18:11
TEDxArendal

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

Filmed:

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.

- Slow television advocate
Thomas Hellum is an award-winning television producer who works at NRK Hordaland in Norway. Full bio

Thank you.
00:13
I have only got 18 minutes
00:14
to explain something
that lasts for hours and days,
00:15
so I'd better get started.
00:18
Let's start with a clip
from Al Jazeera's Listening Post.
00:21
Richard Gizbert: Norway is a country that
gets relatively little media coverage.
00:26
Even the elections this past week
passed without much drama.
00:30
And that's the Norwegian
media in a nutshell:
00:33
not much drama.
00:36
A few years back,
00:37
Norway's public TV channel NRK
00:38
decided to broadcast live coverage
of a seven-hour train ride --
00:41
seven hours of simple footage,
00:45
a train rolling down the tracks.
00:47
Norwegians, more than a million of them
according to the ratings, loved it.
00:50
A new kind of reality TV show was born,
00:53
and it goes against all the rules
of TV engagement.
00:56
There is no story line, no script,
01:00
no drama, no climax,
01:02
and it's called Slow TV.
01:04
For the past two months,
01:06
Norwegians have been watching
a cruise ship's journey up the coast,
01:07
and there's a lot of fog on that coast.
01:11
Executives at Norway's
National Broadcasting Service
01:13
are now considering broadcasting
a night of knitting nationwide.
01:16
On the surface, it sounds boring,
01:20
because it is,
01:23
but something about this TV experiment
01:24
has gripped Norwegians.
01:26
So we sent the Listening Post's
Marcela Pizarro to Oslo
01:28
to find out what it is,
but first a warning:
01:31
Viewers may find some of the images
in the following report disappointing.
01:34
(Laughter)
01:38
Thomas Hellum: And then follows
an eight-minute story on Al Jazeera
01:40
about some strange
TV programs in little Norway.
01:43
Al Jazeera. CNN. How did we get there?
01:46
We have to go back to 2009,
01:49
when one of my colleagues
got a great idea.
01:51
Where do you get your ideas?
01:53
In the lunchroom.
01:55
So he said, why don't we make
a radio program
01:57
marking the day of the German invasion
of Norway in 1940.
02:00
We tell the story at the exact time
during the night.
02:04
Wow. Brilliant idea, except
02:08
this was just a couple of weeks
before the invasion day.
02:10
So we sat in our lunchroom and discussed
02:13
what other stories
can you tell as they evolve?
02:15
What other things take a really long time?
02:19
So one of us came up with a train.
02:24
The Bergen Railway had its
100-year anniversary that year
02:26
It goes from western Norway
to eastern Norway,
02:30
and it takes exactly the same time
as it did 40 years ago,
02:33
over seven hours. (Laughter)
02:37
So we caught our commissioning editors
in Oslo, and we said,
02:40
we want to make a documentary
about the Bergen Railway,
02:43
and we want to make it in full length,
02:46
and the answer was,
02:48
"Yes, but how long will the program be?"
02:50
"Oh," we said, "full length."
02:51
"Yes, but we mean the program."
02:53
And back and forth.
02:55
Luckily for us, they met us with laughter,
very, very good laughter,
02:57
so one bright day in September,
03:02
we started a program that we thought
should be seven hours and four minutes.
03:05
Actually, it turned out
to be seven hours and 14 minutes
03:09
due to a signal failure
at the last station.
03:12
We had four cameras,
03:16
three of them pointing out
to the beautiful nature.
03:18
Some talking to the guests,
some information.
03:22
(Video) Train announcement:
We will arrive at Haugastøl Station.
03:26
TH: And that's about it,
03:30
but of course, also
03:31
the 160 tunnels gave us the opportunity
to do some archives.
03:33
Narrator [in Norwegian]: Then a bit of
flirting while the food is digested.
03:37
The last downhill stretch
before we reach our destination.
03:42
We pass Mjølfjell Station.
03:47
Then a new tunnel.
03:52
(Laughter)
03:54
TH: And now we thought, yes,
we have a brilliant program.
03:55
It will fit for the 2,000
train spotters in Norway.
03:59
We brought it on air in November 2009.
04:03
But no, this was far more attractive.
04:06
This is the five biggest TV channels
in Norway on a normal Friday,
04:08
and if you look at NRK2 over here,
04:12
look what happened when they put on
