30 minutes or more: Why web content keeps getting longer

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When I first started covering online video, the site I wrote for had only one hard-and-fast rule: If a video was more than five minutes long, it had no place being on the Internet. But that was over five years ago, a time before YouTube’s unlimited upload policy, before cord cutting, before Hulu. It’s a rule that’s pretty much dead here in 2012 — a sign of how the web video space is continuing to mature.

Long-form content, of course, has been a fixture in the online video world for some time now — Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show, just as one example, launched back in 2009. But what we’re seeing now is the spread of longer runtimes into least-suspected places — such as YouTube.

Of the shows being funded by YouTube’s made-for-web initiative, many have pushed beyond the five-minute barrier, some notable examples including Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop (on the Geek and Sundry network) and the sitcom portion of the Fine Brothers’s MyMusic.

“I think our creators always wanted to make longer content — we’re just reaching a certain point in the lifecycle of online video where people have the command over the audience and the budget to make longer video,” YouTube Next Lab director Tim Shey said via phone. “More creators are building huge audiences on YouTube, and once you build a loyal audience online, they all tend to want more.”

Actor/producer Wilson Cleveland observed this first hand with his branded series Leap Year — which is why episodes of the show’s second season, premiering June 18th on Hulu, stretch out to 20 minutes or more. “We got so many comments and Tweets last season from fans wishing episodes were longer,” he said via email.

In addition, a longer runtime gave Cleveland and collaborators Vlad and Yuri Baranovsky more creative and advertising real estate: “Creatively, Vlad, Yuri and I wanted to tell deeper stories and develop these five characters, which longer episodes allow us to do. From [sponsor] Hiscox’s perspective, longer episodes provide more opportunities to appropriately showcase the brand around the show it sponsors.”

This Week In-esque The Lip.tv, which launched in December 2011 and will soon be joining The Young Turks network, is another company taking advantage of the web video world’s increased attention span, with five shows targeting niche subjects including wine, documentaries, and the media. Past guests have included Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, Courtney Love, Young Turks host Cenk Uygur, Bad Religion bassist Jay Bentley and actor/director Adrian Grenier.

While posting modest viewcounts for its episodes, which range from 40 to 50 minutes, “We get about 36 minutes out of most viewers, which we’re happy with,” CEO Michael Lustig said via phone. In addition, viewers who find archived episodes through search have a retention rate of 75 to 90 percent, which is why The Lip focuses on keeping its content evergreen.

“The whole argument about people being ADD is nonsense, and it’s not fair to them. We approach our audience as really smart, enlightened consumers, and they respond to that,” Lustig said.

Just because audiences are willing to watch longer content online, though, doesn’t mean that audience retention is any easier — an issue YouTube now addresses directly with the Audience Retention analytic, which breaks down peaks and drop-offs for every 10 seconds of the video. The newest edition of the YouTube Creator Handbook advises:

“Improve the format or pacing of your videos and find optimal video length by examining the graphs. Identify the parts of your videos that are most interesting to the audience (peaks), and at what points viewers fast-forward or abandon the video (drops) – these patterns will highlight needed changes to content and/or packaging.”

“It’s the ones who work the hardest to understand their audience who are the most successful,” Shey said.

Cleveland isn’t too concerned about Leap Year‘s ability to hold its audience, largely because of its primary hosting platform: “The Hulu audience is accustomed to watching longer videos and if they weren’t our primary partner, we may have thought twice about going longer.”

However, Leap Year will be using the YouTube annotation feature to “chapter” episodes posted there, allowing users to skip around within the video. I previewed the first episode on YouTube, and found that I was able to use the annotations to do things like skip past the show’s opening credit sequence and go back to previous chapters — as if I were watching the show on DVD.

The obvious truth about web content stretching in length is that services like Hulu and Netflix have conditioned viewers to watch for longer, using whatever device happens to be handy. “People are increasingly comfortable with iPads and iPhones to watch longer-form content — when you find something you love, it doesn’t matter how long it is,” Shey said.

“What’s encouraging to me is that the platforms are becoming networks funding their own original series,” Cleveland added (such as Netflix’s Lilyhammer or Hulu’s Battleground). “These series are on-par with the broadcast and cable fare audiences have already been comfortably consuming on these same platforms for years. THAT’s the marriage of TV and digital programming realized.”

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