When I was a kid, Thursday night was our family’s “TV night”. My dad would come home from work with chips and pop tucked under his arm, my sister and I would need to get our homework finished right after supper, and then at 7PM we’d all squeeze onto our couch and watch TV for a couple of hours. If I recall correctly, it was probably a couple of half-hour comedies followed by a one-hour drama.
Then PVRs changed how we view television: It gave us an opportunity to record shows and watch them when we wanted, while fast-forwarding through commercials. Netflix broadened our options and provided a similar benefit of watching shows we wanted without commercials.
Another benefit, not always considered, is the reduction of the episodic timeframe: A show that once took 30 minutes to watch (with commercials) now takes 22 minutes, and a show that once took 60 minutes to watch (with commercials) now takes 44 minutes. I think people want shorter entertainment, if only to give them the option of more stories in the same amount of time.
I think we see this in YouTube. How often do people find themselves sucked into the blackhole of YouTube, watching short videos… for hours on end? (Guilty!!!) The entertainment draws us in but it’s the shortness of the entertainment that keeps us there. We think “oh, it’s only a 2-minute show” or “oh, it’s only a 5-minute show” so we watch 10 of them in row!
I’m reminded of a friend in college who showed up to class looking very rough. I asked him why he was in such bad shape and he told me that he spent the entire night playing Minesweeper. Each game was only seconds long so “just one more game” of a few seconds lasted the entire night.
The time we spend on a show has shortened, which is not a huge surprise in our tweet-sized, sound-bite, fast-food world. Marketers will tell you that attention spans are diminishing as we’re inundated with content. In spite of this, television shows persist as 22 minute or 44 minute segments. Even Netflix-only shows are about that same standard duration, regardless of the fact that they aren’t burdened with a specific scheduled run-time.
I think the opportunity is ripe for shorter television entertainment. Specifically, we need more 10-15 minute shows.
I’m not presenting an entirely new concept — there are online shows already, whose episodes (often called “webisodes”) are in shorter formats:
- Of course there are many online-only shows (series and one-off shows) that are well-crafted and entertaining but only a few minutes long.
- TV shows will do promos, special bonuses, or off-season teasers in the form of webisodes. For exampe: The Office offered a short series of off-season webisodes with regular cast members, and The Walking Dead gave us webisodes with non-cast members that existed in the same universe but outside of the main storyline.
- BMW entertained us with a few short adventure-style stories in which their cars were featured prominently.
- A show like Saturday Night Live hints at the opportunity for shorter entertainment, not just because of how the show is presented on TV but also proven by the extended life that some skits get on YouTube.
I think this same short-show concept should be applied to television: Shorter shows in shorter seasons. For example, why not have a 4-episode season, with each show only 15 minutes long? This could work in both comedic formats and dramatic formats. As I write this, I’m reminded of the 6-episode series of shows, each 5 minutes long, on Acorn TV for a show called Girl Number 9.
This will shorten the story cycle, turn shows into one-camera shows, and will also change the cost structure of shows and how shows are monetized.
But this could be a great way to attract audiences looking for shorter entertainment, who will be more willing to watch something if it’s only 15 minutes long. This might also be a great way to test audience reception of a show on a smaller scale (i.e., a network might buy a 4-episode series of 12-minute shows before investing more heavily into a larger season of 22-minute or 44-minute of the same show).
For networks struggling to keep viewers, I think this has a powerful opportunity for the network that does it right.