the Bergen Railway show:
04:14
1.2 million Norwegians
watched part of this program.
04:18
(Applause)
04:22
And another funny thing:
04:26
When the host on our main channel,
04:28
after they have got news for you,
04:30
she said, "And on our second channel,
04:33
the train has now
nearly reached Myrdal station."
04:35
Thousands of people
just jumped on the train
04:38
on our second channel like this.
(Laughter)
04:41
This was also a huge success
in terms of social media.
04:45
It was so nice to see all the thousands
of Facebook and Twitter users
04:49
discussing the same view,
04:53
talking to each other as if they were
on the same train together.
04:55
And especially, I like this one.
It's a 76-year-old man.
05:00
He's watched all the program,
05:03
and at the end station, he rises up
to pick up what he thinks is his luggage,
05:05
and his head hit the curtain rod,
05:09
and he realized he is
in his own living room.
05:13
(Applause)
05:15
So that's strong and living TV.
05:21
Four hundred and thirty-six
minute by minute on a Friday night,
05:26
and during that first night,
05:29
the first Twitter message came:
Why be a chicken?
05:31
Why stop at 436
when you can expand that
05:33
to 8,040, minute by minute,
05:39
and do the iconic journey in Norway,
05:43
the coastal ship journey Hurtigruten
from Bergen to Kirkenes,
05:45
almost 3,000 kilometers,
covering most of our coast.
05:48
It has 120-year-old,
very interesting history,
05:52
and literally takes part in life
and death along the coast.
05:56
So just a week after the Bergen Railway,
06:01
we called the Hurtigruten company
and we started planning for our next show.
06:04
We wanted to do something different.
06:10
The Bergen Railway was a recorded program.
06:12
So when we sat in our editing room,
06:15
we watched this picture --
it's all Ål Station --
06:17
we saw this journalist.
06:20
We had called him, we had spoken to him,
06:21
and when we left the station,
06:23
he took this picture of us
and he waved to the camera,
06:25
and we thought,
06:28
what if more people knew
that we were on board that train?
06:30
Would more people show up?
06:33
What would it look like?
06:35
So we decided our next project,
it should be live.
06:37
We wanted this picture of us on the fjord
and on the screen at the same time.
06:40
So this is not the first time
NRK had been on board a ship.
06:47
This is back in 1964,
06:50
when the technical managers
have suits and ties
06:52
and NRK rolled all its equipment
on board a ship,
06:54
and 200 meters out of the shore,
transmitting the signal back,
06:58
and in the machine room,
they talked to the machine guy,
07:03
and on the deck, they have
splendid entertainment.
07:06
So being on a ship,
it's not the first time.
07:11
But five and a half days in a row,
and live, we wanted some help.
07:17
And we asked our viewers out there,
what do you want to see?
07:22
What do you want us to film?
How do you want this to look?
07:26
Do you want us to make a website?
What do you want on it?
07:30
And we got some answers
from you out there,
07:33
and it helped us a very lot
to build the program.
07:35
So in June 2011,
07:39
23 of us went on board
the Hurtigruten coastal ship
07:42
and we set off.
07:46
(Music)
07:48
I have some really strong memories
from that week, and it's all about people.
08:47
This guy, for instance,
08:51
he's head of research
at the University in Tromsø
08:52
(Laughter)
08:55
And I will show you a piece of cloth,
08:57
this one.
09:02
It's the other strong memory.
09:06
It belongs to a guy called Erik Hansen.
09:07
And it's people like those two
who took a firm grip of our program,
09:12
and together with thousands
of others along the route,
09:20
they made the program what it became.
09:24
They made all the stories.
09:27
This is Karl. He's in the ninth grade.
09:30
It says, "I will be a little
late for school tomorrow."
09:33
He was supposed to be
in the school at 8 a.m.
09:36
He came at 9 a.m., and he didn't
get a note from his teacher,
09:39
because the teacher
had watched the program.
09:42
(Laughter)
09:44
How did we do this?
09:46
Yes, we took a conference room
on board the Hurtigruten.
09:47
We turned it into
a complete TV control room.
09:50
We made it all work, of course,
09:54
and then we took along 11 cameras.
09:57
This is one of them.
09:59
This is my sketch from February,
10:00
