Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) was marking this week its 50th anniversary of going on the air with television programming, setting off a wave of nostalgia over classic old black-and-white programs, crude magnetic weather maps and limited hours of programming.
Millions of Norwegians were expected to settle down in front of their TVs Friday evening, when NRK had scheduled a few hours of coverage of TVs history in Norway. Promos showing the late King Olav officially declaring the opening of television broadcasting on August 20, 1960 have been airing for weeks.
It’s only been during the past 15 to 20 years that TV programs have become available all day. As late as 1989, broadcasting on NRK didn’t start until late in the afternoon and only ran until around midnight, at which point there would a solemn and patriotic sign-off featuring Norwegian flags and the national anthem.
NRK veterans were interviewed on the radio Friday, reminiscing about how the few who actually obtained TVs would stare for hours at pictures of fish swimming around on the TV screen, when no other programming was available. “NRK brought aquariums into thousands of homes,” chuckled one retired NRK staffer.
Post-war Norway was poor and highly regulated, so the country’s introduction of TV came years after it had been technically available and already wildly popular in the US. It wasn’t until 1967 that enough broadcasting towers had been built on mountaintops all over the country, finally allowing most of the population to tune in.
That enabled Otto Nes, NRK’s TV director at the time, to pronounce that “Norway was united as a country.”
The first major spurt of deregulation came in the 1980s, when a few commercial stations including TV Norge were allowed to operate in some areas, and it became possible to pick up Swedish TV stations and a few others. NRK enjoyed a powerful monopoly for years, but saw its domination challenged with the advent of cable TV and the sudden availability of stations like CNN. In 1992, TV2 was allowed to start broadcasting, as the first commercial TV station with a national concession.
No commercials are allowed on NRK, which continues to be funded mostly through licensing fees. Everyone with a TV in Norway is required to pay the fees, which now are approaching NOK 3,000 (USD 500) per year, even if you never tune in to NRK. Cable TV fees come in addition.
Hans-Tore Bjerkaas, who took over as head of NRK in 2007, told newspaper Aftenposten this week that NRK will continue to offer “quality programming” on the three TV channels it now has: NRK 1, NRK2 and NRK3. “For NRK, its obligation to society is undoubtedly the most important,” Bjerkaas said. “At the same time, we need to reach the most people, and that presents a dilemma.”
NRK is much more than just TV, with its radio stations and online service as well. Bjerkaas said its online service, www.nrk.no, had helped unify NRK as a media house, which like others around the world has been hit by cost-cutting programs.
There’s little doubt NRK has been a huge part of the national heritage in Norway for decades, and still plays a major role as families gather around the TV for traditional holiday programs, to hear the monarch speak on New Year’s Eve, for example, or for coverage of major news events. Nature programs, talk shows and debates over current affairs still draws large viewing audiences, while NRK also airs several series produced overseas.
On Friday, after two hours of a look back at NRK’s 50 years of TV, Norwegians will also still get their traditional Friday-night crime program, which can include old re-runs of the German hit show “Derrick,” or BBC productions of crime series or “Miss Marple.” This Friday, the crime show starting at 10:40pm was one chosen by viewers in a national poll: Curiously enough, a re-run of the old American series “Columbo.”