SKAM Austin is a typical teen drama in a lot of ways. There are hookups, breakups, cattiness and plenty of awkwardness. But, while the drama itself may walk a well-tread path, the path the show takes to reach its viewers is anything but.
Based off the Norwegian web series of the same name – which translates to "shame" – the series follows a group of teenagers at Austin's fictional Bouldin High. When the original premiered in 2015, it quickly grabbed the attention of millions of fans worldwide and was praised by critics for its realism. But while its predecessor used a typical web series format, its Austin counterpart streamed on Facebook Watch – a format that looks to upend the streaming model and siphon off younger fans from old-guard competitors.
Nineteen-year-old Austinite Ellie Zambarano is one of those fans. She was a fan of the original SKAM and, when she found out the creators were planning to film the American adaptation in the Texas capital, she was shocked.
“I was, like, so shook,” she says. “I could not believe that my favorite show ever ... I knew it was coming to America, but I was, like, I can’t believe they’re filming in Austin!”
SKAM's creator, Julie Andem, cast local teens in most of the roles for SKAM Austin. Zambarano says she even went to school with some of the cast members and that she's as big a fan of the Austin iteration as she was of the original.
But, unlike the original, SKAM Austin’s story unfolds in real-time – post-by-post – on Facebook Watch. The clips drop into your Facebook feed at the same time it would happen in the show.
“You get so into it, like, I almost feel creepy. I feel like I’m stalking these people sometimes because you feel like you’re in their lives,” Zambarano says. “You’re seeing them first on social media, you’re seeing scenes with, like, just them, as they’re ‘experiencing it.’”
For example, if the characters head to a party Friday night, a clip would drop on Friday around 9 p.m.
Each clip is usually a few minutes long and there’s no real way to tell when it’s coming until viewers get a Facebook notification. Fans say the suspense is part of what makes SKAM Austin so addicting. Eighteen-year-old Jack Switzer has also been a fan of SKAM since it first aired in Norway. He even had a small role in one of the Austin episodes where he played the “Hot Football Guy.”
Even though all the clips are compiled into a full episode at the end of each week, Switzer says he prefers keeping up with the clips.
“I like that better because throughout the week I could have a story building up,” he says.
The show leans into the voyeurism social media brings out in all of us by posting screenshots as a tease in between clips. Each character even has their own Instagram account; often the comments and pictures on these fake profiles match up with things happening in the show. So viewers aren’t just following the accounts, they’re also scouring them for clues. On top of that, viewers like Switzer aren't the only ones waiting on notifications, SKAM's narratives often hinge on a notification on characters' phones, too.
“That was a big part of SKAM. They’d get a notification on their phone – good or bad – it affected what they were going to do that night," he says.
Ricky Van Veen, who heads up creative strategy for Facebook Watch, says that’s the reason a show like SKAM Austin could even happen.
“[SKAM Austin is] kind of a new form of consumption for the generation that always has a phone in their pocket,” he says.
According to the Pew Research Center, 95 percent of American teenagers today report that they have access to a smartphone. Van Veen says, when he first learned about SKAM, he knew it would be perfect for Facebook Watch.
“I thought, ‘This is what I am at Facebook to do,’” Van Veen says. “This is a groundbreaking format that is better because it’s on Facebook. It maybe wouldn’t even be possible, if it weren’t on Facebook in its current form.”
Van Veen’s decision seemed to have worked out for Facebook. At last check, the first episode of SKAM Austin had roughly 14 million views. To put that into perspective, The CW’s popular teen drama, Riverdale, peaked at just over 2 million views in its most recent season. Van Veen credits much of that success to the quality of the show, but he says it’s also because of its innately immersive quality; people feel like they’re living their whole week alongside these characters. Van Veen says he's also guilty of feeling a little too connected to the characters.
“I follow all of the characters on Instagram as well, and it’s interesting because they are right in between my real friends when I scroll through the feed, and I’ll find myself liking one of their posts” he says. “And, you know, I stop myself and think, ‘What did I just do? I just liked the post of an imaginary person.’ But it just feels really natural.”
Nearly all of the social media used on the show is Facebook-owned – either Facebook or Instagram – which has led some to argue SKAM Austin is just one big ad platform.
Ben Bentzin, a marketing professor at UT Austin, says, for Facebook, the show gave it a chance to catch up to streaming giant Netflix and, namely, YouTube.
“They were behind YouTube to a very significant degree and saw this as an opportunity to keep some of the audience that they’re losing," he says.
Roughly half of U.S. teens ages 13 to 17 say they use Facebook, according to the Pew Research Center, compared to the 85 percent who use YouTube and 72 percent who use Instagram.
Still, it’s unclear whether this format has legs or if it’s just another fad, but with tens of millions of views and a fiercely loyal online following, Van Veen says, Facebook is definitely taking note.
“We’re looking at SKAM and thinking about how to take elements of that for future shows that we do,” he says.
For Zambarano, SKAM Austin is just a show she connects with, and if Facebook is trying to get more people like her on the platform to watch it - so much the better.
“As teenagers, you know, you’re having all these hormones and you’re having problem that are getting bigger. You’re like, ‘Oh my god, nobody else deals with this,’” she says. “I think it’s just a platform to see, like, ‘Okay, like, these struggles are normal, everybody goes through these things … it’s just part of growing up.’”
Last month, Facebook renewed SKAM Austin for a second season, and a clip for the new season could drop any day now – meaning millions of fans around the world are turning their eyes back to Facebook, eagerly waiting for that notification.