The Danish Welfare State Reflected in Danish Public Service Television Drama

Denmark, like the other Scandinavian countries, is known as a welfare state. This means a state with a high level of prosperity and many social services. This welfare state is established in the early decades of the twentieth century. To fund and maintain the welfare state, citizens pay high taxes. For instance income and church taxes– yes Denmark has a state church. The taxes can end up between 50 and 60 percent of their income. The government uses this money for example to let citizens enjoy free state education, paid maternity leave of 50 weeks, state subsided childcare and free health care for everyone. Thereby Denmark has one of the highest minimum wages of the world, which means that the gap between poor and rich is one of the smallest in the world and most women continue to work after having children. The welfare state costs a lot, but you get something valuable in return. On average Danes see the taxes they pay as a reasonable for the services they receive in return.

On the other hand sees Dr Gunnar Viby Mogensen, writer of the book ‘The History of the Danish Welfare State since 1970’, difficulties in the present welfare state of Denmark. In his opinion the welfare state is excellent, but the problem is that the Danish state can’t afford it. Denmark now has a national debt of 3 percent. According to Mogensen the national debt will only become higher because it is impossible to increase the already enormous taxes any further. Added to this, some young high-educated Danes do leave the country and since 1983 Denmark had to deal with immigration from the Arab countries and the Indian subcontinent. Immigrants are on average less educated as Danes and don’t speak the Danish language very well. These barriers create difficulties in finding a job and provide fewer taxpayers in the highest category. And even if you don’t work, you are entitled to free education and healthcare. This is part of to the basic principles of the Danish welfare system: equal rights to social security for all citizens. In the eyes of Mogensen the welfare system needs a reform to reduce public debt in the future. In this way the welfare state is something that causes a lot of tension in society. It is a blessing and a curse at the same time.

The welfare state is also reflected in public service television of Denmark. The public broadcaster DR (Danmarks Radio – Danish Broadcasting Corporation) is owned by the state and is funded by the people who pay annual licence fees. Because DR is a public broadcaster, funded by the government, they have to fulfil a public service remit, like a pluralistic range of programs for everyone and objective and impartial news coverage.

At the end of the 80’s DR lost its monopoly as the only public broadcaster with the arrival of a second public station TV2 (1988 – now a commercial public broadcaster) and the opening of the television market for commercial broadcasters. From this period DR had to change its general policy and develop new programme strategies to compete with the other channels. New formats were developed with the American model as example. According to professor media studies Per Jauert there are radical changes implanted in DR from the mid 90’s. For example, the core values of the public service remit were reformulated. They developed new production procedures and programmes were reformatted. The same was done in the drama departments.  the public broadcaster left the ‘paternalistic strategy’, whereby the broadcaster presented the audience what was good for them. This made way for an audience-oriented vision in which the wishes of the audience were important. According to media scholar Henrik Søndergaard, the audience vision is perceived as consumers of media productions.

Changes at the DR drama department

After Hammerich the Danish composer Ingolf Gabold became head of the drama department of DR. In 2003 Gabold came with 15 dogmas to guide the in house drama productions of DR. One of them, and in the context of this article the most important one, is ‘double story telling’ which means that every story in a drama series not only includes an (American style) entertainment plot, but also has a deeper layer with ethical, social and psychological connotations. In most series, and especially in crime series, this means a reflection on the society and welfare state. DR series are trying to provoke public debate on society and mostly turns out positively. Newspapers write about it, fan blogs does appear and even the political agenda can be regulated by the television series. A good example is the successive political drama series Borgen (2010-2013) in which the tension between politics, media and society is uncovered. Borgen is a series about the first female Prime Minister of Denmark. According to Gabold is this series about someone who gains political power but has to cede power at home. This story about women juggling work and family is familiar across the western world and especially in the welfare state of Denmark, where it is expected that women continue to work after having children. There is after all heavy subsidized childcare. On the other hand the notion of double storytelling is part of the public service remit of DR. Deeper layers with references to contemporary society are required for a public broadcaster.

Double story telling and the welfare state in Borgen

Besides the public debate that ‘double storytelling’ aims to provoke, there is a second deeper storyline present in Borgen, which is fuelling this debate. The series takes the Danish society repeatedly under scrutiny and discusses actual issues like the war in Afghanistan, the welfare state and immigration politics in a realistic way. Sometimes the issues are so realistic that real politics responds. For example an issue that was mentioned in episode 4 of season 3 about animal welfare and safety in the Danish pork industry came on the real political agenda. And episode 3.5 about legislation of prostitution in Denmark led to a political debate and ultimately led to legalisation of prostitution in real life. It is even claimed that Birgitte Nyborg has paved the way for the first real Danish female minister-president, Helle Thorning-Schmidt.

