The rapid rise of Slow TV

Another Scandinavian TV revolution will sweep across British screens this week. Only this time there will be no grisly murders, imploding families or detectives in woolly jumpers. This time not much will happen at all.

Instead, BBC Four will broadcast a two-hour canal journey in real time. No soundtrack, no host or voiceover, no fancy camerawork; just a serene, unedited pootle through the British countryside.

To many viewers that may sound like a one-way ticket to Planet Boring. Cue jokes about watching paint dry. But the BBC’s first foray into the world of “Slow TV” is actually a wise and welcome move.

Why? Because so much television nowadays is too fast for its own good. Desperate to hold our attention, broadcasters bombard us with crashing scores, breathless voiceovers, hyperactive hosts, split screens and dizzying edits. My pet peeve: announcers yelling about what’s Coming Up Next as soon as the final credits start rolling. It’s frantic, shallow and dispiriting.

Slow TV is an antidote to all that. It is not a return to the television of the 1950s. Who wants that? On the contrary, it’s a glimpse into the future, a marker for how technology can help us stop and stare.

Slow TV is a Zen experience, like doing yoga on a deserted beach or slipping into a hot bath. By serving up an unfiltered, real-time, high-definition window on the world, it encourages us to notice and savour the details, texture and fine grain of what’s around us. Take that canal trip. From the comfort of your own sofa, you can revel in the gentle joys and modest pleasures of the British countryside: spotting wildlife, commenting on the weather and ignoring fellow ramblers.

Slow TV can even spur deeper reflection. Because there is no narrative it is up to the viewer to search for meaning in the images and sounds on the screen. Slow TV becomes a backdrop or a canvas upon which to weave our own stories.

Norway invented Slow TV, and the BBC version is small beer by comparison. The first show featured the view from a train travelling seven hours from Bergen to Oslo. Then came 12 hours of knitting. Slow TV finally hit the jackpot with a five-day boat journey. More than half the Norwegian population tuned in and the trip sparked a carnival of audience participation, with viewers lining the fjords and hundreds of private boats chugging along in its wake. Even Queen Sonja of Norway put in a cameo by waving regally from her yacht.

Slow TV is unlikely to make the same waves here. But it does open a new chapter in British television. The relentless pace of modern life takes a heavy toll on everything from our health and happiness to our relationships and communities to our ability to work and think. That’s why a Slow Movement is on the rise. Think Slow Food, Slow Sex, Slow Education, Slow Exercise, Slow Management, Slow Medicine, Slow Travel and so on.

Because “Slow” is not a Luddite throwback, its forward-looking adherents are also seeking ways to harness technology. Just look at the boom in meditation or mindfulness apps. Slow TV is the next step – and it’s spreading fast. A US version is now in the pipeline.

So let’s thank BBC Four for this feast of slowness. If the canal trip doesn’t float your boat, you can always watch artisans crafting a wooden chair or a steel knife, or take a leisurely tour through the National Gallery. As Mae West famously observed, “Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly.” And that includes TV.

(First published in Radio Times)

Slow Telly

A thoughtful piece on the fast rise of Slow TV. Including a slightly backhanded compliment for me.

To tweet or not to tweet

The other day I spoke at a conference for the leading bloggers in Norway.

It was a little unnerving. Bloggers are a pretty fast bunch, so singing the praises of Slow to them felt like barbecuing a steak at a vegan retreat.

From the stage, I could see laptop screens glowing in the dark. An iPhone rang. Members of the audience tweeted my talk, their dispatches scrolling down a large screen behind me. In Norwegian.

Even so, the Slow message seemed to go down well. I was not booed, heckled or pelted with tomatoes. Okay, someone tweeted that I reminded him of Quentin Tarantino. But given the high geek content in the room, I’m going to take that as a compliment.

The surest sign that the Slow philosophy made sense to those Norwegian bloggers is that several of them will soon be blogging on Slow Planet.

But the conference left a mark on me, too. I lost my Twitter virginity there. I decided that the only way to balance all the tweets about me was to start tweeting back.

So what do I make of Twitter? It’s a question put to me a lot by journalists these days. My view is that, like all technology, Twitter is neither good nor bad. What matters is how we use it.

Twitter can be a fun, enriching and provocative way to air views and connect with people. It can even reshape the political landscape, as we’ve seen during the protests in Iran. Sometimes a heat-of-the-moment 140-character missive is just the ticket.

But I think Twitter is best enjoyed as part of a balanced diet. In other words, it should complement – rather than replace – other forms of communication.

The trouble is that it can be very tempting to do everything at the speed of a tweet. And I mean everything.

Two university students are now reducing some of the greatest works of English literature, such as James Joyce’s Ulysses, to 140-character tweets.

This strikes me as an amusing parlour game that might inspire some people to read the original books in their entirety. It might even add to our understanding of the English canon.

But it also plays into the cultural pressure to reduce all communication to high-speed sound bytes.

Already, research shows that millions of people are no longer bothering to update their blogs. Why? Because blogging is now too slow. It’s much easier (and quicker) to type a short update on Facebook or to fire of a tweet.

If the Slow revolution stands for anything, it stands for doing everything at the right speed. And that principle holds true for communication. There are times for a shoot-from-the-hip tweet, but there are also times for more reflective – or slower – forms of communication.

I’ll tweet from time to time when it feels right. But I’ll also continue writing blogs, emails, articles and even books.

If you want to follow my tweets, my username is carlhonore.