Thomas Hellum: The world's most boring television ... and why it's hilariously addictive

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Thomas Hellum


You've heard about slow food. Now here's slow ... TV? In this very funny talk, Norwegian television producer Thomas Hellum shares how he and his team began to broadcast long, boring events, often live — and found a rapt audience. Shows include a 7-hour train journey, an 18-hour fishing expedition and a 5.5-day ferry voyage along the coast of Norway. The results are both beautiful and fascinating. Really.

 

 

 

 

  


0:12

Thank you. I have only got 18 minutes to explain something that lasts for hours and days, so I'd better get started. Let's start with a clip from Al Jazeera's Listening Post.

0:25

Richard Gizbert: Norway is a country that gets relatively little media coverage. Even the elections this past week passed without much drama. And that's the Norwegian media in a nutshell: not much drama. A few years back, Norway's public TV channel NRK decided to broadcast live coverage of a seven-hour train ride -- seven hours of simple footage, a train rolling down the tracks. Norwegians, more than a million of them according to the ratings, loved it. A new kind of reality TV show was born, and it goes against all the rules of TV engagement. There is no story line, no script, no drama, no climax, and it's called Slow TV. For the past two months, Norwegians have been watching a cruise ship's journey up the coast, and there's a lot of fog on that coast. Executives at Norway's National Broadcasting Service are now considering broadcasting a night of knitting nationwide. On the surface, it sounds boring, because it is, but something about this TV experiment has gripped Norwegians. So we sent the Listening Post's Marcela Pizarro to Oslo to find out what it is, but first a warning: Viewers may find some of the images in the following report disappointing. (Laughter)

1:39

Thomas Hellum: And then follows an eight-minute story on Al Jazeera about some strange TV programs in little Norway. Al Jazeera. CNN. How did we get there? We have to go back to 2009, when one of my colleagues got a great idea. Where do you get your ideas? In the lunchroom. So he said, why don't we make a radio program marking the day of the German invasion of Norway in 1940. We tell the story at the exact time during the night. Wow. Brilliant idea, except this was just a couple of weeks before the invasion day. So we sat in our lunchroom and discussed what other stories can you tell as they evolve? What other things take a really long time?

2:23

So one of us came up with a train. The Bergen Railway had its 100-year anniversary that year It goes from western Norway to eastern Norway, and it takes exactly the same time as it did 40 years ago, over seven hours. (Laughter) So we caught our commissioning editors in Oslo, and we said, we want to make a documentary about the Bergen Railway, and we want to make it in full length, and the answer was, "Yes, but how long will the program be?" "Oh," we said, "full length." "Yes, but we mean the program." And back and forth.

2:56

Luckily for us, they met us with laughter, very, very good laughter, so one bright day in September, we started a program that we thought should be seven hours and four minutes. Actually, it turned out to be seven hours and 14 minutes due to a signal failure at the last station. We had four cameras, three of them pointing out to the beautiful nature. I'm talking to the guests, some information. (Video) Train announcement: We will arrive at Haugastøl Station. TH: And that's about it, but of course, also the 160 tunnels gave us the opportunity to do some archives. Narrator [in Norwegian]: Then a bit of flirting while the food is digested. The last downhill stretch before we reach our destination. We pass Mjølfjell Station. Then a new tunnel. (Laughter) TH: And now we thought, yes, we have a brilliant program. It will fit for the 2,000 train spotters in Norway. We brought it on air in November 2009. But no, this was far more attractive. This is the five biggest TV channels in Norway on a normal Friday, and if you look at NRK2 over here, look what happened when they put on the Bergen Railway show: 1.2 million Norwegians watched part of this program. (Applause) And another funny thing: when the host on our main channel, after they have good news for you, she said, "And on our second channel, the train has now nearly reached Myrdal station." Thousands of people just jumped on the train on our second channel like this. (Laughter) This was also a huge success in terms of social media. It was so nice to see all the thousands of Facebook and Twitter users discussing the same view, talking to each other as if they were on the same train together. And especially, I like this one. It's a 76-year-old man. He's watched all the program, and at the end station, he rises up to pick up what he thinks is his luggage, and his head hit the curtain rod, and he realized he is in his own living room. (Applause)

