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Attention World: 3 Minutes is not your Jesus.

January 5, 2009

FearNet has created some pretty interesting web series.  They are all very well shot, fairly well written, and they all have a scope and aspiration that elevates them beyond the run of the mill web content.  Many are directed by major Hollywood horror film directors, so it is no wonder they are, by and large, a cut above.

But why are they, and others doing broadband video, still so insistent on keeping their episodes as close to 3 – 5 minutes as humanly possible?  FearNet just launched a new series called Stream, in which Whoopie Goldberg is the star.  The first episode is only 3:30, and as a result, there is no story arc, there is no character development, and you don’t really get a very good idea of what the premise is.  Beyond the fact that it is Whoopie Goldberg, there is exactly zero reason to watch a second episode.

A few years ago, I touched on this in my previous blog.  In that post, I suggested that it is almost impossible to keep an audience interested in an entire story arc, when that story arc is told over 130 episodes, each running at 3 minutes.  In retrospect, perhaps that assumption is too rigid.  With the right programming strategy, a multitude of 3 – 4 minute clips can be an effective format in which to tell a story.  However, more often than not, content providers tend to hold to 3 – 5 minute episode lengths like religion.

Early last year, in a conversation with a potential client, the head of programming and development suggested to me that he was going to abide by a strategy of 5 minutes or less for everything he produced.  His rationale:

“We had a recent conversation with the guys over at YouTube, and they suggested that 5 minutes or less is the optimal length of time for broadband video…they told us the most popular videos are under 5 minutes…”

Here was a well established producer, who had been creating high quality content for years, turning his back on everything he had learned.  This is another classic case of attributing behavior around a specific type of content, to all Internet content.  People are still making these types of generalizations, and it is dangerous because aggregate consumer behavior online is changing by the minute.  I believe a few things to be true here, and I suspect I am in the minority about this:

  1. Aggregate consumer viewing behavior is changing by the minute, and if you base your programming strategy on aggregate consumer behavior, it too needs to be constantly in flux to respond to that change.
  2. Aggregate online viewing behavior is not constantly changing because people are somehow more fickle online, but rather, because they are constantly coming in contact with new types of content, to which they react very differently than other types of content.

I find myself constantly suggesting to traditional TV people that online is not as different as they think it is.  Content creators should look closely at what they are producing, and be brave enough to program and produce it according to what they have learned over the years.  Ask the same questions you would always ask:  Is it a lean-in experience or a sit-back experience?  If it is meant to be a sit-back experience, then for the love of god, give viewers the opportunity to sit back and watch.  Flipping from episode to episode is not a sit-back experience.  Also, can you satiate the audience in 3 – 5 minutes?  If not, make it longer.  The worst thing you can do is consistently leave the audience titilated and unsatisfied.  That creates frustration and, eventually, alienation.  Is there time to develop a story arc in the episode?  Or character development?  If you don’t give people reasons to care, chances are they won’t.

Online content is getting better all the time, but as more seasoned TV and film people get involved, they should have the confidence to move beyond the noise, and to stick to what they know about creating really engaging content.  Multi-platform environments might bring a certain level of complexity to the process, but after all is said and done, I firmly believe that people engage with similar content in similar ways, regardless of the screen on which they are watching that content.

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