NRK, indicating just some of the success the series would go on to have (Murray). Within three years, Skam spawned remakes in seven different countries, won four Gallruten awards in Norway, and cultivated a fervent international fan base. On Tumblr, for instance, it was the most active fandom for a live-action series in 2017 (“Year”). All this success came without the original version ever being officially translated or distributed outside of Scandinavia.

Many media analyze Skam’s success in relation to the show’s original Norwegian distribution strategy, which eschewed traditional episodes on linear television in favour of dropping clips online in real time. However, this paper focuses on the franchise’s distribution after leaving Norway, both officially via remakes and unofficially via fansubbing and piracy. In doing so, I argue that Skam and its fandom operate in an important intersection of transnational media flows and fan studies. Despite the accepted cultural narrative and the ways fans viewed themselves, Skam ultimately is a valuable example of the ways in which digital, non-linear media continue to fall in line with pre-established media power structures and how fans themselves perpetuate problematic interpersonal dynamics, even as they claim to reject those same systems.

In April of 2020, The Daily Californian called Skam “the best show you’ve probably never heard of,” identifying the paradox that the show is both an international franchise and an underground cult phenomenon (Fix). Articles like this indicate that, five years on, Skam continues to inspire international media outlets to evaluate what exactly makes it so compelling. “Skam isn’t reinventing the wheel when it comes to the kinds of stories it tells,” Kayti Burt decided in 2017. “It just tells those stories really, really well” (“What is Skam”). Burt’s is perhaps the most even-handed assessment of Skam: it is a transmedia teen drama series that may seem innovative at first but is employing techniques and practices that have existed in media before its conception. Despite its appeal, Skam is a bit inexplicable. How does a small teen drama from Norway become a global fan phenomenon? The answer, I argue, is rooted in both its industrially sanctioned and unofficial, fan-based strategies of transnational export.

At the 2021 Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI), I presented this series as a case study of what it looks like when industrial players negotiate the role of piracy with their viewers, in this case implicitly promoting it. In recent years, scholars have increasingly called attention to ways in which recontextualizing piracy is not only necessary in a theoretical sense but can also be of use to those both within the media industry and those studying it. Abigail De Kosnik lays out how, in many ways, pirated markets are not only serving consumers better, but that there are also ways that legal downloading and streaming services could imitate pirated media flows in order to improve their own service (5–13). In considering the various media flows of the Skam franchise, we can understand how two kinds of desired ownership—the corporation’s financial and the fan’s affective—can simultaneously be met through a more elastic perception of media piracy on the part of the corporate entity.

Understanding Skam’s Global Trajectory

 Skam is a Norwegian teen drama about a group of students at the Hartvig Nissen School in Oslo struggling through their adolescence. The series featured one specific main character each season (Eva, Noora, Isak, and Sana successively) and ran for four seasons before concluding in June of 2017. The series showrunner Julie Andem set out to create this series specifically for teenage girls in Norway using the NABC method (van Hoeij). As defined by the Stanford Research Institute, this production strategy involves identifying a need, deciding on one’s approach, narrowing in on the benefit of said approach, and studying the competition in the identified market in order to solve the identified need (SRI). In Skam’s case, NRK had identified a significant gap in their programming serving younger viewers and tasked Andem to court this audience specifically; to do so, she held interviews with her target demographic, asking about their lives and what they looked for in a series (Redvall 144).

The result was a series that Steffen Krüger and Gry Rustad credit as being one of the first web series to fully embrace the “logic of social media” (86). Skam’s rhythms of reception are indeed notable: the series played out entirely in real time, with the clips appearing on its official NRK site at the exact time the events would occur, coupled with real-time posts on Instagram and Facebook (Rustad 3–4). The efficacy of this narrative device is undeniable: the series has won Norwegian industrial awards for how well it engaged with its audience in its two-year run (Underholdning). Several other scholars have noted the role of transmedia, or the intentional dispersion of content across multiple media and platforms (Jenkins 21), in Skam’s historic ascent within its national borders (Bengtsson, et. al.; Lindtner & Dahl; Sundet and Peteresen; Sundet), but most all of them concentrate on the relationship between the series’ transmedia and its Norwegian fans. Despite its national beginnings, Skam should always be understood as a global entity due its viewers’ piracy efforts, its subsequent popularity in transnational digital spaces, and its unique global distribution. While being heavily pirated, Skam also successfully generated seven official remakes. In order of premiere, the official Skam franchise includes: Skam France (France.TV 2018–present), Druck [Germany] (ZDF Funk, 2018–present), Skam Italia [Italy] (TIMvision/Netflix, 2018–present), Skam Austin [USA] (Facebook Watch, 2018–2019), Skam NL [Netherlands] (NTR/NOP3 2018–2019), Skam España [Spain] (Moviestar+ 2018–2020), and wtFOCK [Beligum] (VIER, 2018–2021) (Burt, “Skam”).

