Insights is a weekly series featuring entertainment industry veteran David Bloom. It represents an experiment of sorts in digital-age journalism and audience engagement with a focus on the intersection of entertainment and technology, an area that David has written about and thought about and been part of in various career incarnations for much of the past 25 years. David welcomes your thoughts, perspectives, calumnies, and kudos at email@example.com, or on Twitter @DavidBloom.
With 2018’s New York NewFronts safely put to bed, a couple of trends are coming into focus.
For one, companies on both sides of the Pacific are bankrolling boatloads of short-form video projects as everyone positions themselves for the next stage of mobile. It’s where the audiences, and their money, are.
That should be great news for online creators who’ve honed their chops with punchy, short-form tales far from traditional Hollywood storytelling structures. In an era where mobile content just keeps getting more and more valuable, shows optimized for small screens, vertical formats, and shorter attention spans are hot again. Add in the imminent arrival of superfast 5G technologies in the U.S., Korea, and China, and catering to handheld audiences makes even more sense.
Even the biggest companies are going long on shorts.
Netflix, home of 100 feature-length shows this year, also commissioned a new shorts series from BuzzFeed News called Follow This. It involves 20, 15-minute episodes of cameras following BuzzFeed News reporters as they cover stories.
As a long-time reporter, the idea of a camera recording me doing my job sounds like a special kind of hell, but Netflix can afford to experiment with formats. It doesn’t have to worry about ads, so neither it nor its creators are locked into the 22- and 44-minute structures of traditional TV episodics.
And it’s breaking up formats with a variety of short-form initiatives, from new seasons of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee to the acquisition of short-form stand-up comedy material, which feels like a natural fit for the medium.
Netflix has said that about a quarter of its views come from mobile, a number that can skew as high as 75% in mobile-focused countries such as Finland. Getting premium content that’s shorter also generally means less expensive, still a (modest) concern for a company planning to spend up to $8 billion on programming this year (along with $2 billion on marketing).
Amazon, just off revealing it has 100 million Prime subscribers (though undoubtedly far fewer Prime Video viewers) has commissioned original shorts from Funny or Die for its Prime Video Direct program. It also has about 100 other shorts picked up at various film festivals.
Keeping up with Amazon’s various offerings can be trying, but the Funny or Die deal was Amazon’s first commissioned content for Video Direct. Given the need for some less expensive programming alongside that $250 million Lord of the Rings series, it’s possible these won’t be the last commissioned shorts.
The big boys in China are poking at short-form content too.
Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu – the Chinese BATs to the U.S. FANGs – are all jumping into short-form video to capture the attention of their hundreds of millions of mobile-obsessed customers, the Financial Times reports. The BATs’ short-form interest is driven, of course, by self interest. Chinese audiences are lapping up the short-form video provided by the BATs’ smaller competitors.
The four biggest challengers have seen their viewership jump from 417 million combined users at the end of last year to 582 million by the end of March, up almost 40% in three months. The biggest beneficiary is Bytedance, the company behind lip-synch social app Musical.ly but also video site Douyin, which has added 124 monthly average users since its launch 18 months ago.
In response, Alibaba released a video tool for retailers on its ecommerce platform to create a 20-second promotional video in just a minute. Tencent is spending vast sums to subsidize content on its Weishi platform. And Baidu’s newly public “Netflix of China,” iQiyi, is using artificial intelligence to carve down full-length dramas into snackable mobile-appropriate shorts.
On this side of the Pacific, sites are reconsidering how best to grab online audiences.
YouTube, despite its bumpy last couple of years, is still attracting herds of viewers, up 300 million registered users to 1.8 billion in less than a year, CEO Susan Wojcicki told advertisers.
It’s more complicated for smaller publishers. Over the past couple of years, many had pivoted to premium, hoping to differentiate from Google and Facebook and keep a little more revenue in-house. That pivot hasn’t necessarily paid off, but companies are still trying.
For instance, Studio71 announced at the NewFronts that Rhett & Link will return to a shorter version of Good Mythical Morning, after experimenting with an expanded version as part of YouTube’s foray into ad-supported original programming. The long version ran in multiple parts for at least 22 minutes per day. But that experiment is ending for one very good reason: some fans weren’t into it.
Nonetheless, GMM remains one of YouTube’s most popular shows, averaging more than 100 million views per month. And the duo and Studio71 are spinning off a best-of program where they talk with executive producer Stevie Wynne Levine about each week’s highlights.
Magazine powerhouse Conde Nast continued its transformation into a video player, using NewFronts to announce a dedicated channel for Wired that will launch later this year, to be followed later by similar offerings for Bon Appetit and GQ.
Disney Digital Networks also has doubled down on shorts. It partnered with Tastemade for themed programming that would pair with its more traditional shows from ABC and Freeform. The Mouse House also said it will launch a free app tied to online channel Oh My Disney that will feature “social content, short-form videos and podcasts about Disney’s own company history.” Very corporate sounding, but there’s definitely an audience.
The less-good news for online creators out of all these announcements? Many sites made a point during NewFronts of their brand-safe content.
Want to be edgy, non-P.C., or just a plain ol’ jerk? It’s going to be a lot tougher getting a big deal from anyone you’ve heard of, except maybe the lower (and less lucrative) reaches of YouTube. That has implications for lots of creators going forward as we reap the revenue realities of two years of ad boycotts, broken trust, and bad actors.
We’ll probably see a somewhat more limited palette of potential creator content. But it’s not all bad. This is another step in the evolution of online video from Wild West to major entertainment option, as more and more material is made to work within the needs of the people paying for it.
We’ll still have room on non-ad-supported sites (HBO? FX? Netflix?) as well as in the web’s many dark corners, for adventurous creators and audiences. It’ll just be more difficult to make money for a while as we figure this out.
Eventually, we’ll see online video’s version of Howard Stern come along. Stern, a true media pioneer, who turned naughty and even puerile content into a fabulously lucrative option, and on a platform, radio, that is far more regulated than the Internet. The Stern of the Internet isn’t here yet (sorry, PewDiePie and Logan Paul, but no). But in the meantime, safe and short seems to be the watchword for a developing medium.