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.
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.