and when you give this sketch
to professional people
10:02
in the Norwegian broadcasting company NRK,
10:04
you get some cool stuff back.
10:07
And with some very creative solutions.
10:10
(Video) Narrator [in Norwegian]:
Run it up and down.
10:14
This is Norway's most
important drill right now.
10:16
It regulates the height of a bow
camera in NRK's live production,
10:20
one of 11 that capture
great shots from the MS Nord-Norge.
10:26
Eight wires keep the camera stable.
10:30
Cameraman: I work
on different camera solutions.
10:33
They're just tools
used in a different context.
10:37
TH: Another camera is this one.
It's normally used for sports.
10:40
It made it possible for us to take
close-up pictures of people
10:44
100 kilomteres away,
10:47
like this one. (Laughter)
10:49
People called us and asked,
how is this man doing?
10:54
He's doing fine. Everything went well.
10:57
We also could take pictures of
people waving at us,
11:00
people along the route,
thousands of them,
11:03
and they all had a phone in their hand.
11:05
And when you take a picture of them,
and they get the message,
11:08
"Now we are on TV, dad,"
they start waving back.
11:11
This was waving TV
for five and a half days,
11:13
and people get so extremely happy
11:16
when they can send a warm message
to their loved ones.
11:18
It was also a great success
on social media.
11:23
On the last day, we met
Her Majesty the Queen of Norway,
11:26
and Twitter couldn't quite handle it.
11:29
And we also, on the web,
11:33
during this week we streamed
more than 100 years of video
11:35
to 148 nations,
11:40
and the websites are still there
and they will be forever, actually,
11:43
because Hurtigruten was selected
11:47
to be part of the Norwegian
UNESCO list of documents,
11:49
and it's also in
the Guinness Book of Records
11:54
as the longest documentary ever.
11:57
(Applause)
12:00
Thank you.
12:04
But it's a long program,
12:07
so some watched part of it,
like the Prime Minister.
12:11
Some watched a little bit more.
12:14
It says, "I haven't used
my bed for five days."
12:16
And he's 82 years old,
and he hardly slept.
12:20
He kept watching because
something might happen,
12:25
though it probably won't. (Laughter)
12:28
This is the number
of viewers along the route.
12:30
You can see the famous Trollfjord
12:33
and a day after, all-time high for NRK2.
12:35
If you see the four biggest
channels in Norway during June 2011,
12:39
they will look like this,
12:45
and as a TV producer, it's a pleasure
to put Hurtigruten on top of it.
12:47
It looks like this:
12:51
3.2 million Norwegians
watched part of this program,
12:53
and we are only five million here.
12:56
Even the passengers on board
the Hurtigruten coastal ship --
12:58
(Laughter) --
13:01
they chose to watched the telly
instead of turning 90 degrees
13:03
and watching out the window.
13:07
So we were allowed to be
part of people's living room
13:10
with this strange TV program,
13:13
with music, nature, people.
13:16
And Slow TV was now a buzzword,
13:19
and we started looking for other things
we could make Slow TV about.
13:22
So we could either take something long
and make it a topic,
13:26
like with the railway and the Hurtigruten,
13:29
or we could take a topic and make it long.
13:31
This is the last project.
It's the peep show.
13:34
It's 14 hours of birdwatching
on a TV screen,
13:36
actually 87 days on the web.
13:39
We have made 18 hours
of live salmon fishing.
13:42
It actually took three hours
before we got the first fish,
13:46
and that's quite slow.
13:49
We have made 12 hours of boat ride
into the beautiful Telemark Canal,
13:51
and we have made another train ride
with the northern railway,
13:56
and because this we couldn't do live,
we did it in four seasons
13:59
just to give the viewer
another experience on the way.
14:03
So our next project got us
some attention outside Norway.
14:09
This is from the Colbert Report
on Comedy Central.
14:13
(Video) Stephen Colbert: I've got my eye
on a wildly popular program from Norway
14:16
called "National Firewood Night,"
14:20
which consisted of mostly people in parkas
chatting and chopping in the woods,
14:23
and then eight hours of a fire
burning in a fireplace. (Laughter)
14:27
It destroyed the other
top Norwegian shows,
14:31
like "So You Think
You Can Watch Paint Dry"
14:33
and "The Amazing Glacier Race."
14:36
