As the world moves towards global Internet television and transcontinental simulcasts, one Icelandic network steps out of the loop in an attempt to localize the small screen. But what does the nation see when it gazes into the high-definition looking glass?
Published in the 2007 winter issue of Iceland Review – IR 45.04. By Jonas Moody, photos by Páll Stefánsson.
Maríanna crams another handful of microwave popcorn into her mouth and taps away at her laptop slick with snack grease. It’s probably the only sustenance she’s had for the last 12 hours – the wrappers of past meals surrounding her desk like coconuts around a castaway. Her tiny island of television production floats in a second-floor office space above a tractor and backhoe showroom in the sprawling industrial park of Grandi, an outlying peninsula of Reykjavík. Last night was the first broadcast of a new television network, ÍNN-Íslands Nýjasta Nýtt (Iceland’s Newest of the New), and it was a complete bust, replete with a severely pixilated image and tin-can sound. “There are always these kinks to work out when a new station starts,” she says, wiping her hands unconsciously on her homely, wool cardigan. Her mouth says: don’t worry, but her crumpled posture, slept-on hair, and glazed-over eyes tell a different story. The network will eventually get its broadcast up and running, but once it does, the hard part still lies ahead: getting people to watch.
ÍNN was born of failure. When Icelandic media giant 365 took its crack at a 24-hour news channel in 2006, their attempt, dubbed NFS, flopped miserably. This surprised few. The country can hardly keep the pages of three daily newspapers filled without resorting to lengthy coverage of lost sheep and the cucumber crop, let alone a 24/7 news broadcast. But in the wake of NFS’s demise several programs were left orphaned. The host of one such program, a political talk show called Hrafnathing, is rabble-rouser Ingvi Hrafn Jónsson, who before throwing his hat into the talk show ring charmed the country as a host on a The-Price-is-Right-esque game show called Bingó Lottó. Some say he should have stayed in the game show racket, but Jónsson was determined to keep his raucous and sometimes heated debate show afloat by any means. Indeed Jónsson not only brought the show to another station, but he created the station as well. And so ÍNN was born – its purpose not simply to provide a soapbox for Jónsson’s Hrafnathing, but to establish an entire broadcast network with the intention of making all-Icelandic programming for the primetime hours of 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. every night. Will it be a godsend for an Icelandic psyche starved for native stimulation, or the most boring two hours of glorified talk radio in all of Northern Europe? Only the ratings will tell whether the station is a hit in the eyes of its beholders.
As inhabitants of a small nation, Icelanders must all wear many hats, and Ingvi Hrafn Jónsson is no exception. Not only is he the nation’s Bob Barker, but also its John McLaughlin. You can also add to this repertoire the role of Charlie from Charlie’s Angels. Although Jónsson is bankrolling the endeavor and hosts its flagship show, he spends the winter in sunny Florida. In Charlie’s stead are three lovely ladies, Maríanna Fridjónsdóttir, Kristín Erna Arnardóttir and Katrín Lovísa Ingvadóttir, entrusted with the operation of the station, whose aggregate experience in television production exceeds 100 years. In true Charlie fashion, Jónsson conducts his business from afar, through e-mails and phone calls. He even does his own show through iChat video, which brings the notion of talking heads to a whole new and absurd level. His guest pundit sits in the studio in Reykjavík opposite an iMac screen of Jónsson ranting away on the topic of the hour from his condo in Key Largo.
Besides Hrafnathing, the station’s programming includes a slew of other talk-show format programs like Dótid okkar (Our Junk) on new technology in the country, Reynslunni ríkari (Richer for the Experience) featuring interviews with Icelanders who have done something remarkable, or Randver, who speaks to big shots in the arts, music and theater. While some of the shows make traffic webcams look exciting, the proposition behind the venture of generating all-Icelandic programming is worthwhile.
Some of the shows’ very premises already speak volumes about the nation they are meant to engage. As Icelanders rush headlong down the slippery slope of personal debt (in 2006 household debt reached record highs at nearly 250 percent of household disposable income), enter Klipptu kortid (Cut Up the Card) on getting control of personal finances. On the other end of the spectrum the island’s blitz of affluence has Icelanders scrapping fairly new cars and buying off the lot instead of repairing the old ones. As the money gushes in and a greater consumer culture is born, the program Kötturinn í sekknum (Cat in the Bag) is meant to instruct Icelanders in the modern arts of consumer savvy – like comparison shopping, ordering from overseas, and reading consumer advocacy reports.
