Marit watches a surprising amount of TV. She lives in Oslo, Norway, but prefers shows from Europe and the U.S., streamed video, cable or — shhh… — BitTorrent. Her favorites include the HBO crime drama “The Wire,” “Sherlock” starring the handsome Benedict Cumberbatch, oddball comedy “Arrested Development,” and both British and American versions of “The Office.” Her tastes are typical of today’s modern, cultured 30-something urbanite.
But her all-time favorite? A show about a six-day odyssey on a boat traveling through the Norwegian fjords. No, it’s not a European version of “The Love Boat,” or some sort of murder mystery, or a frothy comedy about girl friends who find love on a cruise. It’s simply a show that captures the real-time journey of a MS Nordnorge, which travels along the west coast of Norway.
In 2011, “Hurtigruten: Minutt for Minutt” broadcast all 134 hours of a voyage from Bergen to Kirkenes, past mist-filled valleys, scenic ports and gorgeous mountains.
Marit isn’t the only Norwegian to tune in. Over three of the country’s five million citizens have turned in. In fact, its live five-day broadcast held, on average, about one-third of the viewing audience, according to Gallup.
How could such an odd TV show — a slow-moving, daringly mundane document of a boat traveling up a river, with absolutely no drama or histrionics — become so successful? It’s a stark contrast to the fast-pace, complex storylines, and adrenaline rush of visual stimulation that characterizes modern TV.
But the success of “Hurtigruten” — and further excursions into so-called “slow-TV” — hint at a new direction in our visual entertainment, one that soothes our brains in the midst of an avalanche of technology and stimulation. And it’s coming to the U.S. as early as summer of 2014.
“Hurtigruten” isn’t the first slow-TV show in Norway. It’s actually a follow-up of a similar show, from 2009, when Norwegian public broadcaster NRK broadcast all seven hours of a train ride, from Bergen to Oslo, to celebrate the centenary of its railway line.
Millions of viewers watched the train pass through miles of Norway’s natural beauty. While shots were long and sustained, and voiceovers were short and rare, the result was strangely mesmerizing. During dull moments, such as passing through long, dark tunnels, archival footage and interesting trivia was shown to give historical context.
The cruise show garnered even higher ratings, underscoring a growing public appetite for decidedly low-key, oddball programming. Now, NRK mixes in slow content — everything from salmon fishing to logs burning — with the usual fast-paced shows.
Marit’s new favorite, in fact, is “National Knitting Evening,” a program that features four hours of discussions about knitting, followed by nine hours of sheep-shearing, thread-spinning and needle-knitting. This “sheep-to-sweater” epic drew a million and a half viewers.
Slow-TV shows usually follow the same format: a long introduction with a lot of historical context, and then, an in-depth examination of the process, noted for its long stretches of time. There’s no plot, very little dramatic incident, and no cues in the soundtrack or narration to tell you how to feel.
They’re easy and cheap to produce and don’t require a lot of post-production editing or work, making them a no-brainer for a network from a production standpoint.
But why are audiences gravitating to the slow-TV phenomenon? Part of it, according to Marit, can be explained by national character: Norwegians take pride in being different, even eccentric, she says. They know slow-TV is strange, but many see it as a national quirk.
Others simply love the subject, like to travel vicariously through the show, or find it as a nice way to pass the long, dark Scandinavian winters, which can force nature-loving Norwegians indoors for months at a time. But there’s also a novelty factor, a change of pace from the usual fare. According to NRK producers, the ethos of slow-TV is a reaction against the frenetic pace of modern visual entertainment.
“Slow-TV is very different from the way everybody — including myself, to be honest — has always thought that TV should be made,” Rune Moklebust, an NRK producer who programs most of the network’s slow-TV shows, told Time. “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.”
Moklebust has a point: turn on the television, or watch a movie, and count the number of shots and cuts in just one minute. Each shot is short, and chances are, you’ll lose track because there are so many. On average, the shot length in today’s feature films dropped to around four and a half seconds, from about 10 seconds in movies from the 1930s, according to “The Cutting Edge,” a documentary on the magic of movie editing. In fact, today’s 90- to 120-minute blockbusters have over 5,000 cuts.
The success of MTV, which assaulted the eye with jittery, caffeinated visuals, synchronized to music, was a marked contrast to the old-Hollywood code of “continuity” editing, which emphasized a smooth, uninterrupted experience of time and space.
The MTV method was made possible due to advances in video technologies, particularly in non-linear computer-based editing systems, such as Avid and Final Cut Pro, which made it easy to digitize and slice-and-dice footage, and then, revert back to earlier versions if the results weren’t satisfying.
It was a faster, and more convenient, change from analog systems, such as the Steenbeck editing desk, which required editors to actually cut celluloid, tape or glue segments together, and then, run it all through a projector to see if it worked. To fix a mistake, they would have to take apart the segments, re-organize the footage, and then, re-tape everything back together — overall, a laborious, time-consuming process.
Slow-TV is, in some ways, a return to this old-fashioned pace of entertainment. “All other TV is just speeding up, and we want to break with that,” Lise-May Spissoy, who produced the knitting project, told Deutsche Welle. “We want to allow people to finish their sentences.”
