24 Jun 2014

Slow going: why ‘slow TV’ is catching on fast

It has been called reality television on temazepam, and British Airways plans to introduce it onto long-haul flights. Channel 4 News looks at the growth of slow TV.

Image courtesy of NRK

Slow TV does not appear to offer much beyond the attraction of watching paint dry: endless hours of footage of burning fires, ambling train rides and the passage of a steaming ship voyaging across the seas.

Yet the genre has managed to pull in millions of viewers in its Norway, where the broadcaster has aired a number of slow TV films, and its appeal continues to grow.

Take British Airways. The airline has announced that from next month, hundreds of long-haul flights will include the film The Seven Hour Train Journey to Oslo alongside the Hollywood blockbusters, games and pop music videos normally found on in-flight entertainment screens.

The film is, simply, seven hours worth of footage of a train’s journey from Bergen to Oslo as it passes picturesque mountains, cool lakes and waving children, shot using a camera mounted on the front of the driver’s carriage. It has no commentary, but the train does eventually reach its destination.

Aired on the Norwegian broadcaster NRK in 2009, it drew in 1.25 million viewers – about one in five – and was an early prototype of the genre in Norway. Other shows have included 12 hours about firewood, including eight uninterrupted hours of a burning fireplace, and 100 hours of Magnus Carlsen playing chess.

After that, there were 134 continuous hours of the voyage of an entire ship, Hurtigruten, making its way from Bergen to Kirkenes, above the Arctic Circle, shot with a film crew of 20 and 11 cameras. The live footage aired on 16 to 22 June 2011, and attracted 6 million viewers from 148 countries.

“It is the opposite of everything else on TV,” said Rune Moeklebust, a producer for NRK, soon after it had aired. “It stands out and makes people want to watch.”

It was so popular NRK followed up with five hours of airtime dedicated to an attempt to break the knitting world record, following the path of a jumper from a sheep being sheared to the finished garment, stitch by stitch. And a film with 18 hours worth of salmon swimming upstream.

BA suggested that the train journey would be popular for its relaxing qualities. Explaining the airline’s decision to screen it, Richard D’Cruze, in-flight entertainment manager, said: “It fits perfectly with the ‘wallpaper’ style footage people find mesmerising in-flight, such as our moving maps which customers watch for endless hours.

“There’s definitely a hypnotic, calming and entertaining quality to ‘slow TV’ that is perfect for in-flight entertainment.”

While it is only in the last five years or so that it is beginning to become mainstream, exponents say it had its roots in the artist Andy Warhol’s 1963 movie Sleep – footage of the poet John Giorno sleeping for five hours and 20 minutes. It was his first film.

However, it was the British filmmaker and producer Peter Middleton who adapted the concept further, filming numerous journeys by rail, air and underground. He formed Video 125 in 1984, named after the country’s most successful train, and he now has 90 hours worth of footage.

Middleton, who began his career as an ITV cameraman, told Channel 4 News: “I was sitting at home watching TV and as usual, you could see two or three seconds from the front of the train, and I thought I wanted to see a bit more.

Image courtesy of NRK

“That’s how it all started. And I haven’t stopped filming ever since.”

On Wednesday, he will film the Hammersmith and City London Underground line. “People can’t get enough,” he said.

He believes the appeal of the films lies in the viewer’s ability to share the vision of the driver or captain. “What I always say to people, even who are not train enthusiasts: ‘Can you imagine a trip in a car and looking out of the side the whole time?’ No, you always look out of the front.”

The calmness of the finished product betrays little of the “hectic” energy which goes into producing it, however. Middleton said: “When the circle line used to be just a circle, 20 years ago, you had to get two cameras, two recorders, lighting and everything into the cab in 30 secnds, or the train occupied the line.”

Slow to reach the UK?

He pointed out, however, that viewing figures for the Norwegian films may have reached the millions, but we don’t know how long people were watching each one for. “Our YouTube tally is 2.5 million, but not everyone’s watching all the way through,” he said.

Now, producers in the UK are considering bringing slow TV here. Earlier this month, Emma Willis, head of documentaries at the BBC, spoke of slow TV, saying: “They did a 24-hour knitting thing. And they put cameras on a boat, to just sail around a fjord for a couple of hours, no commentary. I’m trying to find something within that.”

In the meantime, viewers accustomed to patience and waiting can console themselves that eventually, NRK may release another installment: 24 live, non-stop hours in the life of a Spanish slug.