NRK’s Head of Drama Ivar Kohn Talks Stepping up International Partnerships (EXCLUSIVE)

Ivar Kohn
Credit: Ole Kaland NRK

One of the top drama decision-makers in the Nordics, Ivar Køhn has been heading Norwegian pubcaster NRK’s drama department since 2013. Under his helm, some of Norway’s most international lauded TV 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 Script, Canneseries, 2018), to “22 July” (Nordisk Film & TV Fond Prize for Best Nordic Screenplay).

NRK’s lavish historical drama “Atlantic Crossing,” starring Sofie Helin and Kyle MacLachlan, is currently running for Best TV Movie/Miniseries at New York’s upcoming International Emmy Awards, while “Countrymen,” co-created by Anne Bjørnstad (“Beforeigners”) is world premiering this week in competition at Canneseries.

Køhn tells Variety about his vision for public service broadcasting in the age of streaming.

“Countrymen” is competing at Canneseries and “Atlantic Crossing” for an International Emmy. What does it mean for you and in what way do these premium dramas stand for NRK’s DNA?
It’s thrilling 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 cite the recent Prix Europa winner “22 July.” These international accolades to three very different TV shows are hugely important for us and celebrate what NRK stands for: utmost quality, uniqueness and diversity.

You’ve been head of drama at NRK since 2013. What major changes have you implemented to adapt to the digital shift?
NRK was among the early adopters of digital TV, and in 2016, the group decided to put its streaming platform NRK.TV at the forefront of its strategy. This has paid off as today as our streaming platform is even bigger than Netflix in Norway. Drama is crucial to attract viewers and NRK agreed very early on to invest even more across kids and youth, entertainment and premium drama. We then switched from commissioning content for specific slots to commissioning programs that people pick to watch, in direct competition with thousands of others. That was a major shift.

I feel I came to TV drama at the best time ever. The sector has evolved and improved tremendously since 2013. It’s been a fantastic journey to be part of.

How would you define your drama 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 larger international audience, stories that are relevant, bold and unique. Our drama department orders three-four serialized shows a year – a mix of historical, contemporary drama and more daring content such as “Exit” or “Countrymen.”

Then our other divisions Entertainment and Kids and Youth order their own programs. “Skam,” for instance, and the latest successful youth show “Rod Knock” were commissioned by our youth division. We are a small group of executive producers/commissioners and we work closely together on editorial and budget decisions. It’s a very smooth process.

In terms of budget, we have approximately €40 million ($46.3 million) across all drama departments for 2021, and within that, I have about €13 million ($15 million) a year for serialized premium drama.

You’ve recently hired seasoned producer Hans-Jørgen Osnes [“Oslo, August 31st,” “Blind”] as NRK’s first head of international drama financing. Why did you create this new position?
We’ve noticed that in recent years, it’s been harder and harder to raising financing for our premium shows. Our funding through our public service tax is not increasing, while competition from global streamers and production costs are spiralling. Indie producers struggle to finance their projects without selling all rights to global streamers. We therefore felt we had to face this challenge in two different ways: By creating cheaper TV drama, in a cost-effective and smart way, and by raising more money on the international market.

Hans-Jørgen Osnes will therefore handle international financing within the relatively new NRK Content Sales department and strengthen our collaboration with the international community.

You used to have a slate deal with global distributor DRG/Nent Studios U.K. – now acquired by All3Media. But your dramas now seem to be handled by a variety of distributors…
We have no strings attached to any distributor or sales company. We figured out the best way to finance a project is on a case by case basis.

Do you see global streamers as friends of foes? What type of collaboration do you have with them?
The fact is that global streamers aren’t really interested in co-investing in our shows, as contractually, we require from 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 both global streamers and we will change our position over time.

What is your strategy then to raise co-financing for your high-end TV shows and continue to compete against big-money spenders like Netflix or HBO?
I believe in the role of public service to tell relevant human stories, where audiences recognize themselves and are challenged. Looking ahead, we want to remain the number one storyteller for Norwegian audiences, and at the same time, expand our activity on the international market, by working better and more with global partners. This means co-producing beyond our traditional Nordic partners. We regularly co-produce with EU partners on Norwegian projects, such as “Countrymen” with Arte, but our idea now is to look at the possibility of acting as minority-co-producers on foreign projects.

You’ve mentioned the role of public service TV. What do you think of EBU (European Broadcasting Union) drama members’ proposal to join forces to produce a string of high budget projects a year, with a 30-day window to enter as co-producers, as announced in Variety?

It is crucial today to join forces in Europe and to collaborate among 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 much more for each broadcasting member to invest in those few mega-fiction projects. However, there are issues to tackle: Many EBU members aren’t at the same digital development stage. Some still think with their “linear cap” on and want for instance more crime, which is suitable for traditional TV but less so for streaming, where you need more drama, YA and high concept drama. We also need to build trust in each other, as it’s easier for many to simply go to one streamer for co-financing, instead of pitching a project to a group of 30 plus broadcasters who take decisions based on their own market and strategy.

I feel the Nordic 12 Alliance [in which DR, Yle, SVT, NRK, RÚV commit to co-producing 12 Nordic TV shows together a year] is a good model. Each pubcaster selects which drama package to offer their partners. It’s simpler and a more reliable system. “Countrymen” and “Atlantic Crossing” for example were co-financed by N12 members.

What great Norwegian TV shows are lined up for 2021-2022?
We are looking forward to seeing how the Canneseries audience, then Norwegians will react to Rubicon TV’s “Countrymen.” It is a never-seen-before type of series, countering extremism with satire.

Then we’ll have the high-class Christmas calendar children series “Kristiana’s Magical Tivoli Theater,” produced by Monster, the oil industry drama “State of Happiness” Season 2 from Maipo, which will be edgier than Season 1, reflecting the 1977-1980 era – the church will be transformed into a bar! Then we have a small show from Monday Media: The rapsical “I Am Earth,” created by Amy Black Ndiaye and “Rod Knock” Season 3 from Fenomen and Storyline. Finally, I have high expectations for the political drama “Power Play” from Motlys and November Film, about Norway’s former Prime Minister and Labour Party leader Gro Harlem Brundtland.