Action packed TV series like Breaking Bad draw huge audiences around the world, but in Norway’s recent TV hits nothing much happens. They include a 134 hour live programme following a cruise ship up Norway’s coast.
When producers at Norway's public broadcaster NRK dreamt up filming the seven hour Bergen to Oslo train journey and broadcasting it in real time back in 2009, they had no idea they'd be starting a movement – the now hugely successful ‘slow TV' concept.
“We all laughed at the idea to begin with, and agreed it was like something you'd come up with towards the end of a long party. And ideas dreamt up at that stage rarely survive the light of day. But this one did,” Rune Møklebust, one of the show's main producers told Deutsche Welle.
The broadcast was a huge success with massive viewing figures, and spurred a range of similar ‘slow TV' concepts - the latest of which is a 12 hour broadcast all about knitting this week.
Møklebust admits the ‘Bergensbanen' train journey broadcast was a crazy idea, and that they almost got cold feet before going ahead with it.
“In the week before transmission we did start thinking ‘oh damn, what have we done? There's no way back, and we're about to transmit seven hours of train travel'. We hadn't even had time to look through the entire tape!
“There were many sensible arguments against the idea, but in the end we were allowed to go ahead.”
Popular beyond compare
The train journey broadcast started airing during prime time on a Friday night on NRK2 - the smaller cousin of NRK1 - in direct competition with commercial hits like The X-Factor on other channels.
“We got more feedback on Twitter and Facebook than we had ever had during any other TV show. We sensed there was an incredible amount of people who were actually watching this,” says Møklebust.
The producers were right. NRK2‘s usual 4% market share skyrocketed to include 15% of Norway's viewers. The next big slow TV moment, a 134 hour epic following Norway's cruise liner ‘Hurtigruten' on its journey along the entire coastline, saw three million people tune in. That is incomparable in TV history in a country with a population of five million.
“That's double the figures of NRK1 and three times that of TV2 [Norway's largest private TV channel],” said Møklebust.
An evening and overnight broadcast dedicated to the wonders of firewood followed, along with another train journey and more slow TV ideas. All were hits with viewers.
“All other TV is just speeding up, and we want to break with that,” said Lise May Spissøy who's responsible for NRK2's latest slow TV project; a marathon broadcast dedicated to the art of knitting.
“We want to allow people to finish their sentences. This is not an attempt at changing the way TV works, it's a supplement, something different from most of the other stuff you see on TV. And it seems people appreciate it,” Spissøy told Deutsche Welle.
It might seem a leap of faith to think people will tune in again in their millions to watch a jumper being knitted. But the programme makers believe as long as the theme for their snail-paced show is chosen with care, anything goes. The audience seems to agree.
“I watched [the ‘Hurtigruten' cruise ship broadcast] because I'm interested in the geography and the people”, said viewer Finn Lunde (76). He agrees that the slow TV programmes have all touched a nerve with the Norwegian people.
“They allow you to go far deeper, to enjoy more details,” he said. Broadcasting 12 hours of firewood-related content sat comfortably with a population used to working with and burning a lot of wood during long, dark and cold Arctic winters.
Nevertheless, the makers of the knitting programme are taking no chances, and have decided to inject a bit of action - albeit very slow action - into this week's broadcast.
“After midnight we will try to beat a Guinness world record,” explained Wendla Black, who is in charge of the transmission on the night.
“It's called ‘From back to back' and involves sheering a sheep, spin the wool and knit a jumper. The current record is four hours and 51 minutes and was set in Australia. We'll try to beat that during the programme.”
So far the only other country which has adopted the slow TV phenomenon is Sweden, where viewers have been invited to watch an elk hunter staking out his pray for hours on end. Does that mean the concept doesn't translate outside of Scandinavia? NRK producer Rune Møklebust believes the idea can travel.
“It's about a journey which our viewers can identify with. And firewood and kitting are themes that are well anchored in our culture. Germans, Brits, Americans – they all have things they can call their own,” said Møklebust, who could easily envisage a great journey across US national parks or along German rivers becoming must-see TV in those countries.
As for the next big idea after the knitting programme?
“I have an idea which is so strange that it is interesting. It has been done as an art project in Berlin but never on TV, and it's called Standard Time. It's simply a clock which is rebuilt every minute [to display the time like a digital clock],” said Rune Møklebust, outlining what to him would be the purest form of slow TV imaginable.
“I believe by doing this we could get people to simply sit and watch time tick by for hours.”