Friday, 28 November 2014

A history of the term "Slow TV"

Questions which have not been asked are:  When did slow TV first become Slow TV? In terms of the phrase - when did that first get used? And in what ways has Slow TV / Slow Television been used? It has meant different things at different times. When did the term “Slow TV” first emerge?
Its usage is an interesting concept to explore, for while it has indeed had different ways of being understood, there are significant nuances which make it very similar to what is now more popularly taken as Slow TV. For the sake of less confusion - Slow TV (upper case S) will refer to the style developed in Norway; slow TV (lower case s) will refer to the other way of understanding its use.
The most recent non-Norwegian slow TV reference is from an article on the BBC News website in November 2011 which remarks about “evidence of a shift towards long and glacially paced, small-screen drama”; it then poses the question, “So why has slow TV taken off?” (Kelly, 2011).
The piece reflects on the Danish series, “The Killing” and its ‘slowness’, that  "it’s not ‘slow’ in the normally derogatory sense, but slow in the sense of crescendoing”. As in it takes its time to get to where it’s going - not needlessly wasting time, but taking the amount of time it takes without pushing it along at unnecessary pace, too.
Kelly’s piece later qualifies slow TV to “Slow-tempo TV” where dramas play out over a long time, such as the Forsyte Saga, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Brideshead Revisited, The Jewel in the Crown and even Twin Peaks.
Surprise is articulated about the use of slower pace editing successfully engaging the audience, “...slow TV flies in the face of conventional wisdom about modern audiences demanding immediacy...”. Sounds like reactions to Norwegian Slow TV too (which had been being broadcast for two years at the time of Kelly’s article - including the behemoth of the five and a half day ferry trip aboard Hurtigruta).
Another similarity with the Norwegian documentary style is articulated by Dr Amy Holdsworth in the same article; she says, “...the pace of slow TV invites viewers to actively engage with the programme, rather than their normal treatment as passive... Part of the appeal is working things out for yourself... They allow the space for viewers to invest in them and make connections for themselves”. This is identical to the active mental participation the long sequences in Slow TV can evoke and which generate viewer curiosity to look out for changing small stories and not be spoon fed the big narrative.
Dr Holdsworth’s usage of ‘slow television’ goes back to 2008, with subsequent mentions in academia in 2009 and 2011 by other writers. It is a label which does not appear to have stuck in describing such programming and styles. In the 2008 paper, she quotes esteemed writer and director, Stephen Poliakoff, from a documentary about his fictional drama series “Shooting the Past” which concerns the unexpected closure of a vast photographic archive. Poliakoff choses to relay some images in the drama where they sometimes decelerate to a stillness which is representative of the still images the camera lingers over.
“‘Shooting the Past’ was written as a sort of experiment, really. I became very interested in how short scenes had become on television so I thought, right, I will slow television down to the point that it stops... I mean leave scenes so long that they seem ridiculous and try to compel people in that way”.  (Holdsworth, 2008, 129) Again, the likeness to Slow TV is clear. Interviewing one of the project leaders of Norwegian Slow TV, Thomas Hellum, he speaks of holding an image until your inner editor is almost screaming that you need to ‘cut’ - to contravene the received broadcast model that you need to move on to a different image every few seconds, and should you have a still image, that somehow it needs to be made more dynamic.
As Slow TV creates a very different visual and mental aesthetic which gives a different experience, “In Poliakoff’s desire to create a significant television experience, ‘slow television’ operates as an alternative way of absorbing the viewer.” (Holdsworth, 2008, 131) This is echoed by Christopher Hogg who cites Amy Holdsworth, that Poliakoff “...consciously works in opposition to the modern visual trend for fast-paced editing and rapid-fire narrative technique by slowing down his shots, creating spectacle not from rapid action but from the lingering impact of an image...” (Hogg, 2009, 438).
Poliakoff has a “... belief in foregrounding the intrinsic aesthetic and narrative worth of the televisual image, not as an ephemeral byte within a rapid-fire delivery of the plot to be instantly forgotten, but as something which deserves the viewer’s consideration and appreciation, and which has the potential to linger in the mind, while also contributing to a larger televisual experience”. (Hogg, 2009, 444). The viewing figures for the landscape based shows, with the ferry journey (Hurtigruta) becoming a national event show that some of these Slow TV productions do become an exceptional televisual experience, especially in the prominence of beautiful scenery as the principal visual element.
It is Helen Wheatley’s paper (2011) which considers landscape based documentaries and links them into a slow TV of sorts. She relates her reflections to such productions as Bird’s Eye View (BBC, 1969-71), A Picture of Britain (BBC, 2005), Coast (The Open University / BBC, 2005- ), Britain’s Favourite View (ITV, 2007) and the Wainwright Walks series (Skyworks for BBC4, 2007-09). (Wheatley, 2011, 233)
She proposes such shows  “...presume a contemplative mode of viewing more traditionally associated with the spectacular in fine art and photography, and at odds both with theories of the distracted viewer identified by early theories of television and with counter theories of ‘sit forward’ viewer engagement or enthralment...” (Wheatley, 2011, 237) and goes on to comment that this is ‘slow television’.
Another similarity with Slow TV is articulated here “In the contemporary landscape factual entertainment programme, then, narrative progression is frequently slowed or halted to enable contemplative viewing.” (Wheatley, 2011, 242) The absence of a driving enforced narrative allows a more mindful way for the viewer to come alive to the image, becoming more aware of the bigger picture and enquiring more on smaller stories in the details.
...the camera lingers, it meanders and rambles over this space, inviting a contemplative gaze. This is ‘slow television’ for the contemplative viewer, to borrow Steven Poliakoff’s phrase.” (Wheatley, 2011, 244). So there we have it: 1999 was the first implementation of slowing broadcast images to deliver a different aesthetic- a ‘slow television’, articulated in an interview in 2004.
Before pondering more the more recent usage of ‘slow TV’, there is one further likeness to identify; Wheatley used the term ‘Screensaver TV’ (2011, 244) as one way of describing the landscape documentary; it is a very similar notion to the ‘wallpaper TV’ that British Airways use to describe the usage of the Norwegian train journey Slow TV, the Bergensbanen film which started this all off.
A step forward before a further step back in time. It was during and following the Bergensbanen transmission that social media participation appears to give the first uses of ‘Slow TV’ in this context. The producers did not set out with something in mind called ‘Slow TV’ – just a way of telling the story of the line from Bergen to Oslo.
A search through twitter posts and conversations shows that three separate users applied the term ‘slow TV’ to the progressing train journey on the tv. Two of the accounts are no longer visible; the third is visible and it is this one that appears to have first used the phrase. Having interacted with them on twitter to ask of why they described it as ‘slow TV’, the reply was linked ‘slow-food I guess’(I will not post the link as although the tweet remains in the public domain, the enquiry was not as warmly received as I had envisaged).
Did the other two twitter users take it from this first? There appears to be not conversation between the accounts owing to the time difference in the tweets (and in twitter a tweet usually becomes so last minute very quickly); while they may have monitored what was said about the Bergensbanen broadcast via hashtags, #SlowTV or #SakteTV (Norwegian word of the year in 2013) they had not yet come into existence (obviously). 

