November 5, 2013

NG | Slow TV is the Best TV

Print More

This past Friday, I was bedridden from a stomach flu that I would not wish on my worst enemies. While feverish and vomiting, I took solace and comfort in watching National Knitting Evening, seemingly endless TV program on Norway’s public broadcasting channel NRK2.

I say “endless” because although the broadcast was technically 12 hours long, it hardly seemed to matter how long the event was. National Knitting Evening was a continuous TV-marathon-like broadcast of people knitting. Some knit sweaters, which was great to stare at because Scandinavia is very serious about sweater patterns. Others knit mittens, scarves and bowl covers. There were a couple of hosts that walked around interviewing people as they knit, and when finished making the interview rounds the program would cut to viewer-submitted photos of people knitting. There was even a Twitter ticker on the bottom that streamed tweets about knitting. The livestream also had an English translation, so I could comprehend and get engrossed in the program.

I’m not being sarcastic here: this was engrossing stuff, and maybe some of the best TV I’ve seen all year. Maybe it’s because I loved Bob Ross — The Joy of Painting as a kid, but I doubt it. 1-million Norwegians have been captivated by similar Norwegian television programs in the past, from a 7.5 hour-long broadcast of a train journey to a 134 hour live broadcast of a ship cruising along the Norwegian coast. One-half and two-thirds of Norway tuned into those broadcasts respectively, and the cruise broadcast became social media fodder. In that broadcast, there were several marriage proposals, competitions held between cities to see who had the best welcoming ceremony, and several wacky stunt-persons who became celebrities overnight.

All these programs are part of the category of “Slow Television,” where live broadcasts are shown in their entirety at a leisurely pace. The earliest and most familiar example of this for American audiences is the Yule Log, where footage of a bright, burning fireplace set to holiday tunes was broadcast every Christmas in New York City. It’s just a log burning — that’s it. But there was something comforting in its ordinariness, especially for many New Yorkers who didn’t have fireplaces. So why not extend the concept into other things, like the entirety of a train ride, or people knitting?

The highlight of National Knitting Evening was at midnight, when a sheep was brought into the studio and sheared of its wool. Several Norwegian women began to spin this wool into yarn and knit into a men’s size sweater. They were racing against the clock to beat the world record for the fastest knit sweater, set by an Australian team at around 5 hours.  When they passed that mark and it was apparent they did not beat it, the women got up to stretch, applauded for the Australian record breaks, and promptly returned to knitting.

Even though the work seemed rote, it was clear that they moved their fingers when knitting different parts of the sweater or feeding the wool to the spinner that they with great care and intense focus. It was the perfect mix of comforting predictability and just enough variation to keep things interesting.

After they failed to break the world record, the show moved into a more leisurely pace (if that’s possible). Even though they were still working just as quickly, they spoke more. Subjects of discussion included how they were knitting through the night and into the morning, speculation over whether the Australian team knitted so quickly because they knitted in the daytime and not the night time, and different philosophies of the spinning wheel. One women offered a story about how her old spinning wheel broke, and she had her teacher fix it. At around half past six in the morning, the women broke into fits of uncontrollable laughter because “there’s so much lanolin in the sweater that it will be both water and wind proof” and the sleeves were probably uneven. One comment the translator provided: “We’re at the ten hours mark now, and I have watched all ten hours of it. Stay with us!”

There is something charming about the mundaneness of Slow TV that makes its programming so refreshing. You get to examine every detail at your own pace because nothing is edited out, you don’t feel endlessly inundated with stimulation and everybody is peacefully doing their own thing. This is far in contrast with all of American TV. The American TV industry seems to have a severe allergy to anything ostensibly “boring,” and PBS is late-night fodder because it is old-timey. Norway’s Slow TV programming proves that assumption wrong. Maybe it’s time to copy them.