When motion pictures were first invented at the end of the 19th century, most films were shorter than a minute because of the limitations of technology. A little more than a hundred years later when Web videos were first introduced, they were also cut short, but for social as well as technical reasons.
Video creators, by and large, thought their audiences were impatient. A three-minute-long comedy skit? Shrink it to 90 seconds. Slow Internet connections made for tedious viewing, and there were few ads to cover high delivery costs. And so it became the first commandment of online video: Keep it short.
New Web habits, aided by the screen-filling video that faster Internet access allows, are now debunking the rule. As the Internet becomes a jukebox for every imaginable type of video — from baby videos to Masterpiece Theatre — producers and advertisers are discovering that users will watch for more than two minutes at a time.
The viral videos of YouTube 1.0 — think dog-on-skateboard and cat-on-keyboard — are being supplemented by a new, more vibrant ecosystem of online video. Production companies are now creating 10- and 20-minute shows for the Internet and writing story arcs for their characters — essentially acting more like television producers, while operating far outside the boundaries of a network schedule. Some are specifically introducing new shows in July with the knowledge that TV networks generally show repeats and reality shows over the summer.
Yet TV networks get much of the credit for the longer-length viewing behavior. In the past two TV seasons, nearly every broadcast show has been streamed free on the Internet, making users accustomed to watching TV online for 20-plus minutes at a time. By some estimates, one in four Internet customers now uses Hulu, an online home for NBC and Fox shows, every month.
“People are getting more comfortable, for better or for worse, bringing a computer to bed with them,” said Dina Kaplan, the co-founder of Blip.tv.
Kaplan’s firm distributes dozens of Web series. A year ago all but one of the top 25 shows on her Web servers clocked in at under five minutes. Now, the average video hosted by Blip is 11 minutes long — “surprising even to us,” she said. The longest video uploaded in May was 133 minutes long, equivalent to a feature-length film.
Dave Beeler, a producer of Safety Geeks: SVI, about a trio who make the world more dangerous as they try to protect it, said the “fallacy that anyone post-MTV has no attention span” is being refuted by the success of original video Web sites.
While online video is not going to replace television anytime soon, it is now decidedly mainstream. About 150 million Internet users in the US watch about 14.5 billion videos a month, according to the measurement firm ComScore, or an average of 97 videos per viewer. Although the Web lacks a standard for video measurement, ComScore says average video durations have risen slowly but surely in the past year, to an average of 3.4 minutes in March.
To be sure, many of the most-watched videos are still as short as a song. But YouTube, the dominant video destination, recently recognized the viewership trend and added a “Shows” tab to its pages, directing users to long-form TV episodes and movies. Jon Gibs, a vice president for media analytics for Nielsen, said online video — projected by eMarketer to be a US$1 billion business in 2011 — is at a pivotal point.