Norway’s ‘Slow TV’ Movement: So Wrong, It’s Right

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When Bergensbanen, a television show that broadcast live the seven-hour train journey from Oslo to Bergen, literally became the Norwegian sleeper hit of the season in 2009, the national broadcaster NRK followed it up with more of the same. Since then, the broadcaster has broken live-broadcast ratings records with a five-day odyssey following a cruise ship up the Norwegian west coast, augmented the train concept by setting Norway’s northernmost journey from Trondheim to Bodo to music, and delighted us with an evening-long special about firewood.

This winter Norway will get another dose of Temazepam TV: an evening of minute-by-minute knitting.

The concept has become known as slow TV, and it is as much now a part of the contemporary Norwegian cultural landscape as fairy tales about trolls and cross-country skiing.

“Slow TV is very different from the way everybody — including myself to be honest — has always thought that TV should be made,” says Rune Moklebust, an NRK producer who has become the de facto head of the network’s slow-TV output. “TV has mostly been produced the same way everywhere with just changes in subjects and themes. This is a different way of telling a story. It is more strange. The more wrong it gets, the more right it is.”

He admits that the shows — sans the fast-cutting, slick production values and pulsating soundtracks of contemporary television — derive from ideas which would once have been cooked up in an evening of heavy drinking then forgotten during the regretful pangs of a hangover. It is drunk TV at its most weirdly sober.

(MORE: Slow Burn: Norway Airs 12-Hour Prime-Time TV Broadcast of Burning Fireplace)

Yet it has become bafflingly popular in Norway. More than 3 million people out of a population of 5 million tuned in to Hurtigruten: Minutt for Minutt, the five-day, nonstop cruise program at some point during its marathon broadcast, which, according to TNS Gallup, sustained an average 36% share of the viewing audience. Bergenbanen, minute-by-minute salmon fishing and the evening of firewood fun — including a memorable few hours of watching a fire slowly extinguish to dust — all racked up more than a million viewers.

It’s difficult to fathom why. Oystein David Johansen, a critic at VG, one of Norway’s biggest dailies, says the shows are often watched with the kind of morbid fascination some watch Formula 1 car racing. “People are watching just in case something happens,” he says. Norway’s iPad-toting metropolitan elite has so far enjoyed the shows with ironically arched eyebrows, tapping their sardonic observations to friends and followers on social media. For the older viewers who make up the bulk of the audience for NRK2, the channel that broadcasts the shows, the programs have become an opportunity to publicly reflect on some of the parts of Norwegian life that give them so much pleasure and even turn them into opportunities for mass participation.

In 2011, as the cruise ship made its televised journey up the fjord-cracked west coast of Norway, hundreds of small-boat owners from towns like Stamsund and Oksfjord flocked to the edge of the vessel as surely as the names of those towns began trending on Twitter.

“That’s why I know the knitting program will work,” says Moklebust, “I have never had so many e-mails and phone calls telling me how excited they are about a show and asking how they can get involved. We don’t know how yet, but there will definitely be some way for the audience to participate during the live broadcast.”

Ask Norwegians why they watch and you are likely met with the shy chuckle of a child caught winning a game he’s been banned by his parents from playing. Embarrassing but also a source of pride, the shows play up to a national sense of Norwegian exceptionalism. “I think that’s probably right,” says Johansen. “People in Norway are proud of this quirky TV we’ve developed.” The trend hasn’t quite caught on in the rest of the Nordic countries: a Danish channel once recorded a train journey and aired it prior to NRK’s version, but it was in the middle of the night. Finland has created a train-journey program with some — but not Norwegian — levels of success. Moklebust, who is also in talks with a wary Swedish national broadcaster on a similar concept there, is convinced that with brave enough commissioners prepared to put such programs into prime time, the shows could work anywhere in the world.

But there is something about them that plays into a peculiarly Norwegian neurosis: in this country, so often ambivalent about the oil wealth that has made it one of the richest countries in the world, these programs hark back to a simpler time when people enjoyed the more spartan pleasures of stoking fires, enjoying the landscape and knitting warm clothes for the freezing Nordic winter.

Johansen says many of his city-dwelling contemporaries got over their snobbery and began watching with the same innocent delight shown by their enthralled countrymen. He himself had intended to switch on Hurtigruten just for a few minutes of professional pain. Many hours later he caught himself still transfixed.

