TEDxArendal’s Thomas Hellum on making some of the most boring television ever (on purpose)


“A still from Bergensbanen minutt for minutt” on Norwegian public television (Photo: Norwegian Broadcast CorporationNorwegian Broadcast Corporation)

Six years ago, the Norwegian Broadcast Corporation (NRK) broadcast “Bergensbanen minutt for minutt,” a television show simple and strange in its premise: seven and a half hours of footage of a train traveling through the Norwegian mountains — from Bergen in the west to capital Oslo in the east. Minute for minute.

The program was created to celebrate the iconic railway’s 100th anniversary and, to much surprise, became an extraordinary hit, with over 1.2 million Norwegians tuning in during the show’s hours-long run.

NRK project manager, photographer and executive producer Thomas Hellum was one of the many behind the production of “Bergensbanen,” and in a talk at TEDxArendal, he describes how he and the other team members turned regular TV practices on their head, getting the go-ahead from producers to make something “a bit weird” that would “take a really long time.”

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The popularity of “Bergensbanen” led the birth of a new type of Norwegian television — nicknamed slow TV — which encompasses programs like “Hurtigruten — minutt for minutt,” a 134-hours long live broadcast of a cruise ship’s journey from Bergen to Kirkenes; “Lakseelva – minutt for minutt” — 18 hours of salmon fishing, which garnered 1.6 million viewers; “Hel Ved,” 12-hours of wood chopping, wood discussing, and fire burning in a fireplace; and “The Piip-Show” (Norwegian for “Peep Show”), a three-months long live broadcast of avian action in a bird feeder.

We communicated with Hellum about slow TV and its evolution over email. Below, that conversation:

Why do you think slow TV has succeeded?

I think slow TV has succeeded first of all because it so different from all other TV programming. It’s something new -– stories told in a different way. It is a great opportunity for the viewer to actually take part in either a journey or a process and actually feel they are there. Because the timeline is uninterrupted, the viewer knows that no producer has cut away the uninteresting part: they have to figure out the story themselves.

When written up, people often highlight the ‘Norwegian-ness’ of slow TV. Do you think there something particularly Norwegian about the genre? Do you think slow TV could thrive outside Norway?

There is perhaps a Norwegian-ness about the programs we have made — the nature along the coastal ship, and the topics like wood and knitting. But I do think that it’s possible to find topics and journeys in every country that can be just as captivating and interesting. Every country has something that binds them together – culturally, historic or emotionally.

When you and the other creators of Bergensbanen laid out the proposal for the program, did you think you’d get the backing to make it?

We have a good and trustful relationship with our commissioning editors. And NRK – Norwegian Broadcast Company – had, that year, encouraged producers to be inventive and come up with new ideas. They turned the discussion from, “What happens if we say yes to this idea?” into “What happens if we say no to this idea?” So with brave commissioning editors, we had good faith that we would get a yes. After all: a seven 1/2 hour program is nothing more than 15 consecutive half-hour programs.

When you tell people you make slow TV programs, what kind of reaction do you get?

The normal reaction is first a smile, and to give me some good ideas for new projects. Almost everybody here in Norway know the programs, and the phrase “minute by minute” is well used and connected to slow TV.

What is your dream slow TV program?

My dream program is always the next one. We are surprised over all the stories that can be told. After the big success with the coastal ship, we first thought: “What can be done after this?” And we found out that this is just a new way of telling stories, a different way. Programs connected to nature are especially fun to work with. The next project in that category is about climbing – many natural “cliff hangers” there. But the dream? Get people to watch time itself.

Are there any trends in television right now or from the past that you think are similarly “a bit weird,” and that you respect as a photographer/producer?

I am personally a fan of dogma [á la Dogme 95]. Programs produced with self-imposed limits: the whole program produced on a GoPro; water in every picture; handheld all the way, etc. The narrower the frames, the bigger the creativity. Life is best when it’s a bit strange.

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