What makes Danish TV so cool?

Danish television has taken the world by storm, making characters like Sarah Lund and Birgitte Nyborg popular well beyond our small borders. Now a team of researchers will try to get to the bottom of the success.

What makes Danish TV so cool?
When Sarah Lund is in trouble in Forbrydelsen, it's far from just Danes rooting for her to pull through. Photo: Tine Harden, DR
The Killing, Broen and Borgen can arguably claim a great deal of credit for Denmark's popularity on the world stage. 
The shows have amassed huge interest abroad, racked up international awards and spawned numerous remakes. But why? What has led to this golden age of Danish TV dramas?
Nine researchers will spend the next four years and some 6.5 million kroner ($1.2 million) trying to figure out just that. 
“Danish television series have had significant success internationally. What we will do is study both their production and their reception,” the project’s leader, Anne Marit Waade from Aarhus University, told The Local. 
Waade said her team would work with focus groups in the US, Germany, Australia, Turkey and Brazil to see just who Denmark’s dark, smartly-made dramas appeal to, and why. 
Waade’s group will also talk to writers and producers behind Danmark Radio’s (DR) programmes as well as study the network’s output over the past 20 years in order to determine why so many series have made it abroad in recent years.  
Although their research doesn’t begin until September 1st, Waade already has some theories. 
“Hype is very difficult to explain, but of course there are some marketing processes behind it,” she said. “People from Denmark have been very good at taking part in international TV festivals and so on in order to actively present the series and push them in to the international market.” 
“So its a marketing issue but it’s also due to the quality of the series. They’ve got good aesthetics, good people working on them and they’ve spent a lot of money on them,” she added. 
A scene from Borgen
Fictional PM Birgitte Nyborg gets some advice from spin doctor Kasper Juul in Borgen. Photo: Mike Kollöffel/DR
Waade said there has also been a shift in the attitudes of global audiences. 
“The international market has an increased appetite for non-English content, so there is also a curiosity factor at play. I think there is a change we are seeing right now. Up until five to ten years ago, a Danish series wouldn’t work abroad so they would make a remake. But now, a lot of countries prefer the original,” Waade said.
While that’s the case in the UK, Australia and parts of Europe, Waade said American audiences are still hesitant to embrace foreign language entertainment. 
The rights to the DR drama Arvingerne (The Legacy) were recently picked up by an American broadcaster who plans a remake. Likewise, both The Killing and Broen have been remade into American versions. The political drama Borgen found limited success in the US in its original Danish but is also set to remade for an American audience. 
But even though Waade says “we’ve never seen success like this before,” the reach of Danish shows is still fairly limited. 
“Of course the Danish TV series are very popular abroad, but it is still a niche market. It’s a very well-educated segment,” she said. “It’s not like everybody in the US is watching these series.”
Given that Waade’s research will last four years, The Local couldn’t resist asking if Danish popularity will have waned by then. 
“Things can change, but I’ve been working with Scandinavian crime fiction, which has been popular for a long time,” Waade said. “Danish TV is hooked up with the Nordic Noir brand, so there is some staying power. The boom hasn’t reached the top yet.” 

Member comments

  1. As a Briton who, with my family, adores Danish TV and have watched numerous Danish programmes – Matador, Kroniken, Forbrydelsen, Herrens Veje, Borgen, Norskov, 1864, The Legacy and so many others! I can tell you why Danish TV is so cool, no need to spend so much time and money – simply, your programmes are exciting, informative, emotional, extremely well written, and wonderfully acted! For many of us here in Britain, they remaind us of the kind of TV we used to make in the 1970s, and so Danish TV has become a real mecca of great entertainment for us! I’m SO glad the Borgen is coming back again! Danish TV inspired my family and I to take a holiday in Denmark in 2016, and we are saving up to come back again as soon as possible! we would love to love in Denmark, it’s such a friendly, beautiful place. We come from Yorkshire, so maybe we have a tiny bit of Viking heritage!! Just one question – would it be possible to have English subtitles put on DVDs of Taxa? we would LOVE to see that show! It’s got so many of our favourite actors in it!!

