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Write On

Archive for July, 2011

Size Really Does Matter

Two weeks ago the numbers for online video consumption in the U.S. came out from comScore (basically, the internet-video version of Nielsen, but site-specific). I found out about it through Marc Hustvedt’s great online video resource, tubefilter.tv.

Two key takeaways:
- 6.3 BILLION viewing sessions. Everybody is watching internet video, and watching more and more of it.
- The average video duration is 5.4 minutes. It’s been climbing steadily from December 2007.

Think about that second stat for a second. If you’re coming from TV land, 5.4 minutes doesn’t sound like much screentime. But if you’re coming from web video land, this is huge.

When my partners and I started The Burg way back in 2006, comScore wasn’t even around, but online ‘common sense’ was. This common sense told us, nay, SCREAMED at us, that a minute and a half was an ideal video length, and anything longer than 3 minutes was suicide. This frightened us, as a typical episode of The Burg was anywhere from 14 to 22 minutes long. So, we played it safe. We began to create shorts of anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes (yes, even our shorts were longer than most people’s ‘longs’.) We interspersed our normal eps with our shorts. We fully anticipated looking at our viewcount and having much less views for our longer eps.

The exact opposite happened. Our views actually went down every time we posted a short. Why? We don’t know exactly. But after talking to fans, we have a pretty good idea: they were outside the chronology of the story. They were little jokes, standalone scenes, things that didn’t fit in the tightly plotted and structured episodes of The Burg. And so, people didn’t care as much. I knew right then that we had something good. People were hooked on the structure and the story and didn’t mind the length.

Ever since then, I’ve rigidly maintained that length should not be the top deciding factor when you’re creating your content. I’ve been mocked for this, as there are many creators who believe otherwise. In the early days, there were a lot of 90-second episodic thrillers. For me, even when well produced, the story jolted and jittered, because 90 seconds of a thriller is enough to get you to a cliffhanger, but usually seems to stop short of great character development. When working with other online portals, I’ve had to cut 5 minute shorts to under 3 minutes, and in the process, lost some of the best moments because they just didn’t fit. (This is not to say you can’t make a great episode in 90 seconds – of course you can. I just think you shouldn’t have to.)

I get why this happens in TV. You have a fixed inventory of time. 22 minutes for your sitcom once commercials are factored in. It becomes a surgical process (and to a degree, it should with all content). But on the internet, there is no such restriction. Yet content creators and programmers decided to all limit themselves to one anyway. It seems cynical, arbitrary, and a big underestimation of viewers’ tastes.

Well, it seems that common sense was wrong in this case. People are now, officially, measurably, watching longer and longer video. And 5.4 minutes is the average. Meaning, many people are consuming video that’s much, much longer.

As Hustvedt states, “If the same trajectory were to be taken forward a few years, which is probably a conservative estimate given the current market, we’d expect to see average online video duration at 10.4 minutes by 2014.”

Which means, by my shoddy estimate, people are going to be ready for The Burg by… let’s see… May 2017. Hm. Oh well. Better 11 years early than too late.

Washington Considers New Worker Protection Rule and over 15,000 Weigh in To Support it

Good news from Washington—the federal agency charged with enforcing labor law—the National Labor Relations Board [NLRB] – has proposed modifying its rules to close the loopholes that employers use to delay and discourage employees seeking union representation. American Rights at Work explains that “by cutting back on needless bureaucracy and discouraging costly, frivolous litigation, the proposed rule modernizes the union election process. In so doing, the rule would improve stability and reduce conflict in the workplace.” If the rules are made final, this will be the most significant positive change at the NLRB in decades.

60 signatures per page, 250 pages - photo by David Sachs care of UnionReview.com

That’s why the Guild quickly mobilized our members to sign on to a group petition in support of the rules change. Our friends at the Service Employees International Union coordinated a mass petition drop-off, hand delivering our signatures along with those it collected. SEIU’s Richard Negri blogged: “When I told NLRB Executive Secretary Lester A. Heltzer that he was holding a letter signed by more than 15,000 workers and worker activists who support the proposed rule change, he was impressed, saying the action was ‘definitely a first.’”

Many of the Guild members who signed our petition wrote comments explaining why this issue is so important to them. WGAE member Brad Desch wrote “at a time when working people are having such a hard time making ends meets and living decently, this protection is more important than ever.” Council Member Ted Schreiber explained “the freedom to organize IS freedom of speech.” Hillary Martin wrote “I never got rich working as a Union member. But I saw my non-union colleagues working 7-day weeks and in constant fear of losing their jobs.”

