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Let's Speed Up TV

Why can't TV series just last a few minutes? 1/11/2004 07:00:00 PM Eastern

I got a giggle out of a friend who, bored or frustrated by listening to a lengthy explanation, finally moaned, "Whatev." This was a few years ago, but I laugh every time I think of it. He was shortening his response by just one syllable, but that said more than the original dismissive rejoinder ever did. It's so out-of-my-face nasty—and it works because it's a fast insult.

Everything is fast, very fast, in these days of time poverty. I hate to multitask when I don't have to, but when don't I? I've actually seen "good at multitasking" mentioned on résumés. It's a bona fide good thing.

CNBC displays so much information all over the screen it looks like a kaleidoscope. CNN and Fox News Channels, with their crawls, do the same thing. They know: You don't have time to get absorbed in one thing. In fact, you have the necessity to be involved in many things. And you lose interest quickly.

That's why I'm surprised that, of all the things television does the same old way, the idea of presenting programs in either half-hours or hours is so firmly ingrained. Those program lengths are more of a cultural imperative in media than, oh, say, heterosexual marriages are in middle America.

Why not speed things up? As long as we are in an age of perishable celebrities and less-than-classic storytelling, television could do everybody a favor if it did its business quicker, just like a good dog.

About three years ago, UPN considered 15-minute sitcoms, but they never got on the air. I wish. UPN could probably capture a larger audience if it didn't ask for a lot of viewers' time. For UPN, which has a hard time finding any audience, getting a bunch of viewers together for a short moment is a better bet than supposing you'll get a lot of them for a long time.

In the 500-channel universe, UPN is the television equivalent of what show biz execs call a "flyover city." Nobody lands there. To be fair, no one's stopping for a long stretch on most cable channels, either. Knowing that, why doesn't television cater to the zapping couch potato? Quality grazing is better than no grazing at all.

NBC announced six "One Minute Movies" this season but has shown only one, Pussycat Dolls, starring Carmen Electra, which was shown in two 30-second parts. The world didn't take notice, but Pussycat was there more to be tawdry, it seems to me, than to explore the idea of super-quick programming.

Actually one of the success stories of shorter-form programming seems to be (paradoxically) the Fox hour series 24. To follow it well, you should watch every week. Instead, millions have decided they like the show but hate the commitment. So they've made the DVD compilation a hit. They'll watch 24 all right but at their own pace, which very likely is not in one-hour chunks.

Most Internet videos are quick in-and-out deals, and the place where the short form is probably best advanced is on the Web, where zillions of sites and advertisers offer short bursts of information and entertainment—longer than a commercial but short enough to tolerate. It's a taste of the future. Indeed, it will be advertisers who will figure out media's new needs before the media does. A few weeks ago, I was talking to Seth Familian, a strategist for Faith Popcorn's Brain Reserve, billed as kind of "cultural consultancy" on consumer behavior, and he flat out predicted that, in two to five years, television's fragmentation will make traditional advertising obsolete.

The reason: TiVo, or, to be less brand-specific, digital video recorders, which allow viewers to zip by commercials. Familian thinks that, to combat it, contrary to what logic might tell you, what may evolve are longer commercials that more fully engage consumers. By the model that some see, though, the longer commercial really becomes a new name for the programming itself. Television, or whatever we're watching, becomes a wall-to-wall commercial. That's where product placement and content may intersect. Television content of the future, Familian says, will be so different that "consumers won't just tolerate commercials but embrace them." That's the ultimate speed trap. We're in such a hurry we're willing to meld the commercials into the program.

Bednarski may be reached at
pbednarski@reedbusiness.com

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