5:20

So that's strong and living TV. Four hundred and thirty-six minute by minute on a Friday night, and during that first night, the first Twitter message came: Why be a chicken? Why stop at 436 when you can expand that to 8,040, minute by minute, and do the iconic journey in Norway, the coastal ship journey Hurtigruten from Bergen to Kirkenes, almost 3,000 kilometers, covering most of our coast. It has 120-year-old, very interesting history, and literally takes part in life and death along the coast. So just a week after the Bergen Railway, we called the Hurtigruten company and we started planning for our next show.

6:09

We wanted to do something different. The Bergen Railway was a recorded program. So when we sat in our editing room, we watched this picture -- it's all Ål Station -- we saw this journalist. We had called him, we had spoken to him, and when we left the station, he took this picture of us and he waved to the camera, and we thought, what if more people knew that we were on board that train? Would more people show up? What would it look like? So we decided our next project, it should be live. We wanted this picture of us on the fjord and on the screen at the same time.

6:46

So this is not the first time NRK had been on board a ship. This is back in 1964, when the technical managers have suits and ties and NRK rolled all its equipment on board a ship, and 200 meters out of the shore, transmitting the signal back, and in the machine room, they talked to the machine guy, and on the deck, they have splendid entertainment. So being on a ship, it's not the first time. But five and a half days in a row, and live, we wanted some help. And we asked our viewers out there, what do you want to see? What do you want us to film? How do you want this to look? Do you want us to make a website? What do you want on it? And we got some answers from you out there, and it helped us a very lot to build the program. So in June 2011, 23 of us went on board the Hurtigruten coastal ship and we set off. (Music)

8:46

I have some really strong memories from that week, and it's all about people. This guy, for instance, he's head of research at the University in Tromsø (Laughter) And I will show you a piece of cloth, this one. It's the other strong memory. It belongs to a guy called Erik Hansen. And it's people like those two who took a firm grip of our program, and together with thousands of others along the route, they made the program what it became. They made all the stories. This is Karl. He's in the ninth grade. It says, "I will be a little late for school tomorrow." He was supposed to be in the school at 8 a.m. He came at 9 a.m., and he didn't get a note from his teacher, because the teacher had watched the program. (Laughter)

9:45

How did we do this? Yes, we took a conference room on board the Hurtigruten. We turned it into a complete TV control room. We made it all work, of course, and then we took along 11 cameras. This is one of them. This is my sketch from February, and when you give this sketch to professional people in the Norwegian broadcasting company NRK, you get some cool stuff back. And with some very creative solutions.

10:13

(Video) Narrator [in Norwegian]: Run it up and down. This is Norway's most important drill right now. It regulates the height of a bow camera in NRK's live production, one of 11 that capture great shots from the MS Nord-Norge. Eight wires keep the camera stable. Cameraman: I work on different camera solutions. They're just tools used in a different context.

10:39

TH: Another camera is this one. It's normally used for sports. It made it possible for us to take close-up pictures of people 100 kilomteres away, like this one. (Laughter) People called us and asked, how is this man doing? He's doing fine. Everything went well. We also could take pictures of people waving at us, people along the route, thousands of them, and they all had a phone in their hand. And when you take a picture of them, and they get the message, "Now we are on TV, dad," they start waving back. This was waving TV for five and a half days, and people get so extremely happy when they can send a warm message to their loved ones.

11:22

It was also a great success on social media. On the last day, we met Her Majesty the Queen of Norway, and Twitter couldn't quite handle it. And we also, on the web, during this week we streamed more than 100 years of video to 148 nations, and the websites are still there and they will be forever, actually, because Hurtigruten was selected to be part of the Norwegian UNESCO list of documents, and it's also in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest documentary ever. (Applause) Thank you.

