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12 December 2019

Boom in premium shorts does not spell doom for long formats

There is no doubt short form content is booming but that does not mean demand for traditional longer formats is diminishing. Short form content is a natural fit for mobile consumption and the presumed minimal attention spans of modern viewers, especially Millennials, but there is also evidence that consumers are increasingly watching longer formats, even on the go, amid growing use of pause and resume. So, consumption on the road is favoring short form content but at the same time, streaming quality to mobile devices continues to rise and viewing of full-length TV shows and movies is also going up.

We can see this dichotomy in the strategies of major streamers and social media players, including Netflix, Amazon Prime and Facebook, as well as the emerging big OTT or SVoD services such as Disney+ and Apple TV+. While Netflix has been expanding production of short form comedies and miniseries, Facebook has been stepping up with more feature length material. For Netflix this represents an attempt to push out in mobile video, especially in countries where this is the predominant mode of consumption, and combat YouTube. Indeed, Netflix’s short-form push is aimed at gaining more casual on the go mobile viewing from both Facebook and YouTube, which are clear leaders there.

Facebook on the other hand has been trying to cultivate lean back viewing of its Watch section to become a serious contender to the major streaming platforms including Netflix.

This shows up in data, with a recent survey by Ampere Analysis indicating ongoing increase in short form productions, accounting for 9% of all VoD series globally, but 11% of upcoming VoD commissions. The growth was initially driven by comedy, which works well over a short format, but has been followed by factual, or perhaps we should say factoidal, along with entertainment and reality.

But there is also plenty of evidence for increased streaming and mobile consumption of long form, not least from the continued expansion of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, as well as OTT offerings from pay TV operators. While hard data is lacking, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence, with the most talked about movie of the moment being Netflix’s The Irishman, a gangster epic directed by Martin Scorsese at three and a half hours long. What is beyond doubt is that the social media platforms have been ramping up production of long form content substantially.

The short/long dichotomy is particularly strong in India, where feature length Bollywood movies commonly running up to three hours or more remain as popular as ever, yet with short form content on mobiles booming even more than in Europe or the US. This has not escaped the notice of the big streamers as well as indigenous content producers, with Netflix stepping up production substantially as part of its strategy to make up for a poor start in the country.

Part of that strategy was to cut subscription prices way below the average global figure that roughly Netflix has adhered to, down to Rs 199 a month ($2.80) for its mobile-only plan introduced July 2019 for smartphones and tablets, comparable with local pay TV services. On top of that, Netflix has now ramped up content production substantially, with plans to spend Rs 30 billion ($420 million) in 2020 on both producing and licensing content for the Indian market, according to CEO Reed Hastings, exceeding local rivals such as Hotstar. He did not say how much but indicated a substantial part of that would be devoted to short form production geared to that country’s huge and fast-growing smartphone constituency.

It was no coincidence that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos also took the opportunity to talk up short form content while speaking in Mumbai, leading to a glut of such content appearing on its platform in the country, including music videos, comedy, trailers and instruction videos.

But both Netflix and Amazon also highlighted strong demand for long form content in India, both single run movies and series. Indian Netflix originals include thriller Sacred Games, horror miniseries Ghoul and animated kids show Mighty Little Bheem. Another major Netflix Indian project, the nine-episode historic saga Baahubali: Before the Beginning, a prequel to a recent popular Indian movie, started running September 2019.

Yet the corresponding proliferation of short form content can be seen in the historical context of traditional art forms. Short stories and even mini sagas have for long had their fans in literature with advocates enjoying the challenge imposed by brevity. Similarly, short form video is not just a response to trends in content consumption but also an opportunity to exploit potential for far greater exposure than in the past via streaming platforms.

For this reason, we have seen the emergence of start-ups dedicated to short form content succeeding in collaborating with major creators, directors and producers. One such start-up, Quibi, owned by Dreamworks’ co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg and former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman, has already persuaded Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro and Sam Raimi to make content for the service in time for launch in April 2020.

It raised $1 billion funding in 2018 and is looking to raise a further $1 billion before the launch, so has already joined the ranks of serious content producers. It will cost $4.99 for a basic plan with ads, or $7.99 for an ad-free version, hosting almost entirely scripted and unscripted premium episodes lasting 7 to 10 minutes. Spielberg’s contribution will be the horror series After Dark, created to show off the potential of short-form content, although the lavish resources devoted to it will be beyond the reach of nearly all producers.

Such content will mark the coming of age for “serious” short content and usher in an era of coexistence with long form.