Considering the larger context of television studies, scholars Aswin Punathambekar and Shanti Kumar define television to be “at large,” referring to the fact that the technology is not limited by traditional borders (483). Despite this, as Ramon Lobato asserts, the model behind many forerunners of transnational digital distribution remains deeply rooted in earlier concepts of television, as well as intrinsically American (243). Skam, while rooted in televisual practice, should be understood as a transmedia digital production. Scholarship has explored how transmedia has made it easier for more independent (and non-American) productions to make digital stories relatively inexpensively, and distribute them on a global scale, which is significant considering this series’ roots in Norwegian public television (Ibrus & Ojamaa). Operating according to Henry Jenkins’ definition of transmedia, Skam excels as a model as it treated each extension of the story world as equally important to the rest, rejecting the idea of a central media text often found in transmedia. Skam presents an opportunity to not only explore transnational distribution of a digital product that is transmedia at its core, but it also illustrates how such flows increasingly blur boundaries between distribution and piracy.

Skam’s transmedia elements were instrumental in establishing and growing its passionate international fan base, as they made it easier for the series to reach an audience outside of its country of origin. As snippets of the content, or in Jenkins’s term, rabbit holes–points of entry into the transmedia space (19)–were shared on digital platforms outside of the region (such as on Instagram or Twitter), global audiences began wanting more. A photo of season three’s main character Isak and his love interest, Even, went viral on Twitter, and interest in the show expanded beyond Norway, despite the linguistic barrier.

Sharing transnational media requires certain linguistic and cultural practices on the part of the fans, in Skam’s case the ability to translate the content from its original language into another. In order to disseminate Skam while bypassing legal restrictions, fans used Google Drive to share translated episodes and content through dedicated folders which were then posted on fansites and in dedicated tags on sites like Tumblr (Sundet). When considering the fan translations, the term most associated with the act of creating these texts is “fansubbing.”

Fansubbing, the practice of fans taking on the labour of translating and subtitling foreign language content, is most often associated with the circulation of anime or Korean dramas. In her article on then-rising ViKi, a website dedicated to streamlining fansubbing, Tessa Dwyer argues that fansubbing is the ultimate fruition of fandom and fan engagement. She describes fansubbing incentivizing participants as it (1) provides a sense of empowerment to viewers, (2) is highly collaborative, and (3) allows fans to show their passion for their content while sharing it with others outside of their linguistic niche (227–228; 233). In their study on Skam fansubbers specifically, Jennifer Duggan and Anne Dahl assert that the main motivation for these fans lies in the first and third categories of Dwyer’s incentives, as there are no pre-established networks for Norwegian fansubbers within which to collaborate (15). Beyond fansubbing, Skam offers further evidence of the connection between transmedia and transnational digital distribution and the effect of this intersection on a consumer of that specific piece of media. In the more specific context of unofficial distribution, Skam fits in with a shifting narrative regarding the notions of one-way distribution flow and the inherent net negative effect of piracy.

Skam as a Transnational Export

 Painting Skam as an underdog aimed at Norwegian teenagers that stumbled into global stardom is a common refrain from NRK, mainly because Skam was ostensibly never meant to leave Norway. The network never officially translated or exported the original series outside of Scandinavia. NRK geoblocked their site after the third season, preventing users from other countries to even view the content, and their legal team fought early attempts at piracy and fan distribution. However, the industrial strategy of Skam’s expansion reveals that this initial local focus shifted once producers realized its global potential, ultimately conforming to a traditional commercial approach and benefitting from the fan labour which was pirating—and unofficially exporting—the franchise.

