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Overcoming episode fatigue through better broadband programming

May 30, 2007

Sorry its taken so long for me to make a new post. We should now be back on our regular schedule of about a post a week.

In a meeting a last week, the topic of Prom Queen, the teen targeted series produced by Michael Eisner’s Vuguru came up. A seasoned TV executive in the room wondered “What’s going to make someone keep watching all 80 episodes of this thing?” The question is a valid one, and one many web series will face at some point. There will be about 80 episodes of Prom Queen and 130 episodes of Afterworld. In broadcast TV terms, that is over 3 and 6 seasons respectively. It is hard enough developing a TV series that lasts that long, let alone a web series. What is going to make people constantly come back to watch these web properties and not develop a case of episode fatigue?

The easy answer is, of course, characters, plot and format. If you can create characters that are compelling enough, or set up a situation that is really engaging, people will keep watching to see how things get resolved. Furthermore, the argument goes, at 3 – 5 minute episode lengths, the viewer investment is not that great, so you can get away with episodes that go nowhere. In my opinion this is only partially true. No matter how interesting you make characters, and no matter how compelling you make a series’ story arc, if you don’t keep an audience satisfied and satiated on an episode by episode basis, they won’t keep returning. And short episode lengths will only serve to provide a tad bit more leeway from the viewer in the ADD charged world of online video.

This is an issue TV series have dealt with for a long time. I know I was not alone in feeling frustrated at times with The X-Files, when too many episodes would transpire without addressing the core government conspiracy storyline. More recently, one of my favorite TV series, Heroes, started bleeding viewers, before and after its hiatus, because there was rising frustration with too many plot threads, too many characters and not enough resolution. And many TV executives I know wonder what story arc twists can drive three more seasons of Lost, without driving viewers to boredom.

Broadband based series have a similar issue. While speaking of Prom Queen, another executive I spoke to said “Its garbage. I keep watching, and in half the episodes nothing ever happens”. Now, maybe the high-school audience “gets it” better than I do, but I agree with this executive: Prom Queen meanders about with very little purpose. Many episodes feel completely superfluous and don’t seem to drive the plot forward in any way. How many of these inconsequential episodes will a viewer watch before deciding that they have had enough, and that the resolution is probably not worth the time investment? Afterworld, by comparison has thus far done an admirable job of ensuring that each episode moves the plot forward. But even here, I wonder if each episode moves the plot forward enough, to warrant people coming back 130 times.

The question comes back to this: do the viewers feel satiated after each episode? And if not, how long will they keep coming back? In many ways, watching episodic content is like drinking water in the desert: drinking a drop a minute, even if it is every minute, doesn’t quench your thirst. In light of this, web content producers need to pay more careful attention to a rather old school TV competency: programming.

First, there is the format issue. After all, there is only so much you can do and say in 3 – 5 minutes. I have been a big proponent of shorter time lengths on the web, but I also believe one shouldn’t be dogmatic about it. Shorter time formats were first driven by bandwidth constraints, and because the amateurish and “clip-ish” quality of videos drove people to “stomach” shorter lengths. Furthermore, because most people only had broadband access at work, there was a dimension of “how much time I can steal from my job” in watching broadband video.

This is changing, however. Compression is improving and bandwidth constraints are easing, allowing for longer content. And with better, often professionally produced content more widely available, viewers are willing to make more of an investment in their content. In my opinion, some of the best content on the web is content that is over 5 minutes, and often as much as 15 minutes in length. For example, The Burg is not tied to a standard format. Rather, its length is dictated more by how long it takes to sufficiently set up, and pay off a particular situation. The result is often 10, even 15 minutes of very engaging content. Finally, as broadband becomes more available to people at home and over mobile platforms, more and more content is being consumed outside of work hours, meaning they don’t have to “steal time”.

Another side effect of broadband access dissemination is the emergence of “broadband day-parts”. While I have yet to see data that provides evidence to this fact, I am willing to bet that user viewing habits during the day (i.e. while at work) are very different from viewing habits at other times of the day (i.e. anywhere but work). I suspect there is web content that is ideally digested during work hours, like Rocketboom, or The 9 on Yahoo!. But there is also an emerging category of content that is designed to be consumed during other times of the day, and, as such, have an entirely different form factor. The sit-comish Burg is an example of this type of content. Another example is the Tom Green Show, which lasts anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes, is broadcast live at 11PM EST, and is remarkably engaging and has a loyal following. With new devices emerging that allow you to port content from your broadband access point (computers, set top boxes, etc.) to your TV, this category of content will continue to grow, and broadband producers will need to contemplate when and how viewers will be consuming the content they create.

Finally, as broadband content matures, the notion of broadband programming will need to be addressed. One way to better satiate viewers is to increase program length and ensure that something of meaning happens. Another is to play around with the release schedule. Even if your content is 3 – 5 minutes in length, releasing them in clumps of 3 – 4 episodes might give viewers enough material to chomp until your next release. Indeed, I often wonder about the effectiveness of daily release schedules, and think perhaps over time, broadband programmers will find weekly releases in bunches, or weekly releases of longer content, a more effective strategy in some content categories.

Either way, as broadband content matures, producers are going to need to combat episode fatigue in a very similar way that traditional TV programmers do. Broadband programmers will need to consider the category and nature of their content when determining the right format. “Are we choosing to make our content a certain length because from a content and context perspective that makes most sense, or are we choosing the format because it is the accepted way to go?” They will need to consider in which day-part viewers are most likely to watch the content, and consider what kind of format and release schedule will maximize satiation with viewers. In other words, broadband content will need to rethink and apply traditional programming techniques to their properties.

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