Arvinge okänd – the format that grew into a Nordic hit

The documentary series Arvinge okänd is a Nordic TV success story. In Sweden, the editorial team has been nominated for Stora journalistpriset (the Swedish Grand Prize for Journalism). In Denmark, the Danish National Archives are seeing a surge in public interest thanks to this show. And NRK’s version, Ukjent arving, is soon to hit the Norwegian small screen.

Photo: Stina Stjernkvist/SVT

Many of us have probably dreamt of someone calling to say that a distant relative has left us an unexpected inheritance. In that sense, the idea behind Arvinge okänd is perhaps nothing new.

But when SVT Göteborg started turning this concept into a TV show back in 2013, a whole new format emerged.

“We’re telling stories of real people that I believe a lot of viewers can identify with,” says Martina Pettersson, project manager on Arvinge okänd.

“They’ve often told us that it’s interesting how, just by watching the show, they can learn so much more. Because each episode is a kind of history lesson: you come face to face with a personal story, but you also get to hear about things that happened at the time when that person was alive. Understanding their background gives us a key to understanding these people, why they were forced to make certain choices in life, and what consequences these choices have had, even to this day.”


Based on time-consuming research

In the original Swedish format, guided by presenters Kattis Ahlström and Niklas Källner, viewers follow the hunt for heirs of people who have died in loneliness. While each episode is in production for around a year, the groundwork may take even longer: behind every story are hours and hours of research.

“There are two parallel trends in journalism right now – one in favour of short and fast content, and another promoting long and well-told stories,” says Lisa Jarenskog, producer of Arvinge okänd.

“I think that the viewers are really keen to watch something that takes time. Our show is basically entertainment, but we’re mixing it with serious journalism. We’re very proud that we manage to tell some lovely, warm-hearted stories with easy appeal, using solid, traditional research as an important tool.”


Showered with acclaim and nominations

The second season of Arvinge okänd was aired in autumn 2018. It attracted a greater audience than before, with close to one million viewers per episode on average. And, thanks to their in-depth journalistic efforts presented in an entertainment format, the editorial team also earned a nomination for the Swedish Grand Prize for Journalism, in the category “Storyteller of the Year”.

The format is also hugely successful in Denmark. DR has broadcast two seasons so far, with Adam Jon Kronegh, Archivist at the Danish National Archives, as the key ’detective’ alongside presenter Mette Frisk. The rapid rise in viewing figures has led to some surprising results.

“Genealogy has become a popular pastime in Denmark. We’ve even been told of children who want to drive a special truck at the National Archives when they grow up,” says Dorthe Vest Andersen, editor of Forsvundne arvinger.


Arvinge okänd is a format developed by SVT Göteborg,
in which the presenters travel all over the world to hand
over money and family history.
The first season premiered in autumn 2017. In spring
2019, SVT will produce a third season set to air in
autumn 2019.
In 2018, the show saw SVT nominated for Kristallen,
Rose D’Or and Stora Journalistpriset. The latter was
in the category “Storyteller of the Year” for episode 6,
Season 2: “The boy who was left behind.”
Denmark has produced two seasons of Forsvundne
arvinger. A third season has been commissioned, set to
premiere in January 2020. Each episode will last one
hour instead of the previous 45 minutes.
NRK plans to finish its Season 1 during autumn 2020.
While the number and length of episodes are not yet
fixed, the working premise is six episodes of 39 minutes
Viewing figures in Sweden, Season 2: an average 34%
share and an average of 995,500 viewers per episode.
The online audience so far has been between 37,000
and 92,000 per episode.
Forsvundne arvinger is available on DR TV, and Arvinge
okänd can be streamed from SVT Play.


Growing interest in genealogy

Both the Danish National Archives and local genealogy groups have seen an incredible amount of interest from people keen to learn more about their family history. And Adam travels around the country giving talks about the show.

“Viewers are certainly hooked by his detective work. We did an audience survey when we launched the show, and it indicated that placing each individual’s story in a historical context is a powerful technique. This show reminds us that it wasn’t just kings and nobility who made Danish history, but very ordinary people as well.”

For the editorial teams to get anywhere at all with their research, they need to rely on national legislation to support their search for private individuals. The NRK team soon realised this when they started producing their own version of the format.

“Public archives in Norway are organised in other ways than in Sweden and Denmark. So we’ve had to do our research in several locations and at different levels at once,” explains Oddbjørsn Rosnes, project manager of Ukjent arving. Its first episode will be a mini pilot, produced in January 2019.

SVT inspires Nordic colleagues

The Norwegian editorial team, like their Danish colleagues before them, visited SVT Göteborg to find inspiration and share experiences. They plan to have the first complete Norwegian season ready by autumn 2020, with particular focus on digital viewing.

“The show will initially be published on the NRK TV web player, and it’s likely that the entire season will be made available at once,” says Oddbjørn Rosnes.

“We consider the web player a key element of this production, and everything from graphics to dramaturgy will take that into account. It’ll also have an effect on the running time. Each episode will have the length that a particular story deserves. We believe that if the show is successful online, it’ll also work on linear TV.”