The glacial rise of Slow TV.

By Egotist / /

For three and a half minutes, a man painted his fence. We watched. He painted. It wasn’t like watching paint dry, it actually was watching paint dry. This was a commercial on UK TV. It took up the entire break. Last week’s #RonsealAdBreak was perhaps the first example of ‘Slow TV advertising’.

And yet, in this age of tumbling attention spans, blipverts and Skip buttons, people stayed tuned. Like some voyeuristic fix or because it was so at odds with everything around it, viewers hung in there. Twitter was abuzz. “I’m in LOVE with the concept of slow TV advertising. I actually really enjoyed watching this,” and “So did he paint behind the plant or what? #RonsealAdBreak” were typical responses.

Rich Pearson, creative director at BJL (the agency behind the ad) said, “It’s got nothing you would associate with a normal TV advert and that in itself is intriguing.”


This approach has much in common with the recent success of ‘Slow TV’ for which the world can thank Norwegian public broadcaster NRK. Back in 2009, against all expectations, its 7-hour pre-recorded train journey “Bergensbanen – Minute By Minute” was watched – at least in part – by 20% of Norway’s population.

They followed it up with a 12-hour knitting marathon and hit the jackpot with a 5-day cruise broadcast live which half the nation tuned into at one time or another. Knowing the route, many Norwegians photo-bombed the event, some holding placards on the shore, another notably waterskiing in a mankini. Even Queen Sonja of Norway gatecrashed the closing stages of MS Nordnorge’s voyage from Bergen to Kirkenes, sailing alongside in the Royal Yacht Norge.

Slow TV expert Tim Prevett has been studying the format for a while now. His film “That Damned Cow” examines the precedent set by NRK and looks to the future of Slow TV.

Tim comments “What sets Slow TV apart from other kinds of TV is that it is more relaxing and when done in a way which allows public participation a kind of magic happens where people bring their own content to a broadcast. Slow TV is about a journey or activity being celebrated in the time it actually takes to do it.”

Ironically, viewers have struggled to stay with the full the 30-minute version of his film, so he’s split it into smaller chunks which seem to be more digestible.

NRK’s success has had broadcasters around the world looking on enviously. A genuine alternative to standard programming, large audiences and an extremely efficient (read “cheap”) way to fill hours of scheduling. What’s not to like?

Last year the BBC ran a short season called BBC Four Goes Slow, including one programme boasting an hour of uninterrupted birdsong. The shows increased viewing figures by 50%.

And in July, BBC4 aired a show called ‘All Aboard! The Canal Trip’, a real-time meander down the Kennet and Avon Canal with no music, presenter or commentary. Two hours of hot canal action resulted in (an impressive – for BBC4) half a million viewers.

The growing allure of VR attests to the desire for immersive virtual experiences. But something as simple as a locked off camera on the front of a barge can conjure up that feeling of being elsewhere too. No cuts to break the illusion, no commentary to pollute the scene, just you and your own personal experience and the unique connections you make to what you’re seeing.

It’s even receiving critical acclaim – BBC4 won two Royal Television Society Awards for slow programming including a prize for its year-long study of a 400-year-old oak tree.

‘Slow TV’ is literally taking off, with British Airways announcing they will be airing the Norwegian train journey to test real-time rail travel at 38,000 feet.

British Airways’ in-flight entertainment manager, Richard D’Cruze said: “It fits perfectly with the ‘wallpaper’ style footage people find mesmerising in-flight. There’s definitely a hypnotic, calming and entertaining quality to ‘Slow TV’ that is perfect for in-flight entertainment.” Passengers fond of tracking their progress on the map for hours on end can now transport themselves elsewhere instead.

It’s not just slow visual programming that has enjoyed recent success. True crime podcast ‘Serial’ has thrown hours of audio at examining one criminal case per series. Witnesses, the accused and experts all combine with Sarah Koenig’s painstaking journalism to get under the skin the case, playing to our hunger for justice and the irresistible ‘did they or didn’t they’ tightrope the story walks.

