New year ushers in new NRK boss

As millions of Norwegians were tuning in to a traditional holiday line-up on state broadcaster NRK, a 46-year-old man who didn’t launch his media career until 1995 is getting ready to take over as leader of the huge public media house. As Thor Gjermund Eriksen said himself on the day his appointment was announced, “everyone (in Norway) has a close relationship with NRK.”

Thor Gjermund Eriksen, age 46, will take over as new top boss at NRK in 2013. PHOTO: NRK

The depth of that relationship is especially clear during the current holiday season, when many Norwegians time their private Christmas and New Year celebrations in line with NRK’s highly traditional programming. On Sunday night, lillejulaften or “Little Christmas Eve” in Norway, TV station NRK1 provided, for example, the background for holiday preparations in de tusen hjem ( homes all over the country). The climax always comes around 9pm, when generations of Norwegians watch a once-a-year re-run of a German comedy sketch from 1963 called Grevinnen og hovmester in Norwegian (“Dinner for One,” in English). One year, when NRK ran the short black-and-white program earlier than scheduled, it unleashed a storm of complaints, profuse apologies from NRK and a hastily arranged second showing later in the evening.

On Christmas Eve, most Norwegians watch NRK’s annual airing of a concert by the boy’s choir Sølvguttene (The Silver Boys), which starts promptly at 5pm. Dinner or other festivities begin after Sølvguttene sing, while other classic programs throughout Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are “must-sees” for many. As newspaper Dagsavisen wrote last week, “it’s not Christmas without the TV favorites,” from Donald Duck cartoons to the original Norwegian film version of Reisen til julestjernen and Askepott (Cinderella). On New Year’s Eve, the king makes his only scheduled address of the year, and parties begin after the king speaks.

Powerful job
Eriksen is well aware that as NRK’s new boss, he’s taking over arguably one of the most sensitive and powerful jobs in the country. He’s charged, under Norwegian law, with providing wide-reaching coverage of the news, plus debate and major entertainment and dramatic productions on a growing range of TV and radio channels.

He also faces huge challenges in balancing tradition with new media developments, and not least reconciling NRK’s state-funded and dominant role with its place among commercial medial rivals who feel NRK has an unfair advantage. The broadcasting monopoly it held for many years is long gone, but NRK’s organization remains by far the biggest in the country. Its relatively new use of sponsors and ventures that compete directly with private interests, including websites like the popular weather site yr.no, have also sparked criticism, and some politicians are proposing new regulations to rein in NRK’s own moves towards commercialization.

‘Most qualified’
Eriksen was considered by NRK’s board, appointed by the government, to be the most qualified among the candidates for the job as what’s called kringkastingssjef (broadcasting chief), even though he’s relatively young and got his first job in journalism as a summer worker at newspaper Dagbladet just 17 years ago. Before that, the Oslo native was active in politics and worked mostly for the Socialist Left party (SV), as its press secretary at the parliament and as personal adviser to former SV boss and government minister Erik Solheim.

Eriksen later moved over to the Labour Party and worked for Raymond Johansen, now the powerful secretary of the Labour Party but at that time a city government transport chief. Eriksen studied sociology, organizational psychology and even some law before going to work for Dagbladet. His journalism career advanced rapidly, including a short-term role as editorial page editor at Aftenposten before returning to Dagbladet and eventually taking over as editor-in-chief. He resigned in 2006, went to work for A-pressen (now Amedia), which owns many regional newspapers around Norway, and emerged as its head just last year. He’s also been a board member of NRK’s biggest commercial rival, TV2.

Eriksen, divorced with two children, said he resigned as a member of the Labour Party just before his NRK job was announced. He sees himself not as a political activist but as “a professional media leader.” His appointment seemed generally well-received, both by staff at NRK and within political and media circles.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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