Sun set on the show of the century

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NEWS ANALYSIS: It was easy to feel a bit adrift when Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) finally wrapped up its marathon live coverage of an entire voyage by a Hurtigruten ship this week. For nearly six days, millions of people both in Norway and abroad sat transfixed in front of their TV or computer screens for hours on end, watching the MS Nord-Norge make its way slowly but surely up the long coastline from Bergen to Kirkenes. Suddenly the show was over, and a fleeting anchor of national unity had been pulled up.

The Midnight Sun was among many attractions on NRK's documentary from aboard the Hurtigruten ship 'MS Nord-Norge.' PHOTO: NRK

It was also easy to speculate over just why around 2.6 million people had tuned in to what’s billed as the world’s longest documentary. What could be so fascinating about watching the progress of a relatively slow-moving ship on a voyage that’s been made almost every single day since 1893?

It was probably the mix of gorgeous scenery and the spontaneous joyful public reaction to the documentary that ensued as live coverage began. When the vessel finally docked at Kirkenes, even Queen Sonja was on hand to watch the extraordinary jubilation, waving from the deck of the royal yacht Norge. The queen was in northern Norway on other official duties, but told NRK she was overwhelmed by the spectacle of all the people waving from the Nord-Norge and from land. “A magical moment,” she told NRK.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg called the captain of the ship to thank him live on national television for the memorable voyage. The government minister in charge of transportation was there in person along with the large crowds of locals and visitors, to rhapsodize over how important the NRK documentary had been for Norway, and how important Hurtigruten is as well. Since the Nord-Norge left Bergen last Thursday evening, countless Norwegians had streamed to the shoreline to wave at it and maybe get in a live TV picture themselves.

It was “reality TV” in perhaps its purest form, and it led to a realization that folks could use it to send messages and greetings to family and friends far away, who likely were watching the live TV coverage. They made signs to wave that they hoped would be picked up by NRK’s cameras on board the ship, and a new form of communication was underway. One man even proposed marriage to his sweetheart in his sign.

Scenery like here in Lofoten kept viewers watching NRK's Hurtigruten documentary as well. PHOTO: NRK

Local officials quickly realized the live cameras could also help them promote their small communities, and the ports soon seemed to be trying to outdo each other with their enthusiastic welcoming committees, brass bands and, in some cases, theatrical entertainment. The ship’s captain and crew were bestowed with gifts, speeches were prepared and local choirs sang their hearts out for the benefit not just of Hurtigruten and those on board but for all those watching NRK.

Some of the appeals were blatantly commercial, like tourism businesses offering their services with their phone numbers and website address emblazoned on signs or rafts. Even a local choral group let it be known that they’re available for hire.

But mostly it involved ordinary, spirited Norwegians who just wanted to be part of what turned into a national event, like the lone man in a small boat who braved the rough seas to cruise alongside the Nord-Norge with a flag and a sign over the side simply reading “Velkommen til Mehamn.” Nothing overtly commercial about him – he just wanted to make those on the ship and those watching feel welcome in his small hometown.

Huge ratings success
As has been reported already, NRK’s unusual project exceeded all expectations and was a huge ratings success. Hurtigruten, which runs a fleet of ships like Nord-Norge on the route, benefited as well, seeing its share price jump as booking queries soared. Revenues are expected to rise despite stiff prices that make a cruise in the Caribbean seem cheap. As newspaper Dagsavisen reported on Thursday, it can cost from NOK 21,000 to NOK 102,000 (USD 3,800 to USD 18,000) for two persons to make the same Bergen-Kirkenes trip in the high season of June and July, depending on choice of cabin and meal plans. While Hurtigruten claims they’re competitive, other tourism officials note “it’s no joke” to offer lodging, transport and all meals for more than five days in one of the world’s most expensive countries. The line itself has had more than its share of financial problems in recent years but recently reported a profit and has secured state funding to maintain service to all current ports for at least the next eight years.

That’s comforting for the Hurtigruten fans who were jumping up and down on the docks, engaging in waving competitions, and who see the shipping line as as life line of sorts for their communities. Emotions were high as the ship sailed in and then sailed out again, rather like the emotions seen and felt in airport arrival and departure halls: Wild anticipation and joy in the former and sadness in the latter.

The program was a triumph for NRK, which had few visibly technical problems and could even note that some passengers on board Nord-Norge were watching NRK2 themselves instead of being out on deck or looking out the window. They seemed to prefer sitting comfortably indoors instead of moving from one side of the ship to the other.

As the ship neared its turnaround port at Kirkenes, social media groups were already demanding that the documentary continue on Nord-Norge’s return trip down the coast. The program had united northern and southern Norway for a few precious days in a new form of fellowship and thousands pleaded with NRK to keep the cameras rolling. The fun had to stop somewhere, even though NRK will continue to offer re-runs from the 134-hour-long show via its website (external link). Speculation was already flying about what kind of live documentary NRK would do next, and ideas were rolling in.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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