The slowdown goes back to the reason we often turn to entertainment: to wind down from a busy day. “Slow-TV is a chance for people to sit down, relax and contemplate,” Arve Hjelseth, a sociologist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, told the AFP.
Besides increasing in pace, entertainment is often more visceral in its depictions of violence and sex, and storylines are more complex and challenging to follow. While it can make for some truly great shows, sometimes it’s nice to watch something at a slower pace.
The reasons to crave slower content, though, touch on deeper reasons than change of pace and relaxation. We’re reached a saturation point, and need a break from information and stimulation. Of the 400 billion bits of information our brain can process each second, we’re only aware of about 2,000 bits. In terms of visuals, we can only absorb about one percent of the information the eye takes in, since neurons selectively filter out unimportant details so as not to overwhelm us.
Said in another way, on average, Americans take in about 122,000-gigabytes of information a second, which sounds like a lot, except the constant barrage of media, either through the Internet or television, is stretching our capacity thin. According to the New York Times, we consume three times more information each day, in 2008, than we did in 1960. While our brains simply filter out most of it, the fatigue still sets in.
Slow-TV is a corrective to that barrage. It’s no mistake that the subject is meditative and contemplative. Watching the shows — whether it’s the scenery passing through a train window, or the yarn weaving in and out of needless to form a fabric — forces us to slow down, take in smaller details and really absorb the images and sounds.
The snail pace, and lack of visual and aural assault, is hard to watch at first, because it feel so anathema to what we’re used to. But once you settle in, the shows feel hypnotic — it’s easy to become absorbed in even the smallest nuances.
I watched a bit of the train-program, and found it soothing, in a strangely immersive, yet relaxing, way. The natural beauty kept me interested, while the slow pace allowed me to really take it all in. When I finished, I felt genuinely relaxed, and I found I could remember more details.
Marit said it even feels a bit like meditation, which, of course, can benefit our health by reducing stress, lowering heart rates and refreshing our minds. Long-term meditation, if done consistently over time, has even been shown to rewire our brains. While no one is saying slow-TV will do the same, it seems to calm and soothe us in a similar way as contemplative practices, such as yoga, meditation or even making art.
Slow-TV sounds like a novelty peculiar to Norway, but some believe it has a transatlantic appeal, too. In fact, U.S. distributor LMNO Productions plans to adapt the original, epic seven-hour train ride on Norway’s Bergen line for the U.S.
“In a world where everything moves so fast, it was refreshing to find something so captivating that you did not want to look away from it,” Lori Rothschild Ansaldi, LMNO Productions senior vice-president of development, told Hollywood Reporter. “LMNO is constantly looking for very loud, distinctive formats and characters and we believe we have found just that with the Slow-TV concept.”
But will slow-TV succeed in the U.S.? After all, we’re the country that launched MTV. Our most popular programs often involve glitzy, glossy reality-TV shows whose “real” storylines are manipulated through clever editing, fast pacing, loud music and often inane talking-heads commentary. We like “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” not “Knitting With Kim, Kourtney and Khloe.”
Significant business hurdles also need to be cleared. Norwegians broadcast their slow-TV shows without commercial interruption, but it’s unthinkable for U.S. channels to give up seven hours of potential commercial sales on such a risky experiment. Slow-TV programs would also be difficult to resell or syndicate.
Slow-TV experiments, in the U.S., have mostly been confined to the artistic avant-garde. For example, in 1963, Andy Warhol once filmed poet John Giomo sleeping for six uninterrupted hours with no cuts, commentary or soundtrack. Distribution was limited to art galleries and museums.
Video artist Douglas Gordon also experimented with slowing down footage to extremes, such as stretching Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” to a 24-hour running time.
On a less highbrow note, on Christmas Eve in 1966, New York-based WPIX broadcast footage of wood logs burning in a fireplace, with classic Christmas songs playing in the background, as a televised holiday gift for urbanites that live in homes without a fireplace. The “Yule Log,” which also allowed station employees to spend time with their families during the holidays, became an instant hit and a broadcast staple for over the next 20 years.
Last February, Marit and her friends gathered in her tiny Oslo apartment to watch a Yule Log of their own. Everyone brought a bottle of wine, and together, they settled in and watched “National Woodfire Night,” a 12-hour exploration of firewood, featuring four hours of information on chopping logs, and then, eight hours showing a live burning fireplace.
Marit said guests would wander in and out during the broadcast to check Facebook or Twitter, but those who settled in to watch found it strangely comforting during the long, dark Scandinavian winter night.
Slow-TV shows no signs of slowing down for Norwegians. As odd as it sounds, the phenomenon shows a craving for slower, more contemplative experiences we can savor. It may be at odds with the fast pace of our media and technology, but maybe that’s the point. As the world speeds up around us, we might end up turning to slower forms of entertainment as an escape.
More slow programming is coming, including a proposed show on “A Day in the Life of a Snail.” For Marit, and others, these odd, hypnotic shows just can’t come fast enough. ♦