I watched 17 hours of ‘The Ghan’ and this is what I learnt about long-form content.
It’s not everyday people advocate for a train to win a gold Logie. Especially right when Sydney commuters were facing crowds, delays and impending strikes on their train network. It’s also not every day that a three hour TV show is widely considered to be too short, and that seventeen hours would be far superior.
But one train caught Australia’s hearts and minds this year. At the centre of this conundrum is Southern Rail’s The Ghan – the star of an SBS programme of a peculiar genre called ‘slow TV’.
The show pulled in more than half a million viewers (making it to SBS’s highest rated in 12 months) but here’s a quick run-down for the uninitiated: ‘The Ghan’ is a train whose route of roughly three thousand kilometers takes passengers from Darwin on Australia’s north coast to Adelaide on the south and vice-versa. It’s a three day journey of quintessential Australiana: a dusty red landscape best enjoyed with glasses of Chardonnay, and served by staff donned in Akubras. Think the Orient Express of the outback.
The Ghan – Australia’s Greatest Rail Journey wasn’t a drama, or a traditional documentary either. Aired this January, the train trip was broadcast via the view from the front window, a close up on the driver, a drone’s-eye-view from 500 feet, passengers in the dining car, back to the front window… Shots sometimes held for five minutes at a time. Periodically, some text-on-screen described the history of the area the train was passing through.
And that was pretty much it. A train doing what a train does best, rolling through the landscape. For three uninterrupted hours. (SBS pulled the advertising from the show, in case you were hoping for a bathroom break at least.)
Watch the trailer below or a longer section here:
This kind of television is actually not unheard of. This genre of slow TV hails from Scandinavia, after the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation aired an entire seven hour train trip. Twenty percent of the population tuned in, and such success prompted the next show, 134 hours of a ship’s voyage along the Norway coastline. Other slow events followed, such as an eighteen hour salmon fishing trip and a woollen jumper being knitted.
But Australia was confused. People were angry, taking to Twitter to protest the waste of time on their screens, and taking the topic to #1 trending. But the audience became quickly hooked to the meditative nature of the show, and the call went out for more. The following week on SBS’s second channel ‘SBS Viceland’, the trip was broadcast essentially all day, for seventeen hours: 2:40am through to 8:30pm.
A crazy length of time to watch a train trip, but it makes an important point: we might be constantly served snackable content but there is real demand for long form content.
The first iteration of Slow TV, seven hours of Norway’s Berganbahn:
We secretly love long-form
While the term ‘long form content’ is usually reserved for articles you’re surprised to find keep going after the first few thumb strokes, I’d argue that the definition is more encompassing – or at the very least the principles are. Content that takes time to consume. Content that requires your commitment. Most importantly, content that breeds your devotion (more on that later).
Long form video is most definitely a thing. We don’t tend to think of it as such, but seriously, we invest in video. Cycling devotees watch the Tour de France for a whole month, every year, par exemple. The cricket seems to be perpetually… on. Facebook’s live videos are popular, too, their biased algorithms notwithstanding. Yes, there’s a thrill in the immediacy of watching something live, but in essence we watch unedited, oft rambling or circular pieces of footage simply waiting for what’s going to happen, just in case something happens.
Also worthy of examination is watching TV shows in a binge; thanks in most part to Netflix releasing season’s worth of programming in one hit. It’s not too far a bow to draw that this fits the same pattern. Sure, they’re technically multiple episodes, but if we’re watching them back-to-back, aren’t they essentially one piece of content?
Podcast series and audiobooks fit the bill too. Long stories with the added flexibility of being able to listen whenever and wherever you are, and with two free hands to stack the dishwasher or drive the car. Audiobook sales have been growing year on year as has podcast listenership. The excitement over Serial when it dropped (and the subsequent rush for millions of people to open a podcast app for the first time) makes this no surprise.
For the long form purists, I present The New Yorker. These long form articles have people scaling the paywall for the quality of the writing. Their ethos is ‘the best writing anywhere’ and they deliver on it. It’s long, and it’s detailed and it’s insightful. And, it has a huge readership. Is it the degustation to the rest of the internet’s fast food?
We love story, we love watching and waiting, and we secretly love to invest, if only we can find something worth investing in.
Worth the investment
Long form content stands out. There are a thousand and one blogs, how-to’s and 10 tips for, on the internet. As more and more brands catch on to content marketing, there’s more branded content too. Between this and the news, television, and whatever appears on your social feeds, how does anyone know how to consume? And perhaps more importantly, how do you get your stuff in the mix in a meaningful way?
Rewind for a moment, to Norway’s slow TV. The multi-day broadcast of a ship cruising down the coastline stirred such excitement (read: engagement) that people travelled to see the ship go by. The cameras regularly trained on groups waving and brandishing the Norwegian flag, or messages written on signs. A fleet of row-boats, dinghies and tinnies (or the Scandi equivalent) followed the boat for miles, forming a hilarious looking flotilla.
Thousands watched in person, forget on TV. To cap it off, the Queen was among the crowds that saw the cruise liner arrive at its final destination. I’d take that engagement over likes and shares. Not to say online engagement wasn’t significant – Twitter in Norway was overwhelmed with traffic and crashed.
On the other side of the North Sea, Lagavulin scotch created an effective piece of long form content featuring actor Nick Offerman. A video which lasts a full forty-five minutes has him seated next to a roaring fire sipping their whisky. At present count, it has north of three million views on YouTube.
Pew Research Centre found long form writing keeps our attention for longer than pieces of regular length, irrespective of the fact longer articles (obviously) take longer to read. In reality we’re less like goldfish than we might give ourselves credit for.
SBS’s The Ghan landed coverage in practically every major Australian news outlet, multiple times in some. Not every review thought slow TV would be the next big thing, but the event was considered remarkable across the board. The show wasn’t a piece of branded content, but it might as well have been. Interest in The Ghan and its sister train the Indian Pacific couldn’t have been hurting from the sudden surge of conversation, and the picture beamed into living rooms around the country.
Mumbrella even had a crack at ways in which brands could utilise slow TV – how about launching a new car by broadcasting its drive across the Nullabor?
If imitation is the best form of flattery (or you know, a measure of impact) it’s good news too. Within days of The Ghan airing, so too did Willans Hill – Wagga’s Greatest Train Journey. I can only imagine Wagga Wagga’s miniature railway is doing all the better for it.
So is long form content the key to your brand’s next hit? Maybe, but don’t rush into it.