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Slow TV: Would you watch seven hours of knitting?

About the author

Brand Barstein is a journalist living in Oslo.

Knitting

(Thinkstock)

Televised chess matches and real-time train rides draw massive ratings in Norway. How did long-form TV become so popular there? Brand Barstein reports.

At frosty tram stops across Oslo, billboards display the kind of products usually advertised in Norway: a new Volkswagen or Toyota, a Hollywood blockbuster or an unbeatable offer on tinned mackerel. But lately it is the face of chess wiz Magnus Carlsen that has been peering back at shivering commuters, promoting an unlikely ratings hit on Norwegian television this month – the World Chess Championship.

Carlsen has been called the Mozart of chess, although perhaps a more fitting description would be the Justin Bieber of Slow TV – a somewhat generic term used to describe programmes that run for hours without much happening. Slow TV has become a huge phenomenon in Norway, as big as the reality TV explosion that occurred in the US in the early 2000s. For two weeks, Carlsen, who ultimately won the contest, battled it out with Viswanathan Anand in a series of matches that gave state channel NRK – which broadcast every single minute of the championship – unprecedented viewing figures. More than 450,000 viewers (out of a population of five million) tuned in for a five-hour programme on a Tuesday afternoon. The official hashtag #nrksjakk was the number one trending topic on Twitter in Norway every match day.

Train of thought

The first instance of what has since been dubbed Slow TV was a seven-hour train journey between Bergen and Oslo that was televised in 2009. It was a surprise hit, viewed by 1.2 million train-loving Norwegians. Its sequel, a 134-hour long broadcast of an arctic cruise liner’s journey along the Norwegian coast, became so popular that emergency rescuers had to use water cannons to fend off attention-seekers following the liner in smaller boats. Since then there have been several more train journeys, a national firewood night (essentially hours of footage of wood burning, much like the Yule Log phenomenon on US TV) and, most recently, National Knitting Night, in which a sheep was shorn and its wool turned into a jumper over the course of 8.5 hours.

(NRK)

(NRK)

“We obviously struck a chord with our audience,” says Thomas Hellum, project manager on several of NRK’s ‘minute-by-minute’ projects, including Bergensbanen -Minute by Minute (that would be the 2009 train journey) and Hurtigruten - Minute by Minute (the cruise liner). “We have had several elderly people contacting us and thanking us for taking them on a journey they couldn’t physically have gone through”.

The popularity of these unusual programmes might not come as a surprise to many. . To start, seventy-five percent of Norway’s population use NRK’s services at some point during the day.  Then we you consider the country’s fascination with slow-moving winter sports, it makes sense viewers would be primed for long-form content that takes place in real time. For decades it has been commonplace for Norway’s largest channel, NRK1, to dedicate up to nine hours every Saturday and Sunday for three consecutive months to skiing and ice skating competitions. These range from the relative tedium of cross-country skiing and 10,000m ice skating to the rather more adrenaline-fuelled action of downhill skiing or snowboarding. Rest assured, there is plenty of ‘normal’ programming on Norwegian television too: talk shows, reality shows, American sitcoms and Danish crime series. But Hellum thinks that broadcasting hours-long sporting events in their entirety may have eased the way for the popularity of Slow TV, and points to both cultural and personal factors as equally significant.

“Things like wood and knitting are culturally important, and we have had brave-enough commissioning editors who put this on primetime TV,” Hellum says. “There have been plenty of train programmes in Europe, but they have been hidden away late at night or on a small channel. But by placing this [programme] in primetime, or, as in the case of Hurtigruten − Minute by Minute, dedicating a whole channel to it, we’re telling people that this is important.”

Watching paint dry

Andreas Sagen is a 31-year-old web developer and a self-professed Slow TV fan who watched the 2009 seven-hour train journey twice, once live and in repeat online. He believes that the appeal of Slow TV lies in its simplicity: “It’s just something completely different than the artificiality of most other things on TV.”

“It’s great that the programmes led to a debate and a redefinition of what TV can be. It’s very satisfying that you see everything that happens in a steady manner,” Sagen says.

Also satisfied is Ina Høj Hinden, a public administrator who is another huge fan of Slow TV. “When I grew up in the 70s, TV was slow,” Hinden says. “In the last few years, the tempo has escalated rapidly and has somewhat saturated the market. Therefore it’s nice that some [producers] take the time to make programmes which linger a bit longer.”

(NRK)

(NRK)

“National knitting night is among the most awesome things I’ve seen,” Hinden adds. “There’s a lot of respect in dedicating so much time to broadcast something like knitting or wood burning. But there’s definitely an element of absurdity to it. It appeals to a population deeply immersed in British humour.” British sitcoms and variety shows have long been popular in Norway.

Hinden, like other commentators, points out the mislabelling of Slow TV as a strictly Norwegian phenomenon. Repetitive, time-consuming sports like snooker or test-match cricket on British television are arguably forerunners to Slow TV.

Slow TV also opens up an extended dialogue among viewers, as well as between viewers and the broadcaster, through various social media channels.  “With [the train journey], that was the first time I realised that social media are in fact there for people to socialise with each other and in a very literal way discuss what’s around the corner,” Hellum says.

As Slow TV steadily gains momentum worldwide, the concept’s originators are finding new ways to watch the world go round. “The ultimate thing for us would be Time – Minute by Minute,” Hellum chuckles. “Make a clock on TV and watch time pass by”.

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