Listeners hang on every detail in case it’s the smoking gun or the Get Out Of Jail Card. ‘Serial’ ranked number one on iTunes even before its debut (don’t ask us how) and remained there for several weeks.

We can personally recommend it as excellent commuter-listening. We are now amateur experts in body decomposition and the nature of ‘Brady material’. Could it be that entertainment this slow can border on a hobby – or at least fill that mindspace where hours can fly by when you’re utterly absorbed in a favourite pastime?

So while Slow TV may not be displacing soaps and reality TV, against all odds it is increasingly popular.

Why? The subject matter? The sheer novelty?

The core appeal must come from its ‘oppositeness’ to everything else out there in the cultural landscape. Our brains get bored with the familiar. A change of pace can be a welcome respite. There’s pleasure to be had in doing something so counter-cultural, so against the grain.

Control is another factor. With no cuts or commentary directing our attention, we are the editors. We have complete freedom of focus. We can take out whatever our brains choose to latch onto.

Escapism. Slow TV has the power to transport us to another time and place. The real-time, single point of view approach is the closest thing there is to being there experiencing it for real. The are no reminders that we’re not really there.

Mindfulness has become a real buzzword in the last couple of years. And while Slow TV’s ability to transport us elsewhere is arguably the opposite of mindfulness, the singular focus and being ‘in the moment’ must feel very similar to the brain.

Relaxation. No matter how fast the accelerating pace of life gets, we still need sleep to function. Relaxation has become a luxury. Slow TV is the antidote to a demanding existence. It wants nothing from you. Bliss.

Or do we need to embrace boredom? In his 1930 book, ‘The Conquest of Happiness’, Bertrand Russell posits the theory that to be a fully functioning happy human being we all need some boredom in our lives.

Bertrand Russell, not boredBertrand Russell, not bored

“We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom. We have come to know, or rather to believe, that boredom is not part of the natural lot of man, but can be avoided by a sufficiently vigorous pursuit of excitement.”

He goes on to suggest, “Boredom, however, is not to be regarded as wholly evil… A life too full of excitement is an exhausting life, in which continually stronger stimuli are needed to give the thrill that has come to be thought an essential part of pleasure.”

In other words, without the troughs of boredom, we build up an increasing tolerance to excitement. Embrace boredom and you lower the bar for more exciting stimulus to have a bigger impact.

And haven’t we all surprised ourselves on occasion, having completed what might be considered a tedious, repetitive task and thought, “Actually, that was quite therapeutic”?

So now Ronseal has opened the (weatherproofed) door, will other advertisers use this approach to lull consumers into buying into their brands?

Waitrose recently dipped its toes in the water (surely another excellent concept for Slow content) by livestreaming footage from its farm in Hampshire to YouTube and onto the big screens in some of the UK’s major train terminals. It was a novel way of bringing its provenance story to life and the access-all-areas approach certainly emphasises its free-range credentials.

The real-time subtext translates into the message, ‘quality can’t be rushed’. Viewing figures were said to be averaging around the 3000 mark. We don’t suppose audience figures are the end goal in this campaign – more the fact Waitrose was prepared to lay itself bare in this way and the attendant PR it generated.

It feels inevitable that more will follow.

Perhaps our brain needs a break from the 100mph culture that’s become too fast even for MTV. As brands create more video content, the mantra has always been “less is more”.

Surely the argument that was made for long copy ads long ago still holds true for richer, longer, slower content: people will spend time consuming things that interest them – and sometimes those things happen to be advertising.

The answer is what it always is: advertisers will chase consumers wherever they are, so if Slow content gains traction, brands will want to work that angle.

It’s a matter of hitting that sweet spot where the story brands want to tell overlaps with a story consumers want to hear – especially if you want them to stay with you for any length of time.

Right message, right person, right time. Just…. slower.

Well, now you’ve reached the end of this Slow editorial, congratulations – Slow TV could just be your thing.