While Cartoon Network has been in the short-form game quite a while with both animated and live-action series — including pretty much everything in its Adult Swim block — think “Children’s Hospital” and “Robot Chicken” — a growing number of cable networks are starting to realize the power of the platform.
Whether distributed on air, digitally, or across multiple platforms, both episodic and serialized short form series are helping networks stay flexible and relevant in the rapidly evolving entertainment landscape.
“I don’t think any TV business can actually think exclusively about creating content only for television any more,” says Lisa Hsia, exec VP, digital, for Bravo and Oxygen. “So our development teams, all of us, think in terms of creating content for all platforms. Content is content, as far as I’m concerned, and whatever screen it appears on, its success will be measured on its overall impressions and engagement, wherever it exists.”
Hsia has about a dozen short-form series in development, and with good reason: In 2013, Bravo’s online series “Top Chef: Last Chance Kitchen” won an Emmy for creative achievement in interactive media multiplatform storytelling, and its fifth season had nearly 10 million streams. Bravo’s new digital series, “Going Off the Menu,” has been submitted for consideration in the Emmys’ new short form category.
When Paul Cabana joined History last year, he knew that ensuring the long-term vitality of the brand meant courting new viewers, and he felt short form was a good way to woo them.
History decided to take divergent paths into short form: “History Now,” a series of one- to two-minute documentary-style videos, and “Night Class” a block of two on-air and online comedies.
“These represent two very different approaches to talking to new audiences,” Cabana says. “ ‘History Now’ is a new way to target a different audience — young people who may never get cable. We’ve shifted that product to focus on young people who are making history now. Young activists. Young people experiencing things now that we’ll one day look back on as historic, whether it’s the Flint, Michigan, situation, or Black Lives Matter. What better way to curate this living time capsule of history than by doing it in social and short form?”
On the surface, History’s comedy block might not seem a perfect match for the stalwart network, but both its shows — “Great Minds With Dan Harmon” and “The Crossroads of History” — build episodes around a real person or event in history.
“What we’re doing [in those comedies] is different because it’s based in actual fact. That it also happens to be funny and irreverent and feature lots of stars and have this totally unexpected tone was a bonus,” Cabana says. “You walk away knowing these things happened. Hitler was actually rejected from art school. Just as with everything in our programming, there’s a foundation of fact.”
Elizabeth Shapiro, writer, producer, and star of “Crossroads,” applauds History for expanding its brand to include humor.
“Short form allows you to take risks and experiment because it’s not the same amount of crazy money that’s on the line,” Shapiro says. “For a creator like me, it’s a wonderful space to play in because you have a budget to do something awesome, yet it’s not the kind of budget that has everyone scared it won’t work. That left us a lot of room to play. The cool thing is the show is on television but it’s also on YouTube. Straddling those two worlds has the potential of bringing very different demographics together.”
Although AMC had previously done webisodes of “The Walking Dead” and created digital pieces supporting “Breaking Bad” and other series, the network synergized its on-air and digital assets with “Fear the Walking Dead: Flight 462.”
“Aside from wanting to re-imagine what short-form content could be, we also wanted to have a way for the period of time ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ was off the air and ‘The Walking Dead’ was on the air to keep that world alive and keep people engaged in ‘Fear the Walking Dead,’” says Joel Stillerman, president of original programming and development, AMC and Sundance TV. “The creative driver for ‘462’ was: How do we take a story, tell it in a serialized way in short form, but also do it in a way that continues to immerse people in the beginning of the zombie apocalypse? — which was a big differentiator of ‘Fear the Walking Dead.’”
As such, Stillerman says “462” was a hybrid of sorts, streaming not only digitally, but also airing during commercial breaks of “The Walking Dead.” “The idea of taking these short form pieces and presenting them in a serialized way, those things, structurally, got us interested in trying to tell a story a different way.”
Even better, there was a crossover between “462” and its namesake series by having “Fear the Walking Dead” character Nick [Frank Dillane] watch the ill-fated plane fly overhead, and giving a “462” character, Alex [Michelle Ang] a story arc on season two of “Fear the Walking Dead.”
Across all platforms, Stillerman says “462” had about 8 million views. “We’re very happy with those results. It was a truly original way to extend brands and push promotional messages out through non-traditional [means]. We will absolutely look at other opportunities [in short form].”
While Hsia, Cabana and Stillerman are all committed to the short form format, Hsia says there’s a big learning curve.
“There are so many challenges with digital video series,” she says. “What’s the best way to distribute them? Should you give them all at once in a binge fashion, or should you do it in batches? What’s the best way to let audiences know it exists? How can we leverage social [media] best to spread the word? Do we need to create different versions of the content for different platforms? With a series like ‘Off the Menu,’ should we be creating something for Snapchat or Facebook to encourage people to watch the longer versions? The jury’s still out on how audiences will learn about and enjoy video series, but we’re very pleased with the results so far.”