Lastly, as the country barrels down the road of Western European statehood, the pleasures and woes of immigration and cultural diversity come into view. To tackle the issues surrounding this influx of foreigners comes an interview program speaking directly with immigrants. Its title, Óhrein börn Evu (The Unclean Children of Eve), refers to the Icelandic myth of huldufólk (hidden people). The legend tells of God’s unexpected visit to the Garden of Eden (which is, naturally, Iceland). Eve doesn’t have time to make all her children presentable for the Creator, so she hides them under rocks and in trees, where they stay and eventually became the tribe of invisible but influential elves who populate the island. The analogy made to the swelling masses of Eastern European and Southeast Asian immigrants in the country is not only fitting, but one that is specific to country. Host Kolfinna Baldvinsdóttir, daughter of former ambassador to America Jón Baldvín Hannibalsson and beauty queen eco-activist Bryndís Schram – the closest Iceland gets to royalty, has been one of the first media personalities to broach the topic of immigration by actually culling the voices of immigrants themselves.
But not all the shows are such clear products of the nation’s mentality. In all its effort to localize programming (and presumably fill the two hour slot every night) ÍNN may have thrown the Icelandic baby out with the broadcast bathwater. Two shows in particular smack of their American counterparts. Firstly, Mér finnst (In My Opinion) finds a panel of women slurping coffee and jawing away about social issues like homosexual marriage. The show even features Iceland’s answer to Barbara Walters: Ólína Thorvardardóttir, a pert anchorwoman and media personality who has dropped out of the limelight as a television journalist and is now returning to the small screen as a talk show host. Sound familiar? It’s called The View in America. Secondly you have Hvad Ertu ad Hugsa? (What Are You Thinking?) with outspoken self-help guru, yoga master, and proud moustache-bearer Gudjón Bergmann, who interviews local sages on pop-culture psychology from positive thinking to the secrets of ideal marital relationships. Apparently “Gudjón Bergmann” is Icelandic for “Dr. Phil.”
These latter attempts at programming, although still in their early stages, come off as contrived when forced into the ready-made molds of American talk television instead of natural manifestations of what’s weighing heavy on the nation’s soul. Harvesting American talk show formats for Icelandic television deconstructs the logic behind localism to a certain degree. That said, sentiments within ÍNN vary on what the station is striving to do exactly. Ingvi Hrafn Jónsson is quite plainspoken that as far as he is concerned the station is not seeking to create essentially Icelandic material as a proponent of localism. “It is just a business concept based on cost factors,” he says.
Regardless, the ball Jónsson started rolling has ricocheted out of his court. A number of hosts with shows on the network agree that shouldering up the localist cause is a part of ÍNN’s good work. “The aspect of having only Icelandic television is what originally caught my attention. It’s important because it’s something we know, something that is relevant to us,” explains Helga Thorberg, florist, actress and host of Klipptu kortid. Randver Thorláksson, comic actor and host of Randver, is also dissatisfied with the bread-and-circus programming broadcast by Iceland’s other networks. “We have become so used to American culture, which is not good. It’s not our culture,” Thorláksson complains. “I find American programming too stupid to watch. Those shows with a fat, dumb guy married to a smart, sexy woman, like King of Queens, are put on us all the time and those terrible reality shows. You are trapped in it like a soap opera – it’s a drug.” Ólína Thorvardardóttir, a veteran of television media, school administration, and civic politics who hosts Mér finnst, has her own theories about the toll this sort of cultural imperialism takes on a small nation like Iceland. “As every other civilized nation nowadays we are occupied with globalization,” explains Thorvardardóttir. “But it’s not healthy for a nation to forget itself in this trend.” She believes it is important to create a space “in our Icelandic environment having Icelandic debates on Icelandic issues with other Icelandic people.” She continues, “You have this globalization trend, which is fine. But we can’t all jump onto the same side of the boat in that sense. We’ll flip over!”