And get this, almost 20 percent
of the Norwegian population tuned in,
14:39
20 percent.
14:45
TH: So, when wood fire and wood chopping
can be that interesting,
14:46
why not knitting?
14:50
So on our next project,
14:52
we used more than eight hours
to go live from a sheep to a sweater,
14:53
and Jimmy Kimmel in the ABC show,
14:58
he liked that.
15:01
(Music)
15:03
(Video) Jimmy Kimmel: Even the people
on the show are falling asleep,
15:10
and after all that,
the knitters actually failed
15:14
to break the world record.
15:16
They did not succeed,
15:17
but remember the old Norwegian saying,
15:19
it's not whether you win
or lose that counts.
15:21
In fact, nothing counts,
and death is coming for us all.
15:23
(Laughter)
15:26
TH: Exactly. So why does this stand out?
15:27
This is so completely different
to other TV programming.
15:30
We take the viewer on a journey
that happens right now in real time,
15:34
and the viewer gets the feeling
of actually being there,
15:38
actually being on the train, on the boat,
15:42
and knitting together with others,
15:44
and the reason I think
why they're doing that
15:46
is because we don't edit the timeline.
15:48
It's important that
we don't edit the timeline,
15:51
and it's also important
that what we make Slow TV about
15:53
is something that we all can relate to,
that the viewer can relate to,
15:56
and that somehow has
a root in our culture.
16:01
This is a picture from last summer
16:04
when we traveled the coast
again for seven weeks.
16:06
And of course this is a lot of planning,
this is a lot of logistics.
16:09
So this is the working plan
for 150 people last summer,
16:13
but more important is what you don't plan.
16:17
You don't plan what's going to happen.
16:20
You have to just
take your cameras with you.
16:22
It's like a sports event.
16:25
You rig them and you see what's happening.
16:27
So this is actually
the whole running order
16:29
for Hurtigruten, 134 hours,
just written on one page.
16:32
We didn't know anything more
when we left Bergen.
16:36
So you have to let the viewers
make the stories themselves,
16:40
and I'll give you an example of that.
16:43
This is from last summer,
16:46
and as a TV producer,
16:47
it's a nice picture, but now
you can cut to the next one.
16:49
But this is Slow TV,
16:53
so you have to keep this picture until
it really starts hurting your stomach,
16:55
and then you keep it a little bit longer,
16:58
and when you keep it that long,
17:01
I'm sure some of you now
have noticed the cow.
17:02
Some of you have seen the flag.
17:05
Some of you start wondering,
is the farmer at home?
17:07
Has he left? Is he watching the cow?
17:09
And where is that cow going?
17:12
So my point is, the longer
you keep a picture like this,
17:15
and we kept it for 10 minutes,
17:18
you start making
the stories in your own head.
17:21
That's Slow TV.
17:25
So we think that Slow TV is
one nice way of telling a TV story,
17:29
and we think that we
can continue doing it,
17:34
not too often, once or twice a year,
so we keep the feeling of an event,
17:37
and we also think that
the good Slow TV idea,
17:41
that's the idea when people say,
17:44
"Oh no, you can't put that on TV."
17:46
When people smile, it might be
a very good slow idea,
17:49
so after all, life is best
when it's a bit strange.
17:52
Thank you.
17:56
(Applause)
17:58

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About the Speaker:

Thomas Hellum - Slow television advocate
Thomas Hellum is an award-winning television producer who works at NRK Hordaland in Norway.

Why you should listen

Thomas Hellum has worked at NRK Hordaland since 1992. The former lighting designer moved into photography and then began work as a producer, specializing in documentaries. In 2009, he became one of the driving forces behind the "Slow TV" movement, filming and broadcasting apparently boring events as they happen and turning them into genuinely thrilling television drama.

In 2008, Hellum won the Grand Prix Golden Prague at the International Television Festival in Prague for the documentary Ballad for Edvard Grieg, which tracked the composer's travels through Europe. He also won the Rose d'Or Award for The Sound of Ole Bull at the Rose d'Or Festival in Lucerne in 2012. His personal motto: "Life is best when it's a bit strange."

More profile about the speaker
Thomas Hellum | Speaker | TED.com