Maria Rørbye Rønn, the CEO and director general of DR (Danish Broadcasting Corporation), tells World Screen about the creativity coming out of Denmark and the high expectations of its audiences.
It’s hard to believe that a country with only 5.7 million people has been able to generate some of the most innovative drama series of recent years. But DR has been able to tap into local talent that delivered such dramas as The Killing and Borgen. These series not only meet DR’s requirements of entertaining and informing but also, because they are imbued with universal themes, resonate with viewers outside of Denmark.
WS: Tell us about the channels in DR’s portfolio.
RØRBYE RØNN: We are a public-service organization founded on the model of the BBC in the U.K., so we have an obligation to serve the entire population of Denmark with programming that informs, educates and entertains in order to help make strong citizens, allow them to take responsibility in democracy and strengthen our cultural identity. We do have an obligation to reach everybody with relevant content, and because the audience is more fragmented today than it was years ago, we need various channels in order to reach everybody. So our main channel, DR1, targets a very broad section of the population. It airs debates, news, lifestyle, drama and entertainment. With DR1 we want to start broad discussions about life and values that are important to the individual and society. DR2 is more focused on challenging programming: public affairs, public lives, society, we air a lot of documentaries and fiction around these topics. It’s narrower than DR1 in its profile. We have a channel called DR K that offers culture, art and history. Then we offer the Danish audience three channels for children and young people. We devote all this space to children because it’s part of our obligation and also a strong part of Danish culture. We want our children to grow up with a quality content offering that has the aim of educating and making them independent and curious citizens. We start very early because we think it’s so very important for their future life as citizens in our society.
WS: Denmark is a small country. How do you explain the amount of creativity that comes from the market?
RØRBYE RØNN: Yes, Denmark is a small country, we have a very weird-sounding language, and we have small budgets [compared to other countries]. I’m proud that, despite being so small, we are known as an innovative and creative nation. And it is beyond doubt that our Danish drama series have an important role in branding Danish values and products. I think there is a connection between being a small nation and constantly striving to produce something different and unique. We are very aware of our cultural heritage, and we use that in our creative processes. As our head of drama, Piv Bernth, always says, the more local, the more global. By that, she means we are grounded in very local stories and in the lives we are living in our country. By focusing on that, we become very authentic to our own culture, identity and values, and because of this, our stories become relevant and interesting to people all over the world as well. They can relate because our stories hit this nerve and have an authentic feeling. I might even dare to argue that we are compensating for being so small by being innovative and creative.
WS: Does the Danish audience expect a certain amount of innovation, and must you provide that with each new series you produce?
RØRBYE RØNN: Yes, the audience does create pressure to meet high expectations, and we have always taken very clear artistic risks to push our own creative boundaries. We have always made it a goal to give new, up-and-coming talent a chance to grow. Whether it’s actors, screenwriters, directors or producers, we always make sure to bring new talent to the Danish public when we produce a new drama. That has secured an extremely strong pipeline [of talent] and a foundation in the creative environment in the Danish drama industry. By doing this, we get the public used to meeting new talent and, at the same time, feed their expectation for innovation and creativity. The two go hand in hand.
WS: What types of stories does DR want to tell?
RØRBYE RØNN: We are always striving to try new ideas because we like to stop when we are at the peak of success. We try to challenge ourselves to make new content. But the fundamental elements in our series are the same: our stories are not just stories. We want to tell stories with strong narratives, but we always add a social, ethical layer because we want people to reflect. We want to create conversations throughout the country and among generations. A good example was Borgen. A lot of people said, You cannot make a drama series about Danish democracy, it’s not possible to make it interesting to the entire population. But, we did it. And we did it by not only having a strong narrative but also adding another social and ethical layer—there was the personal story of a tough female politician and her struggles balancing politics and her personal life. Suddenly the story became relevant across borders because viewers could identify with her situation. We always work with double layers, having social and ethical themes combined with a strong narrative.
WS: What are the biggest issues facing the Danish television market in the next year?
RØRBYE RØNN: First of all, the fragmented audience on so many different platforms causes a lot of challenges for everybody, because we need to do more with the same amount of money. And furthermore, we need constant innovation to stay relevant and keep the high quality of our programming, because anyone in Denmark can get programming from anywhere in the world.
WS: How is DR’s financing and do you have the money you need to meet all your programming requirements?
RØRBYE RØNN: For the past ten years, our income has been stable. We have a license fee, as they do in Britain, paid by the Danes. That is why it’s so important that we reach everybody and that everybody finds that we create value and that we have a uniqueness and distinctiveness in our programming compared to that of the commercial broadcasters.
At present, there are a lot of discussions about public-service media financing throughout all of Europe. This makes it even more important that we are able to do more with less money, that we are able to increase our productivity in general, and that we are always looking for new ways to have an efficient organization. We look through the whole value chain from ideas to distribution. We have succeeded over the last ten years at getting more and more efficient in administration and technology, and we allocate the funds we save in those areas for programming. This is important because it is the Danes who fund DR, and they expect us to be efficient and to deliver quality content. We have both a commercial sector and a public-service broadcaster in Denmark, but it’s important that we at DR distinguish ourselves, so the audience sees that we do deliver a different kind of offer.
WS: How does DR offer programming beyond the traditional TV set?
RØRBYE RØNN: It’s a reality that all modern media must operate on all platforms. Neither television, nor radio networks, nor the web can stand alone. You need to be on all platforms. Having an obligation as DR has to serve the entire population, we see the fragmentation of how the public is using media more than ever. We need to have high-quality programming on TV because it is still the broadest medium: 88 percent of the population in Denmark watches traditional linear television on a weekly basis. But when you look at the different audience groups, young people are streaming more and more and so are people 40 and 50 years old, so we need to be relevant on those platforms. We also need to develop content depending on the platform we are operating on. We are working on this every day, and fortunately, our digital offers are very popular. In an average week, we reach 42 percent of the population with our digital offers. And across TV, radio, apps and its website, DR has a total reach of 96 percent.
WS: What impact are SVOD services like Netflix having on the Danish TV landscape?
RØRBYE RØNN: Netflix has been a great success in Denmark, and I believe they have reached 35 percent of all households in a few years. That is extremely fast. Of course, we are competing for the attention of the same audience, and of course, it is a challenge for us because organizations like Netflix and HBO have budgets that are so much bigger than ours. The competition is tough, but I do think that we exist alongside each other because there is a difference in the offers. Netflix is still mostly focused on American films and series, and we are focusing very much on Danish content, news, current affairs, documentaries and children’s programming. We want to work with themes that have a different substance to them. We are here not only to entertain, but we are also here to inform and educate. I think people want to be able to have Netflix and watch all those high-quality American series, but they also want our programming because it’s quite different. We offer characters that have an opinion about Danish society.
WS: What opportunities and challenges do you see for DR in the next year?
RØRBYE RØNN: Staying relevant with the young generation is our absolute biggest challenge. It’s also the biggest opportunity, but we need to tell our stories in new ways in order to engage youth. They want to be included and they don’t want to be lectured to. They want to use the platforms they prefer. They want different ways of storytelling. Plus, in Denmark, the young generation has grown up with English as a second language, so they can navigate content from all over the world. We need to be an interesting alternative in order to stay relevant to young people. This is an important opportunity, as we don’t see public service as only being relevant for the older generations.