Online TV: Is six minutes the new half hour?

April 7, 2015

New rules: the “mid-form”

So, in this brave new world, what story length should new creators be writing to? To illustrate, let’s take one format and see how it is evolving: the sitcom.

All of us brought up in the era of the 30-minute sitcom have suddenly gained new freedom. What are the new rules? Damian Kavanagh, who is pioneering the BBC Three model, refers to “new form” as a way of describing what he is looking for. To make a point to the conference debaters above, I’m calling it mid-form.

We have written a couple of comedies now in this space to some acclaim: Halfords’ The Bike Whisperer and Hyundai’s Under Pressure Salesman for example. The new TV Licensing Excuses campaign, which launched in December 2014, was another where we agonised over optimal durations.

Interestingly, the comedies I have been watching online are starting to congregate around a different duration altogether. Idiotsitter from Comedy Central is a brilliant example of the new rules. A fantastically simple premise, a small tight cast, a high gag count… all within a 6-minute frame, complete with throw-forwards and click-to-subscribe requests in character.

Periods Films’ “Dog CEO”, an improv troupe under Zachary Quinto’s wing, follows suit. A structured sitcom that is 6 minutes long (watch the first episode above). Note how the situation’s premise is in the programme title in both cases too.  As it is with Thundershorts’ new series “Teachers Lounge”.  Teachers Lounge and DOG CEO also show all the hallmarks of learning from their viewing environment, cue bold graphic splashes that work in thumbnails for ease of navigation for example. Clearly, however, most of the guiderails we know about great sitcom storytelling remain in this brave new world.

  1. Nail people at the top.  I defy you to watch the start of UBC’s “Gary saves the Graveyard” and not want to know what happens next.
  2. Create situations where characters are trapped – see Idiotsitter once again.
  3. Focus the eyes of the audience on the bigger characters (The “Tim from The Office” rule) – see Ted in Teachers Lounge. And so forth. Actually, Gary Saves the Graveyard stretches to 10 minutes in length, which seems to perfectly suit its slower pace while remaining totally satisfying as a narrative structure.
  4. Character, character, character as that doyen of writing Barry Cryer would say.

Excerpt from: CMF Trends, a blog by the Canada Media Fund

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