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Danish shows take TV world by storm

With original boundary-breaking content, thrilling plots and charismatic actors, Danish television series have captivated audiences worldwide in recent years.

Danish shows take TV world by storm
Danish actor Lars Mikkelsen plays the lead role in Ride Upon The Storm (Herrens Veje). Photo: Mads Joakim Rimer Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix

The latest show to hit the small screen is “Ride Upon the Storm” (Danish title: Herrens Veje), which is being distributed in almost 80 countries with a debut later this month in Britain, where it will be broadcast on Channel 4 by the station’s foreign language arm Walter Presents from January 28th.

The new drama was created by Adam Price, the BAFTA winner behind the acclaimed drama “Borgen”, which followed the political and personal tribulations of a Danish woman prime minister.

Danish shows, with both exoticism and gritty realism, have quickly soared in popularity beyond their initial local Scandinavian viewership, Pia Jensen, an Aarhus University communications associate professor specialising in television series, told AFP.

Long known for the Nordic noir crime genre, the big international breakthrough for Danish shows came with “The Killing”, a hard-hitting series following a Copenhagen female cop's investigations.

Then came crime thriller “The Bridge” in 2011.

The Nordic noir genre has proven so popular that its aesthetic and themes are now being replicated beyond Scandinavia's borders, with shows such as “Shetland” and “Broadchurch” made in Britain, Jensen said.

For foreign audiences, Denmark as it is shown on television is “an exotic society, something to aspire to because of the welfare state and the strong women characters”, she said, referring also to the 2010 hit “Borgen”.

She added, clearly amused, that it's “as if Denmark is the fantasy land of gender equality”.

Paradoxically, in this almost utopian world, the characters are “normal” people with whom audiences can identify, according to Jensen.

But now Danish TV series have moved beyond Nordic noir.

“Ride Upon the Storm” is a character-led drama about faith and a family of Danish priests, dominated by Johannes Krogh, a tempestuous God-like father battling numerous demons.

Actor Lars Mikkelsen, known from “The Killing” and his role as the Russian president in Netflix's “House of Cards”, plays Johannes, a role for which he won an International Emmy in November.

Mikkelsen “has set new standards for the portrayal of a main character in a TV series”, the show's creator Adam Price told AFP.

Johannes “is the 10th generation of priests, it's a huge burden that haunts him and he lets it haunt his sons too”.

His eldest son Christian is lost and at odds with the family and society, while younger son August is married and following in his father's priesthood footsteps before becoming a chaplain for troops stationed in Afghanistan.

“In the Bible, you have lots of stories of fathers and sons and brothers. That was the perfect ground to tell (a story) about masculine relationships, the competitive gene between men in a family,” Price said.

Elements from “Borgen” can be seen in Price's new venture: the efficient prime minister Birgitte Nyborg and Johannes Krogh, who is headed for the top as Bishop of Copenhagen, are both characters passionate about their work.

“But Johannes reacts differently than Birgitte (does) because his ambition is not within the world of politics, but with a more supernatural power,” Price said.

Thoughts on faith, religion and spirituality are mixed with a complex study of family.

“Religion is sometimes something imposed, as authority can be imposed on our children in a family. And both are dealt with in 'Ride Upon the Storm',” he said.

Price is currently working on “Ragnarok” for Netflix, a six-part Norwegian coming-of-age drama based on Norse mythology but set in a modern-day high school.

The second season of “Ride Upon the Storm” just wrapped up on Danish public television DR, which produced the series, and had around 500,000 viewers.

“Danish producers are mainly thinking of a Danish audience. It has to stay relevant to the Danish public and that's why DR keeps experimenting,” Jensen said.

“Some of the shows will travel and some won't.”

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