But this question of how much Iceland pipes in from abroad and how much is drawn from its own cultural wells is no new question – even the issue of what Iceland’s rabbit ears should and shouldn’t be tuning in to is as old as the medium itself.
Television will eventually make radio as obsolete as the horse – and empty all the nation’s movie houses. Children will go to school in their own living rooms, presidential candidates will win elections from a television studio […] Housewives are the greatest worry. Will they have time to sit down and watch television?” This was the prophecy espoused in a full-page editorial from a 1948 edition of Morgunbladid, Iceland’s daily paper. Some of these predictions hold water today, but ask any Icelander for their litany of concerns about television and you’ll be hard pressed to find stealing the good housewife away from her chores. However, the birthright of Icelandic television is inextricably linked to the greatest concern the nation has ever had (and still has) about the medium: should Icelanders be watching first and foremost Iceland on their TV screens?
Back in 1948 this proposition verged on absurdity: producing programming exclusively for a population of just over 135,000 people – a viewership about the size of modern-day Fargo, North Dakota. But it wasn’t until the threat of foreign programming entered the picture that Icelanders took the proposition seriously. In 1955 the US Naval Air Station in Keflavík, 55 kilometers west of Reykjavík, decided to begin broadcasting American programming. The signal was strong enough that it could be picked up in the Reykjavík area, so anyone with a set became the envy of their neighbor. But dissent was brewing. By 1964 opposition came to a head and a petition was delivered to parliament demanding that the Americans’ broadcast be limited to the base. The petition was signed by several notables of the time including Nobel laureate for literature Halldór Laxness, the rector of the university, the national conservator, professors, writers, composers and other revered minds.
For the first time, Iceland stated it would only have its own, or none at all. In 1965 Sigurdur Líndal, secretary to the supreme court, delive-red his Cassandra speech at the university, stating that the most daunting problem facing the Icelandic people is that “a foreign empire… [has] managed to slink into Icelandic society through the most effective propaganda tool of the modern age”: the television. He forebodes a fate in which Icelandic society would be stripped away and the people assimilated into American mass culture. Some might even argue that Líndal’s prediction wasn’t too far from the truth.
In response to these worries the base’s broadcast was finally limited, and on a chilly fall evening in 1966, RÚV, the national broadcasting service, began its television transmission and the island saw its first native broadcast. On September 30 at 8 p.m. Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktson sat for a Q&A session with the Icelandic press, followed by the documentary about the Icelandic settlers in Greenland, and then Skáldatími (The Poet’s Hour), which saw Halldór Laxness reading from his latest novel, Paradise Found. Programming emphasized Icelandic content with broadcasts two nights a week, then later, six. Thursday nights there was no TV. And never in July. In fact, it was not until 1983 that programming was delivered year round and not until 1987 that the state broadcasting network began Thursday programming, and only then because of competition from the nation’s first private channel, Stöd 2.
Today there are two Icelandic channels broadcast to the public (three if you count the Christian televangelism network, Omega), plus a handful of private channels like Stöd 2 and the sports channel Sýn. With the dawn of cable many households have nearly 80 channels now – MTV, CNN, Cartoon Network, E! Entertainment, Zone Reality, etc. – all broadcast from overseas or featuring foreign programming, with the exception of one. ÍNN has entered the arena and is vying for the nation’s primetime attention under the righteous banner of local-grown programming. At the bustling table of the evening television lineup, some believe that Icelanders have become so culturally anemic that they will indeed choose to eat the Brussels sprouts of local programming instead of the super-sized American export sitcoms and reality shows.
Willowy Ingvadóttir flits around the set like a hummingbird, hovering over each of the four DV cams just long enough to adjust its frame and tweak its white balance before rushing off to fetch the makeup kit (a clump of powder and cover-up in four tones). She is the muscle behind the operation, involved in every aspect of production. But in a country as small as Iceland, the notion of extreme multitasking is certainly not foreign. Just as the mayor is often the harbor master is often the gas station attendant is often the salsa teacher at the community center, so is Ingvadóttir every crew member at the station, from producer, director and camera man, down to makeup artist, set dresser and conversational fluffer between tapings.
