Another Unique TV Trip through Norway’s Landscape


M/S Victoria near Sundkilen on Telemark Canal

The M/S Victoria near Sundkilen Bridge on the Telemark Canal. Photo by Tore Schrøder (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License).

If you’re outside Norway and wish you could be there today, well, in a way you can. The Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) at 0800 UT launched its latest televisual journey: 11 hours of minute-by-minute footage from the decks of the 1882 vessel Victoria, as it sedately travels through the 18 locks (sluser) of the nation’s 100 km Telemark Canal.

And if you do happen to miss it, never fear. The full journey will be available for free streaming indefinitely, as it is under a Creative Commons license. (If NRK follows its previous practice, BitTorrent files of the program also will be available for download.)

Telemarkskanalen minutt for minutt (The Telemark Canal Minute by Minute) follows the broadcast path blazed by NRK’s 2009 Bergensbanen – nearly 7 1/2 hours, covering every minute of the then-100-year-old Bergen-Oslo train line across the country – and the award-winning 2011 Hurtigruten: Minutt for minutt, which runs 134 hours, 42 minutes as it covers the full 34-stop cruise from Bergen along the coastline to Kirkenes, above the Arctic Circle. The latter created an utter sensation in Norway last year, attracting nearly 3 million television viewers and an international online viewership ranging from Europe to the United States and South Africa.

M/S Nordlys and Raftsund Bridge

The Hurtigrute line’s M/S Nordlys approaching the Raftsund Bridge between Austvågøya and Hinnøya in Nordland. Photo by Karl Laurits Olsen (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License 3.0 Unported).

All three programs defy conventional U.S. notions of reality TV, lacking its artificial, staged contests and situations (Survivor, Big Brother, The Amazing Race) or gossipy, often highly judgmental commentary on people’s lifestyles, appearance, or behavior (America’s Supernanny, Cheaters). They also evade strict “documentary” classification, refusing an authoritative historical or scientific narrator to explain or interpret what the audience is seeing.

Indeed, the genre is so unusual that Hurtigruten won awards for innovation (2011 Gullruten, an award within the Norwegian television industry) and “most original broadcast” (2011 Prix CIRCOM, a European regional television award) – as well as the Guinness World Record for the longest live TV documentary. The term langsom TV (slow-tempo TV) has surfaced in NRK’s own ranks to describe the projects.

Perhaps the closest thing the world has to a pure “virtual reality” experience to date, the programs merely take the viewer along for live rides throughout the Norwegian countryside. Footage from the multiple onboard cameras, as well as one underwater on the Telemark journey, provide high-resolution views ahead and to all sides, capturing the experience from even more vantage points than a single traveler would manage.

Ulefoss locks

A vessel descends through the locks at Ulefoss on the Telemark Canal. Photo by Christophe Dayer (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License).

In the Hurtigruten broadcast, local points of interest were identified simply by text on the TV screen as the ship passed. The Telemark Canal crew has enhanced this with 2D and 3D clickable maps, and may be implementing a technique they describe as “augmented reality” for the online streaming, allowing access to distant clickable points of interest and information about them.

As the armchair traveler settles in for the journey, she will hear a range of music artists, of many genres, as she travels the inland waterway and sees some of the unique sights of the countryside between Skien and Dalen. She will also see Norwegians, as individuals and whole communities spill out to the locks and along the canal to greet the passing vessel. The latter appearances may be planned or impromptu. (The Hurtigrute line‘s vessel M/S Nordnorge saw both, my favorite being a youth bearing a sign reading “Young, Horny, and Willing to Get Married.”) While normally Norwegians resist the American habit of yelling “Hi, Mom!” and jumping in front of the nearest camera, the arrival of a national television phenomenon to their cherished local landmarks isn’t to be resisted.

When I asked one friend about the Hurtigruten phenomenon last summer, she winced a little at these public displays at each port of call and reinforced the notion I put forward: that the show’s viewers were chiefly senior citizens and/or those who couldn’t afford to make the trip themselves. As the viewership numbers grew, however, I began to doubt my own premise, so I tuned in – and that pretty much answered my question.

M/S Richard With in Svolvær

Hurtigruten’s M/S Richard With in Svolvær, Nordland. Photo by Clemensfranz, on Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License).

Quite simply, the Norwegian landscape exerts a peculiar fascination on the viewer. Stunningly beautiful, unusual to many, and uncorrupted by narrators, hosts, or commentators, it dominates as the producers intended, with the show bringing viewers closer to the wonders of the area and the lifestyles of those who inhabit it. Even the music is not allowed to interfere – no “soundtracking” of the ship’s progress with majestic scores, melodramatic orchestral riffs, or timpani build-ups. Broken by spells of silence in which waves, gulls, boat motors, and wind dominate, the songs simply bring a little touch of contemporary Norwegian atmosphere to long stretches of waterway and shoreline.

The “simplicity” of the viewing belies its production values, which are astonishing. Overall, NRK has demonstrated exceptional photographic and technological prowess in its work. As the corporation offers up this type of “unmediated media broadcast,” it brings its full and daunting power to bear on creating for its audiences a journey both soothing and stimulating – a real “Wow!” moment for television.

Hurtigruten Book in Window

Book on “Hurtigruten: Minutt for minutt” in window of Akershus store – “The exultant voyage, the national festival, the landscape.”

Of course, both Hurtigruten and the Telemark travel association revel in the free publicity of these productions and hope they entice visitors. I suspect they need not fear a digital replacement.

Ultimately, the virtual journey only makes the viewer want to go more than ever. I would not be surprised to learn than many travel plans for distant vacations undergo adaptation after the langsom TV experience.

But check it out for yourself and get back to me on that. After all, for U.S. audiences especially, the next couple weeks may see considerable need and time for the alternative of slow, stress-free journeys in beautiful environments.

For those wanting a thorough written history of the Norwegian Coastal Express – Hurtigruten and its predecessorsI recommend Mike Bent’s Coastal Express: The Ferry to the Top of the World. I have a fondness for enthusiasts, and I strongly recommend this one.