Much of the fictional television content targeting children and young audiences is currently made specifically for them, targeting their particular interests and intended to be watched on their private screens or together with friends rather than in the company of parents or other adults. While a small nation such as Denmark still has a steady production of ‘family films’ made for cinema release and later screenings on smaller screens, the past years have seen a rather limited production of what can be regarded as ‘family TV series’.
One of the few exceptions is the somewhat unique Scandinavian Christmas television calendar format in December which has a long tradition of gathering all family members for 24 episodes of serialized drama during December 1-24 (Christensen and Redvall 2021). This format is still going strong in the national arena, but it rarely travels beyond the Nordic countries, partly because of being clearly marked by the Christmas season and particular Danish traditions in this regard.
This Easter, The Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR) decided to see whether it might be possible to launch a new family drama tradition by premiering an ambitious genre production on Palm Sunday and then screening the remaining seven episodes in primetime over the next seven consecutive days. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Monday are public holidays in Denmark and since schools are also closed on Monday-Wednesday during the Easter week, many Danish families are on vacation for altogether 10 days this time of the year. DR decided that this might be a window of opportunity to premiere serialized drama and try to establish a new family-gathering television tradition (Relster 2022).
Genre drama for Easter rather than about Easter
The new family Easter serial Friends on a Mission – The Amber Room (Det Forsvundne Ravkammer, DR1, 2022) thus premiered in primetime on DR1 this Easter, with the first episode meeting viewers in the traditional time slot for high end serial drama on Sunday evenings at 8 pm.
The story is based on a group of children in a small village in Northwestern Jutland who are faced with the closure of their local school. While confronting the suspicious estate owner who is partly responsible for the school closing, they discover a secret German bunker from World War II which might be the hiding place of ‘the amber room’, a priceless treasure that was – in reality – stolen from the Catherine Palace near St. Petersburg in 1941 and has never been recovered.
Before the premiere, DR presented Friends on a Mission – The Amber Room as appealing to fans of international hits such as the Indiana Jones films or the Danish crime family series Guldregn which was shown on six Saturdays back in 1986 (Relster 2022). Following the premiere, some reviewers compared the series’ atmosphere and universe to that of the classic children’s mystery books by Enid Blyton about ‘the famous five’ from the 1940s (e.g. Palle 2022).
Contrary to the Christmas television calendars, Friends on a Mission – The Amber Room doesn’t refer to Easter in any way and can thus more easily be attractive content on the DRTV player at any time of the year. Furthermore, it might more easily appeal to a foreign audience. The national audiences seemed to appreciate the new format (despite beautiful weather during the Easter break) with the first episode being watched by around 400.00 viewers live and quickly reaching an extra 300.000 viewers online (Nielsen 2022).
First step in a new focus on family genre fiction
According to DR Head of Fiction Henriette Marienlund, Friends on a Mission – The Amber Room is the first step in a new strategy of producing more fiction for the entire family (Relster 2022). And part of this strategy is in fact to possibly build a bridge between the popular Christmas calendars and the new Easter format, with next year’s Easter offering being a spin-off series building on the universe of this year’s television Christmas calendar ‘The Secret of the Christmas Heart’ (‘Julehjertets hemmelighed’, premiereing on DR1 on December 1st 2022).
According to DR producer Rikke Tørholm Kofoed who developed Friends on a Mission – The Amber Room together with its creator Søren Balle, it is inspiring for her and the creatives to now have a highly serialized family format where one doesn’t have to force something about Christmas into the story. Moreover, the 8pm timeslot during a public holiday allows for telling more dramatic family stories than the 7.30pm timeslot during both weekdays and weekends in December. Accordingly, Friends on a Mission – The Amber Room had a recommended age of 11 years, but since many younger children might still be watching with the rest of the family, the serial deliberately aimed for what Kofoed describes as mixing action and humour with a ‘Laurel and Hardy-ish’ approach to violence (Kofoed 2022).