Skam was meant as public service media for young, Norwegian girls, though from the beginning, the program made use of several commercial systems for its benefit. Namely, the series relied on the previously-discussed transmedia built into its narrative structure in order to reach its audience. The lack of a traditional promotional campaign was also a deliberate approach that allowed teens to feel as though they discovered a hidden treasure while also preventing older generations from even knowing about the series (Faldalen). The reliance on social media likewise meant that Skam cultivated an active, young fanbase in Norway who interacted with the content regularly across multiple platforms. At one point, one fifth of the Norwegian population was watching Skam, and students were writing to the Norwegian government asking it to reschedule exams so that they could keep up with the series (Murray). During the series’ second season, 63,000 people took to Twitter and dedicated fansites after being left in the dark as to whether the season’s protagonist, Noora, ever got her love interest to text her back (Graatrud).

NRK attempted to capitalize on the Norwegian success and tried to sell the series on the international television market, but there were no buyers for this oddly popular teen drama from Norway (Pettersen). However, despite the lack of buyers, there were plenty of interested viewers outside of Norway. The then-NRK P3 television editor, Håkon Moslet, claimed to have no issue with this rapidly expanding (and vocal) fanbase, characterizing the Facebook fansites and fan videos as simply a part of “modern fan culture” (qtd. in Graatrud). Skam’s fanbase was filled with exactly the viewers NRK was looking for: passionate, technically savvy teens interested in watching this show they loved and recruiting others to do the same.

However, despite the initial enthusiastic comments about the fans, the global popularity of Skam proved a legal challenge for NRK and the show’s producers. The music licensing deals for the show’s soundtrack with IFPI Norge5 covered its usage within Norway only, so in order to avoid a lawsuit, NRK geoblocked the Skam site in early 2017, theoretically limiting access to the series to those within the country (“Sorry”). While protecting the show from legal ramifications falls in line with its initial intent of serving the Norwegian audience, at this point, Skam was not culturally relevant to Norway only.

Despite geoblocking the site, NRK continued to have difficulty stopping its now international fanbase from consuming the content illegally through pirated fan translations, or fansubs. In October 2016, NRK had fansubbed episodes of the series taken down from YouTube, citing the need for Skam to continue to be tied to NRK in order to remain successful. NRK’s lawyer, Kari Anne Lang-Ree, framed the issue as one of legality and commerce, taking issue specifically with NRK content being distributed by commercial agents (i.e., YouTube) (Malm). This is when fans turned to less obvious means of distribution, including the shared Google Drive, in order to continue their fansubbing and circulation efforts. Technically, fansubbers were still pirating NRK’s content, but were now doing so in a way that did not call attention to the illegal activity.

I would argue that Lang-Ree’s concern over piracy was misguided, but in line with the industry’s conventional wisdom that piracy is an attack on intellectual property and ownership. However, as transnational media scholar Tristan Mattelart details, these kinds of “doom and gloom” statistics do not paint the full picture (309). He argues that the dichotomy between pirated flows and official flows is often laid out as an “other” versus the “norm,” or the “bad” versus the “good,” but this prohibits understanding both practices as existing simultaneously—and often to mutual benefit (311). The unofficial circulation of Skam clearly worked for both the fans and the popularity of the series; NRK issued no legal blocks on fan distribution after fans moved off YouTube, and by the end of 2017 the series achieved international attention on sites like Tumblr and from international media outlets. The digital flows of Skam illustrate how piracy and official flows can complement one another, in spite of the industry’s misgivings.

NRK then capitalized on this popularity and again attempted to sell the series internationally, this time with more success. In 2019, Skam was sold to five Western European countries for new foreign language remakes. The spokesperson for Beta Film, which handled the international distribution along with NRK, referenced how the series was launched by word of mouth, which “allowed it to be discovered by a young teen audience that doesn’t want to be told what to watch but rather wants to discover that for themselves” (qtd. in Hopewell). The new global marketplace for Skam relied on the popularity generated by illegal distribution and viral sharing, but of course the official rhetoric does not acknowledge these backchannel means.

Andem, who continued to be the face of the expanding franchise, never explicitly called on fans to stop pirating the series. Instead, she emphasized the importance of the specific experience of Skam that could only be produced through NRK’s own distribution and the official remakes. Fans might be able to translate the show and create ad hoc distribution systems, but, according to producers, they would never be able to mimic the parasocial, real-time effect simulated by the transmedia. At the same time, Andem acknowledges the affective ownership the fans have over the series. Posting a casting announcement for the American iteration of the franchise on Instagram in 2017, Andem stated that the show did not merely belong to her, rather that “all of us [fans and creators alike] own Skam,” and that she would need the help of the American fans to get the show up and running.

