The Psychology of Slow TV: “The Vinyl of Visual Media”

By May.05, 2015

Something is happening. Our world is slowing down. In the face of faster connections, more choice, quicker edits, BIGGER, BRIGHTER, LOUDER… a canal boat glides quietly into view. It signifies the BBC’s foray into the emerging broadcast phenomenon of Slow Television.

Slow TV was first brought to my attention by Tim Prevett, documentary film-maker and Slow TV expert (a link to Tim’s dedicated Slow TV blog can be found here). Tim asked me for a Media Psychological perspective on the unexpected success of a Norwegian broadcast of a 7 hour train journey (The Bergensbanen), filmed in real time, which remarkably attracted around 1.2 million viewers for the channel NRK2 . So successful was this program that the experiment was repeated several times, most notably in a 5 and a half day broadcast of Norway’s iconic Hurtigruten boat trip, filmed live. During this time, 3.2 million viewers tuned in, making NRK2 the most watched channel.

In conversation with Tim we entertained several hypotheses about the success of these broadcasts, which are captured in Tim’s fantastic documentary on Slow TV, ‘That Damned Cow’.  My initial thoughts centred on how the engaging aesthetics of snow-covered mountains promoted a sense of immersion; that the iconic journeys engendered national pride; that viewers wanted to be part of a media event (with the Hurtigruten, many people, including the Norwegian Queen, turned up to wave the boat on during the broadcast).

As Tim says when we talked again recently, “One of the successes of the Norwegian format is that they picked something that people really care about.”

This week, the BBC are trying their own Slow TV experiment across several programmes that started on Sunday and continues through to a two-hour canal trip down the Kennet and Avon canal shown on BBC4 tonight at 9pm (see details here). Interested viewers have already had chance to watch an hour long dawn chorus, 30 minutes of glass blowing and 30 minutes of metal forging.

I wonder whether the success of Norway will be repeated here. The Kennet and Avon canal is less iconic than the Norwegian journeys and will probably be familiar to fewer people. The journey is not broadcast live, so it will be less of an event that people can participate in.

I asked Tim whether he thought the BBC experiment with the Canal trip would work. “The canal trip… it’s not something which compels me, but I will certainly watch it. It’s a pre-recorded two hour journey along the Kennet and Avon Canal canal which nevertheless will be very different to our usual pace on images on the TV…”

“Also, When the Norwegians did the Hurtigruten, they had 11 cameras mounted on that. This sounds like it’s going to be just one camera… Do I think that makes a difference? Possibly… but it might even end up giving a more relaxed, mesmeric effect”.

Indeed, Twitter response to BBC4’s SlowTV screenings so far has been positive (#SlowTV #BBCFourGoesSlow) with comments praising the relaxing effects of focussing on a single activity, and even requests for a dedicated channel.

So, perhaps the success of this experiment will hinge on whether there is anything intrinsic about the slowness of the content that appeals to viewers. Indeed, when I first watched the Norwegian train journey in our Media Psychology lab, I experienced a compelling sense of calm.

Tim notes, “Since researching Slow TV, I’m so much more conscious of the speed of images which we have on TV, and to have it decelerated, even if it’s just this one shot, it will be interesting to see how people find it”.

For me, the appeal of slowness has its parallels elsewhere. In January this year, The Telegraph reported on the ‘Rise of Low Tech’, commenting on the success of vinyl in the face of downloads, printed books, polaroid cameras and retro mobile phones. Technological efficiency and increased functionality isn’t always favoured, and neither is increased stimulation. Tim agrees, and puts it succinctly:

“Slow TV is kind of the vinyl of visual media”

Tim continues “It’s an experiential format. Consider the dawn chorus. If you have a traditional documentary about the dawn chorus, it will be filled with information. When you sit down and listen to the dawn chorus you want to go, ‘oh wow, did you hear that one?’”

The opportunity for control over what to pay attention to is a really interesting aspect of Slow TV, particularly the journeys in which landscapes unfold slowly before our eyes. The gentle pace affords us the luxury of letting our attention drift across details to pick out elements of personal interest, things we would probably miss if the same scenes were embedded in traditional formats. Narratives (whether fictional or informational) constrain where and how we direct our attention, given further emphasis through production techniques like cuts, pans, zooms and musical scores. As Tim put it:

“When we go out in nature, or people watching, we allow ourselves to see what’s going on – essentially our own eyes are one cut. So essentially Slow TV brings people into the moment and allows them to… become more aware of what they’re looking at and listening to.”

The BBC capture this in the description on their website: “Taking in the images and sounds of the British countryside, underpinned by the natural soundscape of water lapping, surrounding birdsong and the noise of the chugging engine, this is a chance to spot wildlife and glimpse life on the towpath while being lulled by the comforting rhythm of a bygone era.”

This description of bringing attention to the present moment also draws parallels with mindfulness  training. This raises the question of the therapeutic consequences of Slow TV. One Twitter user suggests Slow TV as a calming escape from the distress of insomnia.

At present we don’t yet fully understand what works and why because research into Slow TV is in its infancy. Media Psychologists need to explore the experiential aspects of Slow TV consumption, what motivates viewers to seek them, the psychological consequences, and whether this is merely a gimmick or a new form of mediated experience that will have long-term appeal.  I, for one, am looking forward to being transported this evening from couch to canal.


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