It is suggested that each of these accounts with an awareness of the ‘slow movement’ recognised the characteristic of slowness in this TV. In almost synchronicity the term emerged on twitter. Supposing these three accounts separately formed a label to describe what they saw from concepts already out there, it is a reasonable progression of thought that others observing the same media, aware of the ‘slow’ activities also recognised this as ‘Slow TV’. It was a term impregnated but unarticulated in peoples’ minds, and when the time was right, it could be born and become an outside reality.

Another question, then, concerns the use of the word ‘slow’ used to describe activities done in real time without purposefully accelerating the activity to make it quick. When did ‘slow’ first become a ‘thing’? It all dates back to a reaction against the opening of a fast food chain in Rome in 1986. I’ll leave the history of the Slow Food Movement there, but as a conscious reaction to an accelerated form of human activity, Slow Food started it all. There was no 'slow anything' as a deliberate reaction to sped up life before 1986.

While Slow TV was not born as a deliberate reaction to the accelerated media we have today it has become reinforced as an identity because it is slow and stands out in the media environment. It embraces a growing awareness, an emergent zeitgeist, perhaps, that while speed has its place, we do need to have times when we choose to slow down. Food, life, and even television.
As for the idea of making a documentary into a real time broadcast marathon, reality tv on extended transmission, that is another question altogether.
So to recap, Slow Television has been used to describe a decelerated pace in image editing and narrative unfolding in drama; the undergirding awareness of slow movements informed the perception of the Bergensbanen programme and made possible the emergence of Slow TV as something distinct with a clear identity and a gradually manifested form. In some ways its discovery was accidental but seems to be scratching an itch we didn’t know was there. Like much of Slow TV, that is an area for further research.


Sources cited:
Hogg, C. (2009). Re-evaluating the Archive in Stephen Poliakoff's Shooting the Past. Journal of British Cinema and Television. 6 (3), 437-451.
Holdsworth, A. . (2008). ‘Slow Television’ and Stephen Poliakoff's Shooting the Past. Journal of British Cinema and Television. 3 (1), 128-133.
Kelly, R. (2011) Is slow TV taking over the airwaves? BBC News, 17th November 2011 [Online]. Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-15757413. Accessed on 11th October 2014, 9:10am.
Wheatley, H. (2011). Beautiful images in spectacular clarity: spectacular television, landscape programming and the question of (tele)visual pleasure. Screen. 52 (2), 233-248.

Grateful acknowledgement to Thomas Hellum and Rune M√łklebust for research into the Bergensbanen tweets.

This blog entry is an original piece of work copyright Tim Prevett, November 2014.

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