The programs have an almost hypnotic quality — perhaps to a dangerous extent. One viewer, after smelling smoke while watching the five-day televised ocean cruise, called the TV company to report that something on board was burning. His own kitchen was on fire.

MORE: Norway’s Capital Doesn’t Have Enough Trash to Help Power the City

45 comments
perisoft
perisoft

"Oystein David Johansen, a critic at VG, one of Norway’s biggest dailies, says the shows are often watched with the kind of morbid fascination some watch Formula 1 car racing. “People are watching just in case something happens...”"

Mr. Johansen obviously hasn't watched much Formula One in the last twenty years. It may not be as safe as knitting, but F1's days as a blood sport were largely gone by the early '80s, and there haven't been any racing fatalities since 1994. A few concussions, a couple of broken legs, and a spinal fracture are pretty much all the last two decades have offered viewers - hardly even worth bothering for, really. You'd do better watching a staircase.

Unless you like motor racing. Which is why people watch, regardless of snotty barbs from the ill-informed.

nkour
nkour

@emufear interesting, correlate it with slow movement

aVeryVillageGal
aVeryVillageGal

@AageB Do they need more ideas? How about me reading the incredible "A Norwegian Tragedy" in real time?!

Tove999
Tove999

@markantonylewis its strange, I ended up watching and it was kind of relaxing, not sure I can explain why

djs8993
djs8993

@TIME I'd watch knitting over 'towie' any day

MCR15
MCR15

@CWayRN yup. That is where I live. How interesting can these people be!?!?

Soofy79
Soofy79

@TIME: Only in Norway: People are watching 'slow TV' like knitting for entertainment | ti.me/14XqlQa” go knitting!!!!!

dvarets
dvarets

@TIME There was another BBC cracker Celebrity tea drinking.

dvarets
dvarets

@TIME Dont you beleive it the BBC showed bloody sewing.

GCL1
GCL1

Beats the rubbish on American reality TV any day.

jeroenvanmarle
jeroenvanmarle

@slowberlin Aha. I love the burning Norwegian wood idea. Berlin could do the same, with the Barbie Dreamhouse for example.

AageB
AageB

@aVeryVillageGal ok, that + the Mahabharata and we have a show that could dethrone the live knitting thing

jbartelds
jbartelds

@Wevee Zullen we dat ook hier introduceren? Live een zonsondergang schilderen, baby-echo in realtime, een koffieautomaat op een kantoor...

cjh2nd
cjh2nd

@GCL1 

me taking a dump beats american reality tv most days

Wevee
Wevee

@jbartelds weet je nog met The Box? Dat je'm niet uitdeed, omdat je dacht: 'Straks. Straks komt het.' Of deed jij dat niet?

Wevee
Wevee

@jbartelds met een goed muziekje eronder. Moet wel iets staan te gebeuren, dat je denkt dat er zo iets komt.

jbartelds
jbartelds

@Wevee Helemaal uitkijken. Zulk mooi archaïsch taalgebruik...

Wevee
Wevee

@jbartelds maar niet acht uur lang. Ik zou er soms even heen zappen om het mysterie te ontrafelen, te kijken of er al iets gebeurt.

jbartelds
jbartelds

@Wevee Daar zit 'm het verschil. Wat ook ultiem slow is: Ontdek je Plekje. De man die het commentaar schrijft en uitspreekt. Held!

Wevee
Wevee

@jbartelds Niet als ik weet dat er een trui wordt gebreid, wel als ik wil weten wat er gaat gebeuren.

jbartelds
jbartelds

@Wevee Nee. Ik vind dat 1x leuk. Wie wel, denk je? Ga jij acht uur kijken naar iemand die een trui breit?

jbartelds
jbartelds

@Wevee Je had vroeger ook zo'n autootje op Arte dat willekeurig rondreed 's nachts. En de film Sleep van Andy Warhol. Duurde acht uur.

jbartelds
jbartelds

@Wevee Je had vroeger op RTL4 ook slow-tv. Een brug in Maastricht en daar een camera op gericht.

jbartelds
jbartelds

@Wevee Doen we dat deuntje uit Shark, bij een vijver vol kikkervisjes.