Changing Horses Midstream: Video Content in the 21st Century

06/25/2016 09:58 am ET Updated Jun 26, 2017

This week, Lin-Manuel Miranda- Wesleyan alumnus, Hamilton progenitor, and the Great Brown Hope of the Great White Way- released the first episode of Freestyle Love Supreme (one of his many side projects, this one a rap/improv hybrid) on Seeso, a NBC-owned streaming service that seems to have a comedy focus. What many may not know, however, is that this is the second time Freestyle Love Supreme has been available for taped viewing. The first was on Pivot, a cable channel one might find buried between their HBO and sports packages, who have the minor distinction of being the first 'linear' television channel to offer broadband-only subscription, effectively making them a streaming service.

Online streaming services, here defined as websites that host professionally made video content available on demand, legally, to end users, could be as old as the mid 90's, but only rose to prominence in 2007, when Netflix added the option to their already video-store slaying DVD mailing business model. In a world where movie ticket sales are stagnating amongst higher and higher production costs, and where Netflix has written TV a scathing epitaph, the nascent idea of the streaming service has become the new delivery method for viewable content. As such, everyone and their mother wants a piece of the action. For every service the average consumer is aware of, (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, etc.) there's a Crackle, Seeso, or MaxGo. Many of these services are owned by more traditional television networks, and nearly all of them contain feature films, television series, and shorts (both web and traditional). This lack of discrimination between forms of content brings to mind the question of why we still have them at all.

The average feature film runs around 120 minutes and has remained fairly stagnant since the 1960s. Many theories have been posited to account for this length. Some subscribe to the idea that this is how long Hollywood executives believe the attention span of their audience is. Some believe that it's a direct response to television, and the intended effect of the expanded runtime was to make going to theater an event. Or if Alfred Hitchcock is to be trusted, "The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder." Television programs, since their division into the drama and sitcom, last an hour and half-hour, respectively, with commercials. In American television, these commercials happen during the program, making a drama 39-42 minutes, and a sitcom 18-21. British television only has commercials between shows, and premium channels only have internal advertisements, so their dramas often run anywhere from 45-59 minutes, and sitcoms run from the traditional 22 to up to 29 minutes.

These constraints, however, are falling into irrelevance. Streaming services don't have to be more spectacle-driven than their competitors; in fact quite the opposite, they're mostly watched in bed. They usually don't have commercials (Hulu being a notable exception) and viewers can pause them whenever they want. Streaming services, it seems, are beginning to take advantage of this. Netflix dramas often run over an hour, and their sitcoms can run nearly 40 minutes. It seems that viewers don't care how long something is, so long as they retain the ability to binge, pause, and opt out at their leisure.

The streaming service is paradigm-shifting, and not merely in the way content is watched, or even how it's made. Streaming changes what content is. What is the difference, now, between Adam Sandler's Netflix movies, and an episode of Sherlock watched on the same service? They run about the same length, and viewers watch them the exact same way. A possible answer might be Sherlock's continuity, and that a viewer need only click "Next Episode" to follow Holmes and Watson on another adventure. But, then, what about the Marvel movies? Blockbuster franchises are now struggling to be built on continuity themselves, further blurring the lines between film and television.

Shorts, too, have entered the fray. Netflix has also acquired the rights to web series such as The Guild and Video Game High School, and have packaged entire seasons of the four and five minute videos into movie-length offerings. The series Dadholes, about two men's lightning-quick, pessimistic takes on fatherhood, recently packaged many of their sketches as a television pilot. The reverse is just as common, how often does one watch an entire episode of The Late Show or Saturday Night Live, rather than just watching a few self-contained clips on YouTube? Video content has become an indistinguishable web of overlapping circles, wherein the confused center seems only to be the medium itself.

What this means for content creators is more freedom. House of Cards and Orange is the New Black don't have to be good lead-ins for Mike and Molly. The Fundamentals of Caring isn't concerned with their Thursday night box office gross. When a season of The Inbetweeners takes around the same time to consume as The Godfather, and can be watched virtually identically, it is clear the world has entered a new phase of visual media.

Add onto this the penchant of Hollywood to adapt books into movies into television series and back again, the rules have clearly changed. Thus, it is up to the new generation of content creators to decide how content should be watched. Whether it's Operas for smartphones or Tetris on the silver screen, the world is watching differently. Marshall McLuhan famously said "the medium is the message," well length defines the medium, and how long you talk has become just as important as what you say.