12:06

But it's a long program, so some watched part of it, like the Prime Minister. Some watched a little bit more. It says, "I haven't used my bed for five days." And he's 82 years old, and he hardly slept. He kept watching because something might happen, though it probably won't. (Laughter) This is the number of viewers along the route. You can see the famous Trollfjord and a day after, all-time high for NRK2. If you see the four biggest channels in Norway during June 2011, they will look like this, and as a TV producer, it's a pleasure to put Hurtigruten on top of it. It looks like this: 3.2 million Norwegians watched part of this program, and we are only five million here. Even the passengers on board the Hurtigruten coastal ship -- (Laughter) -- they chose to watched the telly instead of turning 90 degrees and watching out the window.

13:09

So we were allowed to be part of people's living room with this strange TV program, with music, nature, people. And Slow TV was now a buzzword, and we started looking for other things we could make Slow TV about. So we could either take something long and make it a topic, like with the railway and the Hurtigruten, or we could take a topic and make it long. This is the last project. It's the peep show. It's 14 hours of birdwatching on a TV screen, actually 87 days on the web. We have made 18 hours of live salmon fishing. It actually took three hours before we got the first fish, and that's quite slow. We have made 12 hours of boat ride into the beautiful Telemark Canal, and we have made another train ride with the northern railway, and because this we couldn't do live, we did it in four seasons just to give the viewer another experience on the way.

14:08

So our next project got us some attention outside Norway. This is from the Colbert Report on Comedy Central.

14:15

(Video) Stephen Colbert: I've got my eye on a wildly popular program from Norway called "National Firewood Night," which consisted of mostly people in parkas chatting and chopping in the woods, and then eight hours of a fire burning in a fireplace. (Laughter) It destroyed the other top Norwegian shows, like "So You Think You Can Watch Paint Dry" and "The Amazing Glacier Race." And get this, almost 20 percent of the Norwegian population tuned in, 20 percent.

14:45

TH: So, when wood fire and wood chopping can be that interesting, why not knitting? So on our next project, we used more than eight hours to go live from a sheep to a sweater, and Jimmy Kimmel in the ABC show, he liked that.

15:02

(Music)

15:09

(Video) Jimmy Kimmel: Even the people on the show are falling asleep, and after all that, the knitters actually failed to break the world record. They did not succeed, but remember the old Norwegian saying, it's not whether you win or lose that counts. In fact, nothing counts, and death is coming for us all. (Laughter)

15:26

TH: Exactly. So why does this stand out? This is so completely different to other TV programming. We take the viewer on a journey that happens right now in real time, and the viewer gets the feeling of actually being there, actually being on the train, on the boat, and knitting together with others, and the reason I think why they're doing that is because we don't edit the timeline. It's important that we don't edit the timeline, and it's also important that what we make Slow TV about is something that we all can relate to, that the viewer can relate to, and that somehow has a root in our culture. This is a picture from last summer when we traveled the coast again for seven weeks. And of course this is a lot of planning, this is a lot of logistics. So this is the working plan for 150 people last summer, but more important is what you don't plan. You don't plan what's going to happen. You have to just take your cameras with you. It's like a sports event. You rig them and you see what's happening. So this is actually the whole running order for Hurtigruten, 134 hours, just written on one page. We didn't know anything more when we left Bergen.

16:39

So you have to let the viewers make the stories themselves, and I'll give you an example of that. This is from last summer, and as a TV producer, it's a nice picture, but now you can cut to the next one. But this is Slow TV, so you have to keep this picture until it really starts hurting your stomach, and then you keep it a little bit longer, and when you keep it that long, I'm sure some of you now have noticed the cow. Some of you have seen the flag. Some of you start wondering, is the farmer at home? Has he left? Are you watching the cow? And where is that cow going? So my point is, the longer you keep a picture like this, and we kept it for 10 minutes, you start making the stories in your own head. That's Slow TV.

17:28

So we think that Slow TV is one nice way of telling a TV story, and we think that we can continue doing it, not too often, once or twice a year, so we keep the feeling of an event, and we also think that the good Slow TV idea, that's the idea when people say, "Oh no, you can't put that on TV." When people smile, it might be a very good slow idea, so after all, life is best when it's a bit strange.

17:55

Thank you.

17:57

(Applause)