In it’s infancy, the length of content on American television was pretty random. Network newscasts were 15 minutes! Try to imagine something like the enormously popular 5 minute or less Les Paul and Mary Ford show of the 50′s being run on broadcast stations today. No way it would happen. This is because TV programming rapidly evolved into 30 and 60 minute time slots than were built to “sell” demographic audiences to sponsors. Oddly enough, the predominant length of sponsored online media tends to be closer shorts for from the 50′s than network TV of today. Demographics are still used, but time of view has become irrelevant and a few minutes seems to be enough to get the job done in most cases.
Until the last decade or so, physical containers played a large role in the length or quantity creative work as it was packaged for sale. With the advent of the LP, “albums” became 40-45 minute long, and buyers were taught to expect that much content for pretty much set price agreed upon within the recoding industry. The industry held to that format through the brief dominance of the cassette tape as #1 format until the CD magically made the standard length of an album closer to 60 minutes. Pressed to fill these vacuums, most artists ended up producing material commonly referred to as filler to accommodate the format rather than amount of outstanding work they could create in the allotted time.In literature, novels were expected to fill a set range of pages to justify an standardized price, in a standardized format. Many an author spent more time adjusting their work to fit this container than was spent composing the work in its spontanious, and most often better length. Most movies run 90 minutes not because this is the optimum time capsule for story telling, but because it it the optimal time for theater owners to rotate viewers in and out of the seats. This length fits comfortably on the standard DVD, further reinforcing the size of the container. Movie producers and directors have longer suffered the battle over how much time they have to tell a story, and length itself has consistently done more hard to movie quality than good.
Enter the world of broadband. Even with lackluster pipes, containers have become irrelevant. Streaming and downloading have replaced traditional containers. For downloads, the average household posses multiple terabytes of storage. Backbone bandwidth has become so cheap the 24 X 7 streaming of high quality content to most households can be done for mere pennies per month. This has created a beautiful chaos of creativity that befuddles the traditional media empires. Musicians offer work by the song, or package in a vareirty of album lengths with prices all over the map from free to pay what you want. Ebooks come in every size and shape. For indie authors the “short” has proven to be the most popular ebook. Generally a dollar or two, shorts are a few rather than many chapters of literary excellence. While a few authors go to the other extreme. many of the longer works often sell better when they are divided into serialized shorts.
Movies? TV? These have seen the most variance in competing online product. Look for this industry to be the most disrupted of all media in the near term as indy producers will become more profitable distributing online versus through the big media channels. Length will vary more widely than the traditional 90 minute moves and 30 to so minutes TV runs. Not only will length be rethought, but I really do believe we are on the cusp of seeing first rate material doing its first run online.
Only today I heard and old media stalwart complaining that attention spans have shortened. If that’s the case now, than maybe it was also true of people living in the 50′s. I think we haven’t changed that much at all. Packaging creative work like chewing gum has never really been a good fit. Those who create are now more free create as they will without regard to how much or how little of a container is required. Freed from the constraints of a container, quality does seem to be improving along with exponential growth of product. When corporate media dominated, the container became more important than the content. The pendulum has swung the other way. Now content is king. Long live content!