National genre productions for the young viewers
On the DRTV player, Friends on a Mission – The Amber Room is categorized as a regular fiction series, but the serial also has a specific carousel on DR Ultra’s website (targeting the 9-14-year-olds) where one can watch all episodes as well as extra material, for instance about other historical treasures. And The Amber Room is not the only production on Ultra or the DR children’s channel Ramasjang (targeting 4-8-year-olds) that is currently going for more dramatic storylines and a genre feeling. While DR Ultra has strong serial content portraying Danish children’s everyday lives such as Klassen – now in its 12th season – (Redvall and Christensen 2021), there are also more genre-oriented content such as the third season of the ‘school whodunnit’ Guilty (Skyldig, 2019–) or the second season of the sci-fi Ramasjang mystery serial The Friends and the Green Light (Vennerne og det grønne lys, 2020–). Young audiences also appreciate having serialized genre fare in their own language and with main characters solving mysteries in recognizable everyday settings.
Friends on a Mission – The Amber Room, produced by DR Drama, clearly had a larger budget than the more low-budget series produced by the DR children and youth department, but it is still remarkably cheaper than the traditional high-end drama series for Sunday nights. Establishing a new tradition with decent viewing figures on primetime broadcast TV with a long life across different audiences on the DR player seems like a good idea.
As Norwegian television scholar Vilde Schanke Sundet outlined in her recent book on the Norwegian public service broadcaster NRK’s approach to television fiction, conducive production models seem to be ‘going small’ (with low-budget niche dramas), ‘going big’ (with more expensive dramas) or ‘going again’ (with remakes, sequels and adaptations) (Sundet 2021). Maybe deliberately ‘going for the holiday’, more specifically going for the family audience during the holiday season, can soon be added to these models from the Danish perspective …
Friends on a Mission: The Amber Room/Det Forsvundne Ravkammer is written and directed by Søren Balle and was shown on DR 1 on 10-17 April 2022.
Eva Novrup Redvall is Associate Professor at the University of Copenhagen where she is head of the Section for Film Studies and Creative Media Industries and principal investigator of the Reaching Young Audiences research project (2019-2024). She has published widely on Danish TV series and Borgen in books and journals since the monograph Writing and Producing Television Drama in Denmark from 2013.
Agger, Gunhild. 2013. ‘Danish TV Christmas calendars: Folklore, myth and cultural history’. Journal of Scandinavian cinema, 3 (3), 267–280. https://doi.org/10.1386/jsca.3.3.267_1 Accessed 22 April, 2022.
Agger, Gunhild. 2020. ’The Magic of The Danish Christmas Calendar’. CSTonline, December 18, 2020. https://cstonline.net/the-magic-of-the-danish-christmas-calendar-by-gunhild-agger/ Accessed 22 April, 2022.
Christensen, Katrine Bouschinger, and Eva Novrup Redvall. 2021. ‘Trying to make natural sciences exciting through television fiction: The case of Christmas of the Comets’. CSTonline, December 17, 2021. https://cstonline.net/trying-to-make-natural-sciences-exciting-through-television-fiction-the-case-of-christmas-of-the-comets-by-katrine-bouschinger-christensen-and-eva-novrup-redvall/ Accessed 22 April, 2022.
Kofoed, Rikke Tørholm. 2022. Telephone interview by the author, April 22, 2022.
Nielsen 2022. ’Seertal.’ Nielsen.com. https://www.nielsen.com/dk/da/top-ten/
Palle, Henrik. 2022. ’DR’s nye påskeserie er både underholdende og vellavet, men …’ [DR’s new Easter series is both entertaining and well-made, but …’] Politiken.dk, 10 April 2022. https://politiken.dk/kultur/film_og_tv/art8705761/DRs-nye-påskeserie-er-både-underholdende-og-vellavet-men-… Accessed 22 April 2022.
Redvall, Eva Novrup, and Katrine Bouschinger Christensen. 2021. ‘Co-creating content with children to avoid “Uncle Swag”: Strategies for producing public service television drama for tweens and teens at the Danish children’s channel DR Ultra’. Critical Studies in Television, 16(2): 163–180.
Relster, Andreas. 2022. ’Ny fiktion for hele familien i påsken.‘ [’New Fiction for the Entire Family for Easter’]. Press article from the DR Press Department, 11 March 2022.
Sundet, Vilde Schanke. 2021. Television Drama in the Age of Streaming: Transnational Strategies and Digital Production Cultures at the NRK. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan/Springer.