Earlier this week Sony's Crackle.com announced a new season of original-to-online video content, includng a new series called "The Hustler" starring Mark Feuerstein-- one of those "oh yeat THAT guy" actors who you have seen in a million things but can never quite place.
Over at TV Week, Daisy Whitney reports that, "Crackle carries original Web shows and releases them in four 13-week schedules each year, with new episodes debuting on the same day each week to build a regular audience."
But the key sentence -- and the mistake that Crackle, Hulu and every other original video creator keep making -- from the Variety piece is, "Each webisode will run three to five minutes."
Somewhere, somehow, the media industry decided to accept as fact the conventional wisdom that mediasnacking is where it's at. Crazy kids today, such wisdom goes, have the attention span of a guinea pig on crystal meth, and that to these A.D.D. viewers a three minute video is the equivalent of a marathon session of all three extended DVDs of "The Lord of the Rings."
I disagree. We know from gaming, virtual worlds, online community, instant messenger sessions and many other data points that millenials and other digital natives are perfectly capable of hours of extended engagement with online content-- if the content is any good.
Moreover, three to five minutes -- even released at reliable weekly intervals -- just isn't enough story to satisfy anybody-- viewers or advertisers. You can't have a story with a beginning, middle and end in three minutes unless it's a one-shot joke, and people don't come back week after week for the same joke. You need to live with a story, let is slip around in the back of your mind, remember it later, and have it be complex enough to digest before you'll bother to come back.
To extend the nutritional metaphor, to win my heart media needs to have at least the level of engagement as a chili dog. Nobody has a passionate opinion about which gumball machine dispenses the best gumball, but as my old friend Leslie says, "you'll fight to the death for the honor of the chili dog of your youth."
The TV sitcom has trained our modern media culture to accept 22 minutes as a compressed and efficient unit of video narrative, with eight minutes of monetizing interruptions. Why can't online video do the same?
Sure, online viewers are less patient than folks on the couch. Online, we suffer from S.O.S. (Shiny Object Syndrome) where there are lots of thing hopping up and down and shouting, "click on ME!" But that doesn't mean we should only give viewers a snack when they want a nice lunch.
Instead of dribbling out weekly doses of three-to-five minutes over the course of 13 weeks (a maximum total of 65 minutes), online video creators should have six episode arcs where each episode is the conventional 22 minutes long. (At 122 minutes, this is twice the amount of content as what Crackle is doing.)
However, each episode should be broken out into 3 to 5 minute chunks that can be distributed widely, widgetized, linked to each other and spreadable in the Henry Jenkins sense.
So Hulu, give me Gemini Division, but give it to me three episodes at a time so that if I want more I can get more RIGHT NOW. I can't bond with your characters in just a handful of minutes: I need more.
Doing it this way is also better for your advertisers: if episode one of a show hooks me and I can see episode two and three right away, that is three or more exposures to the advertisers... particularly if we're talking branded entertainment.
See "Snack Attack," the March 2007 Wired cover story for a good overview of this, and don't miss Steven Johnson's rebuttal, "Snacklash: In praise of the full meal" in the same issue. And I've written about this myself here.