Regardless of everything we are still the same enthusiastic, crazy optimists!
Skarphéðinn Guðmundsson, Programme Director at Iceland’s pubcaster RÚV discusses his drama strategy, the impact of Covid-19, and collaborating within the Nordic region.
How does your drama slate for 2020/2021 look like, despite Covid-19?
Skarphéðinn Guðmundsson: We've been fortunate enough to be able to continue production on most of our projects throughout the year, so Covid hasn't had as great an effect on us as in most other territories.
I think it is fair to say that our upcoming drama slate certainly ranks amongst the strongest ever. We‘ve just launched the political drama series The Minister, the limited three part mini-series The Garden based on a play and a feature by Ragnar Bragason will be airing early 2021. Later that year, we are expecting to release the fishing quota drama series Blackport. In addition to this the first Icelandic medical drama Fractures is in production, scheduled for a 2022 release.
How has coronavirus impacted viewership on RÚV, programming and your co- production/commissioning activities?
SG: Viewing has increased this year compared to the same time period last year. RUVs daily reach has gone up from 50,6% to 52,7% and time spent viewing has increased by 6%. The biggest change has been in news and news related programmes for obvious reasons.
What recent domestic series have performed strongly on RÚV?
SG: The Minister has started very strongly for us with total ratings around 40%, linear shares above 80% and the buzz on social media is loud and interesting. Earlier this year, the crime series Valhalla Murders also did well for us. The edgy and brutally honest comedy drama Happily Never After was in many ways a surprise, and just received the Edda Award [Icelandic Film and TV Awards] for Best Drama.
Could you remind us of your annual drama output and explain your current drama strategy (film, TV dramas, genres, formats), for your various slots?
SG: Our aim is to commission and offer at least two drama series each year and preferably more – depending on size of those projects – as co-producers, producers or simply acquisitions. In addition to this, we acquire or co-produce most of Icelandic theatrically released feature films and documentaries. Our aim is to increase focus on youth and kids content, especially web and TV dramas.
Have you noticed a sharp viewership shift from linear to digital on your TV series, and if so, how are you readjusting your commissioning strategy, to cater perhaps for a younger audience as well?
SG: We are seeing similar trends as in all other territories, but no more or less. Besides the obvious struggle with securing increased digital rights, our strategy has been to meet this by sharpening even more our role and special position as a public broadcaster by increasing focus on local content, especially drama, children content, culture, documentaries, current affairs as well as high quality and daring Nordic and European drama that you can‘t find on any of the big international platforms or the local commercial ones. All with the aim of being able to offer something completely different and with that broadening the horizon. I am very happy to say that this Nordic and European strategy has been well received by our audience.
Has your drama budget remained stable in recent years? How does 2021 look like?
SG: Our total TV budget has generally decreased considerably over the course of the last decade. Despite this, we’ve managed to double the Drama budget four years ago by making a drastic shift in focus from big budget entertainment programming, and we’ve been able to transfer the international acquisition budget to local drama by almost entirely stopping to buy costly US TV series and studio theatrical releases. We are facing further cutbacks for 2021 but will do our upmost to maintain our strategy when it comes to drama and other local content, which admittedly is getting more and more challenging.
Your co-production of Valhalla Murders with Netflix was a big coup. How important was this partnership and will you commission a season 2?
SG: Yes, it was important and interesting in so many ways, and at the same time challenging and a necessary learning curve. We would like to commission season 2 but unfortunately, as with most other projects we are attached to, it is not only down to us and as far as we know, nothing has yet been decided.
How do you cope with the greater local competition from Channel 2/Vodafone and Síminn? Do you have projects where you split the TV rights?
SG: We genuinely celebrate increased competition for local drama and in fact don’t approach it as a competition but rather choose to look at it in a healthier way as a very welcoming and perhaps much overdue increased interest in producing and broadcasting local drama.
We feel that with more local players/broadcasters and platforms, the industry in general will benefit and the audience will get more and hopefully better quality of TV projects and movies. One thing this has enabled us to do is raise our standards even further, be more demanding and take more risks when it comes to commissioning different kinds of projects, somewhat regardless of genres, with the aim of finding and introducing new and exciting voices in Icelandic drama, such as Nanna Kristin Magnusdóttir, creator, writer, director of Happily Never After, Thordur Palsson, creator and director of Valhalla Murders, and Eva Sigurdardóttir, the director of the upcoming Fractures.
In terms of windows, there has been informal talks between producers and broadcasters but no plans have been made as of yet. RÚV, would be very open to such options since it would comply with our strategy to use all means to maximise our selection of quality local content.
Who runs your sales arm RÚV Sales? Do you still have a deal with DR Sales?
SG: Our sales arm RÚV Sales is very active and is now run by Birgir Sigfusson our Head of Media & Production and Einar Logi Vignisson our Head of Sales. They don’t have any binding deals of collaborations with other sales companies but are instead working on regular basis with number of them, like DR Sales and REinvent Studios.
Are you satisfied with the Nordic 12 alliance? How has that partnership impacted your drama programming/commissioning and viewership of Nordic dramas?
SG: We are very supportive of N12, in theory, as a PB strategy and most importantly in practice. As the smallest broadcaster in the alliance coming from such a small market, we’ve probably had to make the biggest effort to be an active partner, but although this is a challenge for us, we’ve never doubted our participation and main purpose of N12. On the contrary. Even though we haven’t yet reached all our common and very ambitious goals, we already have been able to use N12 as a vital part of our strategy in terms of meeting increasing and ever-changing demands for quality content in the wake of the popularity of strong international content providers such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV and Disney+. We will never be able to compete with them on their level, but this is where we can take a stand and say, as a public broadcaster we are offering you something else, something completely different and much closer to home. N12 has been one of the main reasons we’ve managed to shift away from acquiring US and commercially-driven content without losing our share in ratings and purpose.
Is representation and gender equality high on your agenda?
SG: Absolutely, and this is the case across everything we do. All the way from our choices of drama projects, their subject matters, lead characters, the writers and directors ( see Happily Never After, Prisoners and the upcoming Fractures ), to even counting every guest in all our factual, news, current affairs, children's and sports, making sure that on a monthly basis, we are reaching our goals of full equality.
How do you nurture the next generation of talents?
SG: We do this in many different ways, most importantly and effectively by being courageous enough to commission dramas and give first time writers and directors their big break. We are also in good contact with the local film schools and festivals, supporting and monitoring exciting projects and upcoming talents.
Three years ago we set up RÚV Pitching Days where we are very openly on the lookout for our next generation of talents. The Pitching Days have been a great success and as a result, we’ve had to reject or ask for re-submission of many promising projects.
Today what are your biggest challenges?
SG: I can proudly and safely say that there is no lack of interesting stories and great talents to tell them. Our biggest challenge however is unchanged - and inherent to such a small market trying to produce local content in native language - namely the lack of finance and too much dependency on grants, official funding and international financing. But having said that, we are experiencing more and more interest and trust in the Icelandic Film and TV industry, possibly greater than ever before. In my view, that is mainly thanks to our recent output and how well projects have been doing worldwide. So regardless of everything we are still the same enthusiastic, crazy optimists!