This rhetoric places fans on the same level as the creator and showrunner; however, this sentiment rang false as fans’ free labour continued to be only vaguely applauded by Skam’s creative team and ignored completely by entities like NRK. When promoting the series, Andem regularly referenced how “teens from all over the world” were watching and loving the series, but never actually acknowledged that these foreign teens were watching this series that remained geoblocked outside of Scandinavia. Andem left the franchise after the American remake to pursue a two-year contract with HBO (Middleton). This move was met with bitterness from many fans who felt as though their labour not only went unrecognized but also launched producers’ commercial careers rather than supporting the success of the franchise they helped build (thosethreewords).

Though unacknowledged by NRK and Skam’s creative team, it is the fan labour that enabled the show to expand beyond Norway’s borders, albeit illegally. Their affective flows, or the flow of fan-originated and fan-oriented labour signifying strong affect toward the series, even indicated where the series would find the most economic success. NRK’s industrial strategy and rhetorical shifts illustrate that, while it can still be viewed as a net negative, piracy becomes an important marketing and exporting tool when producers can gain revenue from it.

Shared Ownership in a Digital Space

One of the major promptings for this project was a quote from Moslet that appeared in a November 2017 article in the New Statesman, a month after the series was successfully sold on the global market: “There was a lot of piracy [….] But we didn’t mind” (Leszkiewicz). Looking back at the events surrounding Skam’s geoblocking, the need to take down fan translations from YouTube, and other legal issues surrounding the piracy, Moslet’s statement initially seems out of place. However, considering this statement with the understanding of the digital landscape which came from fan labour and resulted in NRK’s successful sale of the series, it makes a great deal more sense.

In order to break down what previous popular discourse surrounding Skam deemed an inexplicable success as something firmly rooted within industry logics with a more elastic understanding of piracy, I first set out to prove what is ultimately a bit hard at this point to gather evidence for, that the series’ popularity was not hindered by NRK’s geoblock of the series. While not the most logical explanation, one could maintain that the rising fan presence was entirely coming from viewership on NRK’s official website prior to January 2017, and other scholarship has concentrated on this exact time period, during which fans were asking for translations in the comment section of series’ clips (Duggan and Dahl).

In order to gain a more complete understanding of these temporally specific materials, I used two different data sources: trade and popular discourse surrounding the series and secondhand numbers from Tumblr’s Fandometrics. Fandometrics is a weekly ranking put out by the social media site Tumblr to inform its users which topics are most popular on the site. The categories for Fandometrics range from sports to pop culture to television, which is where I primarily looked in order to conceptualize a visual timeline for Skam’s transnational ascent.

Figure 1: Skam financial and affective ownership scale. Data from Tumblr Fandometrics.

With the white lines on either end indicating the time points on which NRK attempted to sell the series at MIPCOM, the first time with no success and the second time selling to seven different countries, this chart illustrates the entire time that Skam was featured on Tumblr’s Fandometrics weekly ranking. The Y-axis shows the ranking number (from 1–20, with one being the highest), and the X-axis shows the weeks in question. Throughout this, I wanted to indicate the timeline events that were occurring as this fan behaviour was going on, which includes Simon Fuller’s decision to adapt the series for a North American audience.

This financial and affective ownership scale shows the relationship between these two kinds of ownership. Financial ownership, while not a perfect term by any means, is meant to encapsulate the industrial players’ motives, which would be highly profit-based. Affective ownership, comparatively, refers to the fans’ goals of ownership, or in this case piracy agents who are specifically the fans engaging in this kind of fan distribution practices, which are not rooted in the financial. As Margreth Lünenborg and Tanja Maier explain, there is no clear definition of affect or distinction between affect theory and emotional study across social and cultural sciences (2). Considering this, both authors discuss the need to consider affect, or the emotion derived when interacting with media, when pursuing media studies. In Sara Ahmed’s work on “affective economies,” while she importantly focuses on hate as its own affective economy, she lays the groundwork for affective economies in which “emotions do things, and they align individuals with communities – or bodily space with social space – through the intensity of their attachments” (119). It was in this framework that I mainly operated to conceptualize what an affective ownership over a series like Skam would look like, focusing primarily on the ways in which this emotional attachment to the franchise results in tangible, concrete results, namely actions such as fansubbing and fan distribution. With affective ownership, the fans do not have any financial or legal stake in Skam, nor do they expect any, but that does not disqualify their ownership as being any less “real.” It is real through the real labour they provide and the ways in which they subsequently attach themselves to the series and the surrounding community.