Moreover, the series takes the Danish welfare state literally under scrutiny in episode 9 of season 2. This episode cited two different issues on this regard. First of all TV1 political reporter Katrine Fønsmark announces her boss Torben Friis that she is in a relationship with Kasper Juul, the spin doctor of the Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg. After a few words Torben agrees with the relationship. But he has to know if they are going to have kids and he asks her to let him know when Katrine and Kasper will try. Companies have to pay women on maternity leave, but asking women about their children’s plans is against the law in Denmark. An English blogger wrote about this issue and the Danish newspaper Politiken reflected on this fan based post. In this way a reflection of the Danish welfare state is made in the series and has been picked up in the global and national press.

Another issue in this episode that literally has to do with the welfare state in Denmark is the mental illness of the Prime Minister’s daughter, Laura. Laura has panic attacks and must be admitted to a hospital. Because there are waiting lists of fifty weeks for public hospitals due to cutbacks in healthcare, Birgitte and her ex-man Phillip agree to admit Laura to a private hospital. One problem is that Birgitte’s own tax reforms force her to pay out of pocket instead of using her insurance. Despite the fact that Birgitte is acting against her political policy about private healthcare, she tries to keep this away from the media. Unfortunately for her, the media finds out about the private hospital and Laugesen, Birgitte’s formal political competitor and now editor of a tabloid newspaper, accuses her of hypocrisy. He blames her that she cuts private health insurance for common people, but she, as a Prime Minister, can still use it. She can afford to pay a fortune to have her own daughter sidestep the waiting list.

In an emotional interview Birgitte strikes back, she still wishes to strengthen the public health system and wants to cut the tax advantages of health insurances. She uses her own experience to make clear that Denmark can’t accept waiting lists up to fifty weeks. Rather than backing off, the media become more officious, which forced the board of directors to ask Birgitte and Phillip to dismiss Laura from the hospital in order to avoid problems with other patients. Birgitte asks for a delay of 24 hours in which she makes the shocking decision to temporarily lay her duties down in order to concentrate on her family. She accuses herself of hypocrisy to want both the best for her daughter and a strong public health sector for Denmark. Despite using private healthcare now, she remains committed to health reform.


In conclusion, the Danish welfare state can be a blessing and a curse. It costs the society a lot of money, money that is unlikely to be there in the near future. For DR the welfare state creates many issues to reflect in their ‘double storytelling’ strategy for drama series. DR’s mission to provoke debate can be achieved in this way. Newspapers, audience blogs and even the real politicians are regularly influenced by what the DR drama series do present and give the Danes food for thought and public discussion about their welfare system and other social issues. On the other hand the ‘double storytelling’ strategy can be seen as part of the public service remit of DR, in offering the audience more than only entertainment.


Dam, Freja. “From the Kingdom to the Killing” Film#75 DFI (10-5-2012).

Jauert, Per. “Policy Development in Danish Radio Broadcasting 1980-2002: Layers, Scenarios and the Public Service Remit” In Broadcasting & Convergence: New Articulations of the Public Service Remit, edited by Gregory Ferrel Lowe & Taisto Hujanen (Göteborg University: Nordicom 2003): 187-203.

Kingsley, Patrick. How to be Danish: From Lego to Lund. A Short Introduction to the State of Denmark. Pine Street: Short Books, 2012.

Klarskov, Kristian. “Slut med ‘Borgen’: Nu kan politikerne ikke længere hente ideer fra Birgitte Nyborg”Politiken (11-3-2013).

Novrup Redvall, Eva. Writing and Producing Television Drama in Denmark: From The Kingdom to The Killing. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.  

Sennov, Sacha. “Britisk blogger: ‘Borgen’ diskriminerer kvinder” Politiken (5-2-2013).

Søndergaard, Henrik. Public Service i dansk fjernsyn- begreber, status og scenarier. Copenhagen, 1995, 24.

Audio-visual references

Borgen. Dir. Rumle Hammerich, Annette K. Olesen, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, Mikkel Nørgaard [et. Al.], Scen. Adam Price, Jeppe Gjervig Gram, Tobias Lindholm [et. Al.], act. Sidse Babett Knudsen, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, Pilou Asbæk, Mikael Birkkjær. Distribution DR, 2010, 2011, 2013.

CategoriesFeatures Issue 6
Birgit De Bruin

Birgit de Bruin is a Masters student Media Studies and Art Policy and Art Management at the Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Currently she is completing research why Danish drama series are so popular in Europe. Birgit is interested in representation of Danish culture, gender and also in writing and production processes of Danish public service television drama. Birgit’s previous work is mainly about representation of gender or cultural minorities in Dutch television series from the Dutch public broadcaster NPO. Furthermore has Birgit a broad interest in culture and media policy of the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and the European Union.