Online TV: Is six minutes the new half hour?

How long should online content be? Red Bee Media’s executive creative director explains the emergence of a new trend: the six-minute sitcom.

Written by Charlie Mawer (MIP Blog)

For about five years, a myriad of conference speeches and blogs have been written about the growth of short-form content in this brave new world (as opposed to the linear TV world of “long-form” programmes).

And short form appears to have settled, without asking anyone’s permission, on an optimal duration of 2 to 3 minutes. Indeed, many clients are falling into line and writing MAX 3 MINS on their briefs.

At the point that BBC Three has gone public with its new commissioning plans for what an online-only TV channel looks like, it seems timely to re-examine this lore. We know that mobile viewing, for example, is a huge growth area, driven by 4G—and our new owners Ericsson’s development of 5G can only turbo-charge this. As Sophie Curtis suggests in this Telegraph piece, a key influencer on viewing durations is not the length of the video itself but the speed at which it downloads.

New rules: the “mid-form”

So, in this brave new world, what story length should new creators be writing to? To illustrate, let’s take one format and see how it is evolving: the sitcom.

All of us brought up in the era of the 30-minute sitcom have suddenly gained new freedom. What are the new rules? Damian Kavanagh, who is pioneering the BBC Three model, refers to “new form” as a way of describing what he is looking for. To make a point to the conference debaters above, I’m calling it mid-form.

We have written a couple of comedies now in this space to some acclaim: Halfords’ The Bike Whisperer and Hyundai’s Under Pressure Salesman for example. The new TV Licensing Excuses campaign, which launched in December 2014, was another where we agonised over optimal durations.

Interestingly, the comedies I have been watching online are starting to congregate around a different duration altogether. Idiotsitter from Comedy Central is a brilliant example of the new rules. A fantastically simple premise, a small tight cast, a high gag count… all within a 6-minute frame, complete with throw-forwards and click-to-subscribe requests in character.

Periods Films’ “Dog CEO”, an improv troupe under Zachary Quinto’s wing, follows suit. A structured sitcom that is 6 minutes long (watch the first episode above). Note how the situation’s premise is in the programme title in both cases too.  As it is with Thundershorts’ new series“Teachers Lounge”.  Teachers Lounge and DOG CEO also show all the hallmarks of learning from their viewing environment, cue bold graphic splashes that work in thumbnails for ease of navigation for example. Clearly, however, most of the guiderails we know about great sitcom storytelling remain in this brave new world.

  1. Nail people at the top.  I defy you to watch the start of UBC’s “Gary saves the Graveyard” and not want to know what happens next.
  2. Create situations where characters are trapped – see Idiotsitter once again.
  3. Focus the eyes of the audience on the bigger characters (The “Tim from The Office” rule) – see Ted in Teachers Lounge. And so forth. Actually, Gary Saves the Graveyard stretches to 10 minutes in length, which seems to perfectly suit its slower pace while remaining totally satisfying as a narrative structure.
  4. Character, character, character as that doyen of writing Barry Cryer would say.
Image: Idiotsitter

What has really changed is the structure of the story “beats.” You rarely get a “B story” or subplot in an online sitcom for example. In the end the quality of the writing and performing will keep you watching whatever size the screen. The incredible dwell times we’ve seen for our Hyundai films—at five minutes long—are tangible proof of this.

Now most of the examples above are not yet hitting the millions of views that the latest “Minecraft Parody of Nicki Minaj” video will have managed… but they are pioneering something really exciting. Finding where genre rules meet audience needs, to put it in telly-babble terms. Clearly, they are also not the high-risk investment in terms of costs that a traditional half-hour studio sitcom would be, a risk that put ITV off commissioning any for about five years. Perhaps, as we develop new content standards and as big beasts like BBC Three give real scale to online formats, maybe six minutes is the new half hour. As one of our writers commented: “Happy days, 24 minutes fewer jokes to write.”

This article was originally published on Red Bee Media’s blog and on mipblog.

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