With these two concepts in mind, in evaluating the chart in Figure 1, the labelled timeline represents the real, tangible financial gains on behalf of NRK—the major industrial player holding financial ownership over the series. Showing the two different kinds of ownership together shows how the increasing fan activity and attention led to opportunities for more industrial success.

This is not to say that this chart is enough to indicate international success, as isolating the behaviour around Skam only reveals part of the story: was it popular for a Norwegian web series, or was it popular in comparison to other, larger-scale projects? With this same data source, however, we can also contextualize the sheer scale of the series’ popularity. Due to the nature of Fandometrics, we can see the reporting for other series during the same weekly rankings, and in a graph in Tableau, an interactive data visualization software, we can isolate one series at a time. Figure 2 shows one such comparison.

Figure 2: Skam Tumblr Fandometrics rankings, August 2016–November 2017 (dark brown) versus that of Stranger Things (orange). Data from Tumblr Fandometrics.

As seen in the comparison graph, Skam debuted at number 13, and while this may sound relatively average, it placed higher than Stranger Things (Netflix, 2016–present), which was number 15 at the time. Teen Wolf (MTV 2011–2017), a mainstay on Fandometrics, was number 18. The goal of this context is ultimately to indicate that Skam not only gained moderate success in the digital space (looking at Tumblr as a kind of cultural forum) but also achieved considerable success in comparison to its big-budget, American production counterparts.

From looking at either of these charts, we can also understand that there was little room to deny that piracy was going on: after NRK geoblocked the site on January 13, 2017, the series maintained the fan activity that it did after the series returned from hiatus on April 10, 2017. This clearly illustrates that the fanbase was still procuring the series through illegal means. The reason, then, for Moslet’s—or, more broadly, NRK’s—change of heart around the pirated distribution of their series can be largely attributed to the shift from fans using commercial agents (such as YouTube) to disseminate the pirated materials and the fact that they were able to utilize fan labour to essentially distribute and promote their show at no cost. And, as Moslet indicates, this fan behaviour provided the tangible indications of interest in the series abroad necessary for attracting potential buyers of the series.


 Considering Skam within the contexts of an academic shift in perception toward regarding piracy as a media contraflow and a slower shift in industry toward acknowledging piracy’s potential ability to coexist with commercial distribution in a digital space, I approached this work as an intervention in both the popular discourse surrounding piracy and the methodological question of how to study and construct datasets about audiences in a digital era when more and more media companies are electing to privatize their metrics. This approach is not perfect: utilizing Fandometrics works well for this project as we are considering the shift in Skam’s cultural cachet as a digital object, but it is not transparent enough to quantify any kind of “true” record of Skam’s popularity, if such a thing exists.

Using the transnational distribution of Skam as a case study to look at how negotiations can exist in the digital space between different kinds of ownership indicates that this kind of shared ownership could not last forever; there is no fool-proof way for industrial players and piracy agents to have the control over the cultural asset that they want. What is important here, however, is the acknowledgement that they can coexist in the first place, as opposed to the overarching popular discourse surrounding piracy and its detrimental effects on the industry.

Further research is warranted on this franchise when considering the fields of localization and transnational fandom, and through this paper I do not mean to indicate that the remakes were not successful or do not provide important case studies as well, particularly in looking at series such as Skam Italia and Skam Austin, both of which are commercializations of a franchise that was originally public broadcasting programming. Skam Austin, further, the only English language series, provides some interesting tensions in the case of the fansubbing engagement within the fan community.

Ultimately, what I consider to be crucial to the understanding of Skam as a case study is this idea of competing ownership and value in a digital space, and how the value provided by the viewers and their fansubbing sustained these tensions for a specific period. Skam was never meant to leave Norway. That is the industrial consensus, and the initial conception and production of the series indicates that NRK’s goal was simply to engage with a younger audience in their home country. However, once it became clear that the series could achieve major success outside of Norway, NRK deftly navigated issues of piracy and production rights in order to co-opt the fan labour of the series without negatively impacting the remakes’ commercial success. In doing so, they provided an understanding of the ways in which these fan practices—seen as less desirable by larger industry rhetoric and as subversive by fan agents—can be renegotiated into mainstream media flows.

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