Under the Spell of Slow TV in Norway

SLowTVTook a last minute trip to Norway last week and though we spent our time in and around Oslo, it would seem like we saw the whole country.

We stayed down the fjord in Moss, a former industrial city turning into a convincing artistic community. The water and the weather were perfect, and the sun lingered on dusk-like until nearly midnight (and rose again about two hours later). A just set glow was visible there all night. But not like northern Norway, where the sun seems to blaze all day. There, it’s fun to take a ferry from the northernmost coast south and check in the scenery.

Or so it would seem from watching hours of live television of just that.

For four years now, NRK Hordaland, a public broadcasting network in western Norway, has been presenting long programming blocks of what it calls “Slow TV,” and what would be to other people live, as it happens chunks of life.

It began in 2009 with hours of bypassing landscape shot on the train from Oslo to Bergen which was marking its 100th anniversary that year. Like the Slow TV that followed, it had no narrator and simply unfolded naturally. As people watched, they came out to the tracks and waved to the cameras — and the rest of the nation — as the train moved by.

The seven hours of uninterrupted programming drew 1.2 million Norwegian viewers. But more significantly, it had a market share of 15.

The next year, a second “minute to minute” train journey only ran 58 minutes but had a market share of 40. Two fifths of the country were watching.

NRK got into the swing of things with a live, 134 hour journey on boat from Bergen to Kirkenes that got 3.2 million viewers and was the most watched channel during the broadcast.

Since then there have been train journeys north in November; another boat trip running 12 hours and a number of more unexpected bits of national life, from a Knitting Night — 13 hours of people knitting a sweater — to the 12 hour “National Wood Night,” in which timber was cut, stacked and burned in the course of one night.

In that, Slow TV took on the hearthside appeal of the annual Yule Log broadcast that originated on New York station WPIX in 1966 and has since been revived on many a Christmas Eve, in increasingly better quality — first in color, much later in HD and even once in 3D.

The idea of turning a cinema verite event into a round the clock viewing experience is kind of fun and rather mesmerizing. It’s the kind of thing Andy Warhol was hitting on when he created his 1963 film “Sleep,” which consisted of his friend John Giorno sleeping for five hours and 20 minutes.

Similarly, “Empire” in 1964 was eight hours of the Empire State Building in slow motion.

Sticking a camera on something and watching it unfold has its charms. That’s what made Puppy Bowl interesting before they added a whole lot of commentary and commercials.

Norway’s Slow TV is commercial free and unfolds at the kind of leisurely pace you’d expect from a scenic boat ride. Its best moments are minutes of ambient sounds, the water churning, a horn occasionally sounding. But then they stick in some music — almost all of it well known locally and often having some kind of thematic kinship with the visual. The Norwegian group you would know is a-Ha, but they didn’t play any “Take On Me” in the hours I was watching.

Only very occasionally, maybe once an hour and only for a few minutes, a correspondent will talk or interview someone on board. More often, the camera moves with the boat, as people on the shoreline gather in groups to wave their arms, sweep the Norwegian flag back and forth, or hold up a sign that says hello to an auntie in another part of the country.

It’s kind of sweet in a people watching sort of way. One guy did a somersault. Another dressed as Elvis. A third ducked behind a building when his brief moment of fame came. One could glean a lot from just seeing them, in their winter parkas and knit hats. Though they were in the full midnight sun of summer, it was still quite chilly up there.

Imagine the organization it took to get people together to say hello to the TV boat, even though it was 3 a.m. in your town. Imagine those who stayed up to watch, simply because they knew the boat would go past that town at that hour.

There’s something patriotic that wells up in the waving and quiet commotion, that fits well the summer nights under the midnight sun. Of course it helps that the Norwegian coastline is one of nonstop beauty, with each angle of a still-snow-covered mountain giving way to a gaggle of birds.

As the boat leaves town, there are fewer shots of people. The odd seaside house will have one guy out on a balcony waving or shooting his own footage from a phone. Someone waiting in a car will flash his lights.

Then the drama turns to the vast northern oceans and the changing angles of the mountains they bypass.

Nowadays, unending footage of ordinary things are viewed every day, usually through security cameras. There are websites where you can watch street corners in the world and their various levels of hustle and bustle over a day. Mothers who don’t think of themselves as budding Warhols watch hours of their babies asleep on monitors that broadcast to their iPhones to make sure they haven’t woken up or fallen out of bed.

Me, I like to watch the most unscripted thing on commercial TV, “Big Brother After Dark,” where the people who signed up to be filmed 24/7 for three months hang out, eat, and mostly plot endlessly against the others for three hours each night. Taped from 9 to midnight in California, it airs on the East Coast as a kind of a midnight to 3 a.m. companion for insomniacs, giving you the illusion of living in a group house or summer share (with the advantage of making it all go away with a button push on the remote).

But I’d rather be on that boat, bypassing all that gorgeous scenery under an unending sun.


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