Is length important?

sIn the world of web video, 3 minutes is seen as the magic number—the default length producers presume people are prepared to sit through. In the November 2008 “Screens Issue” of the New York Times Magazine, Kevin Kelly made mention of this common denominator, asserting that “ever-present screens have created an audience for very short moving pictures, as brief as three minutes.”

Condescending commentators often like to tie the dominance of the 3-minute video to an endemic decline in America’s attention span, a time famine that means no one is capable of being loyal for more than 120 seconds. On the surface, the numbers seem to support this 3-minute rule. ComScore recently reported that U.S. Internet users viewed 12.7 billion online videos over the course of November 2008 and that the average duration of an online video was – you guessed it – 3.1 minutes.

I would argue the 3-minute stranglehold is a relic of a past Internet age, soon to be as dead as dial up. Traditionally, Internet video has been harnessed to disseminate what A.O. Scott describes as “smaller-scale visual narratives” like topical satire, political commentary and slices of real-life tomfoolery. These videos, often featuring cats, can be characterized as colloquial rather than cinematic. Hampered by quality issues, this was content built for speed, designed for instantaneous distribution and lightening consumption. However, as hardware has improved and connection speeds have increased, the resultant convergence of devices is changing the image of online video. Hardware and services like Roku’s Netflix Player, Time Warner Cable On Demand and the Sling Box are like blood in the water – the vanguard of the coming revolution.

Soon length will not longer be shackled to medium, there will only be “video” and “occasions”. High-speed penetration has improved the viewing experience and paved the way for online videos that last longer than 3 minutes. Rather than clips snatched on-the-go, whole movies can now be streamed and comfortably enjoyed at home. It follows that, while the average YouTube video continues to last 2.5 minutes, the duration of the average online video viewed at Hulu is 11.9 minutes. Clearly consumers are coming to perceive NBC’s success story as a place to go for full-length episodes. Consequently a variety of fitting advertising models are finally emerging – where YouTube’s social clips afford lower-fifth crawlers, while Hulu can command pre, mid and post roll.

Audience behavior suggests we are fast approaching an age of device neutrality. A study conducted this Fall by the Starz Network found that:

“People who watch movies and television shows online and on alternative devices are just as likely to also watch programming on the television set…The online survey of 5,500 individuals 12 and older found that about 18% of that group watched TV shows and movies online, on broadband-connected gaming consoles such as the Xbox, or on cell phones. Of this group, 77% also watch live television on the TV set itself, compared to 75% of the general population who do so.”

Such quantitative findings confirm that device convergence and a culture of multi-length, video ubiquity is upon us.

A director friend of mine, Rob Meyer, won an Honorable Mention at last year’s Sundance Film Festival for his short called Aquarium. Rob’s success was sealed when YouTube asked to feature the 15-minute film in their Screening Room section. Over 232,000 views later Aquarium proves that when it comes to online video it’s not the length of the wand, but the magic in the stick.

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