But more so than the iron Icelandic will, it is technology that makes the station possible. New editing software, digital recording equipment and the dawn of webcasting mean that an entire network can be carried by five people, four DV cams, some stage makeup, and an endless supply of microwave popcorn and espresso. The studio itself is part Wayne’s World cable-access and part IKEA chic. Three sets have been crammed into one room with the controls at its center in a makeshift, Plexiglas booth. It seems more like a make-believe television studio than an actual studio with wires heaped in a rat’s nest mess in front of the booth. The sets themselves are shrines to sedate, Scandinavian minimalism that speak to the refined and sober tastes of Iceland’s older bourgeoisie, which appear to be ÍNN’s most likely demographic.
While providing the country with subject matter as nationalistically pure as the driven snow, the work of the station is not entirely altruistic. If Ingvi Hrafn’s angels know anything about broadcast production, it’s how to turn a buck. Clever Fridjónsdóttir has made deals with furnishing and home décor retailers to “rent” space on the sets: tables from a local furniture store, magazines from a bookstore downtown, glasses and a carafe from the design store around the corner. Even the long panels that comprise the sets’ backdrop are also up for grabs as advertising space, à la in-arena signage at figure skating championships and the Indy 500.
Today an episode of Klipptu kortid is underway, but since the original guest cancelled, Helga Thorberg with her corona of teased, blonde hair and wide eyes, has gotten an acquaintance of her sister to come on the show. The guest, a woman in her mid-forties, has brought with her a red lockbox, which she uses to handle all her finances. Where some might use banks, this woman keeps her money in a box. With little time to prepare, Thorberg must improvise the interview for the most part, which ends up being an odd vivisection into an Icelander’s mind, perhaps not entirely what was intended. The interviewee, who appears normal at first glance, opens her lockbox to show Thorberg how she divides up all her disposable income (after ironing the bills) into as many envelopes as there are days in the month so she won’t overspend – ever. Each envelope features a decoupage design on the outside: something along the lines of a garden theme, kittens, children with balloon animals. The words “obsessive-compulsive” stand in the studio like an elephant but no one acknowledges them. At first it seems Thorberg is at a loss for words, but she gathers herself and continues to ask the woman about her “methods,” straining through a series of forced questions: no, she never drives to save the costs of maintaining a vehicle; yes, the reckless way teens approach money these days is alarming. The end of the half-hour segment comes as a relief to everyone with Ingvadóttir rushing out from behind the booth to unclip the cardioid mics and brighten the mood with some light banter while everyone puts on happy faces:
“Wasn’t that fun?” – “Unbelievably fun!” – “And so well decorated!” – “Just a brilliant idea!”
Next Randver Thorláksson sits down with Sveinn Einarsson, an elderly playwright and ex-director of the National Theater. The old man is portly and sports the jaunty dress scarf and wool blazer requisite for thespians of his age. Einarsson has already won his lifetime achievement award and is plodding towards the elephant graveyards while host Thorláksson, though slightly his interviewee’s junior, was recently asked to leave the cast of Spaugstofan, the sketch comedy show he had been with for over 20 years, and is also quickly fading out of the public’s eye more quickly than anyone would find comfortable. But the two old hens perch on their roost pontificating about the meaning of theater, trashing Italian television, and swapping stories from their long lives on Iceland’s stages.
As these interviews continue – an aging dancer who makes pilgrimages to Africa, a middle-aged journalist who has taken time off to raise a child with her lesbian partner, a priest who preaches God’s word of sex education to prove that the church has not become an anachronism – it becomes clear that ÍNN isn’t bringing its audience the hot-button issues of the nation as much as it is giving voice to the hot-blooded characters of the nation otherwise left by the wayside.
The programming broadcast by ÍNN onto Iceland’s television and computer screens is a mirror held in those places the nation is often reluctant to look: the senescent generations, the immigrants, the public personalities who have departed from public interest for one reason or another, the deeply pious, the eccentric new-agers, the unheeded naysayers, et al. This may not be the face that Iceland presents to the world – the indie-music loving, international banking, eco-friendly, Nordic bastion of progressive social values – but this is certainly not the face of Iceland that cares what the world thinks. This programming is sometimes clichéd, often lackluster and entirely Icelandic, which is the only claim it set out to deliver. But as the Narcissus nation gazes into its reflection in the cathode ray tube, it remains uncertain whether Icelanders will stay tuned or simply change the channel.