The petition delivery coincided with two days of hearings on the rule change in which labor groups, employees struggling to join unions, respected academics and economists faced off against high priced union-busting law firms who make a living by blocking people from joining unions. The AFL-CIO’s live coverage of the hearings is still online.

Labor attorney Hope Singer testified in support of the modifications, explaining how the current delays hurt creative professionals in the entertainment industry:

“Under the present system, any employer who wishes to ensure that there will be no union representation can have that wish met, and the movie will be completed, released worldwide with advanced DVD purchases on Amazon and eventually at your local convenience store before an election [to join a union] can be held.”

Speaking of which, executives at the nonfiction TV production company ITV Studios are still delaying the ratification of their employees’ vote to join the Guild. It has been 7 months and counting. WGAE member Janice Legnitto included a pertinent message to the NLRB along with her petition signature. She wrote;

“For the past two decades, the cable television industry has destroyed writers’ ability to earn salaries that are commensurate with other TV professionals such as camera men and women and editors. The result has been devastating for writers’ economic survival. This has happened while the industry has reaped record profits year after year.

The only way that writers can win the right to earn a fair wage and share profits with cable TV owners is to make it possible for them to have the right to vote in free and fair elections in every cable television shop in America.”

We will keep you posted on ways to support writers and producers in nonfiction TV. Send an email to elevin@wgaeast.org if you’d like to be on our email list.

ADDENDUM: the AFL just posted a blog post explaining what the rules changes would do and wouldn’t do.

Soaps? Online? Hell yes!

Shortly after my show All’s Faire came out, I was approached by a gentleman who asked Dinosaur Diorama and I to make The Guidling Light as a webseries. To be clear, he was only a fan of the show, not a producer of any sort. He had seen our show, which starred both Robert Bogue and Mandy Bruno of that show, and likely knew about our casting of other soap stars (Kelli Giddish back when she was on All My Children, Tom Pelphrey) in the past.

I thought long and hard about this. Not because I particularly like soap operas or have any creative interest in The Guiding Light. But I was fascinated by the idea of turning an existing soap property into an online property. I went out and bought Dark Shadows and watched it to see. Could something like this be turned into a webshow? Creatively? Legally?

After doing the math, I couldn’t make it work. The most I would be able to produce might be a short scene per day. Ultimately, I realized that the people who watch soaps wouldn’t be satisfied with that. They watched soaps because they were hooked on the stories, but also to occupy time when they were at home or at work. Soap watchers are a mix of very active fans (buying magazines, talking on forums, following the actors) and very passive fans (turning it on and watching it with half your mind while you do something else).

That said, I loved the idea of the online soap. I loved the idea of event television online. I loved bringing a show to an under-served online audience. I loved the the discipline involved in crafting a daily storyline (even if it does sometimes revolve around amnesia and/or demonic possession). I loved the absolutely seamless and meaningful integration of products into a storyline (they’re not called SOAP operas for nothing, folks). I thought long and hard about getting involved.

But I didn’t. Time went on and other projects swiftly took its place. And then today, I saw this:

Beloved Soaps to migrate online. All My Children and One Life To Live being bought by production company Prospect Park (they make “Royal Pains” among other things).”

And I’m fascinated. This is a proven company. Buying a proven (if a bit faded and temporarily suffering) property. And aiming to produce for a thoroughly unproven medium. This is big. Very big.

Now that people all over the country have high-speed broadband, and people of all ages are much more used to watching video online, how will these soaps do? But the bigger question to me is, what will they look like? Will they be an hour long? Will they be a scene long? Will they be union shows (it looks like yes, the same cast and crew at least will be involved)? Will they be daily? Will they in any way resemble the shows that so many people knew and loved?

Further, they are “expected to be the first of a number of brand-name TV shows” to be programmed on a “new, as-yet-unnamed, TV-focused network”. Big. Very very big!

As some of you know, I have something sort of similar (but also completely different) in the works. But if Rich Frank and Jeff Kwatinetz can take this first massive step and make it work – and I have every reason to believe they can – then I want to be the first to welcome them to the sandbox.

Or should I say soapbox (and buh-dum-CHING and cut to commercial).

P.S. Kudos to Roger Newcomb over at We Love Soaps. This must be a big day for him