Netflix announced plans this week to release a new series of 15-minute comedy specials in the coming months. The move, which was first reported by Vulture, was widely seen as evidence that Netflix is doubling down on stand-up. Another side to this story got far less attention: By going short, Netflix is taking another stab at producing content optimized for mobile screens — an idea that the company has been grappling with for some time.
Netflix is best known for popularizing binge-viewing, and the company’s app regularly tops the charts on streaming device platforms like Roku. It’s a different picture on mobile however, where YouTube gets more usage than Netflix.
That’s in part because mobile viewing sessions tend to be shorter: Long-form viewing on mobile devices is growing as phone screens are getting bigger, but 47% of all mobile-video viewing time is still spent on clips shorter than 20 minutes, according to recent data from video platform provider Ooyala. What’s more, 39% of viewing time is attributable to clips five minutes or shorter.
Netflix executives realized early on that they didn’t actually have any titles in their catalog that would match these viewing patterns. That’s why in 2014, the company briefly experimented with snackable five-minute super-cuts from existing TV shows, movies, and stand-up-specials as part of its mobile app. That test ultimately didn’t pan out, and the team working on short-form videos changed direction to instead make trailers and other assets to promote Netflix’s TV shows within the app, according to a source familiar with the project.
However, Netflix didn’t give up on short-form altogether. The service quietly added a few short-form shows to its catalog in recent years. Most notably, Netflix licensed a number of Korean webisodes, which originally premiered on the local Naver TV streaming service. This includes the Korean drama “Ready for Start,” with episodes averaging just seven minutes.
In 2017, Netflix added “Small Shots,” a short-form show from Fox Digital Studios, with episodes ranging from five to 15 minutes. Around the same time, then-Chief Product Officer Neil Hunt raised the idea of re-cutting shows to get them to work better on mobile screens, which could include closer zooms on key characters’ faces.
Now, Netflix is taking the next step with 15-minute comedy specials, with comics including Aisling Bea, Michelle Buteau, Tim Dillon, JR De Guzman, Sabrina Jalees, Janelle James, Sam Jay, Josh Johnson, Ian Karmel, Jak Knight, Matteo Lane, Max Silvestri, Taylor Tomlinson, Phil Wang, Emma Willmann, and Kate Willett, according to Vulture.
There are plenty of reasons why Netflix has been careful to add short-form to its catalog. The company has long resisted new content categories or features that could dilute its brand. Netflix isn’t doing live streaming, isn’t bidding on sports rights, and doesn’t run an ad-supported free service — all things you might find on Facebook or YouTube, both platforms that have embraced short-form from day one. Adding all sorts of short videos could make Netflix look more like YouTube, which may do more harm than good to its brand.
Without mentioning short-form, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings reiterated this vision of a clearly-defined brand during the company’s Q4 2017 earnings call Monday: “We’ve got a path ahead. Everyone else in streaming is trying to find one.”
Then again, Netflix executives have also long talked about winning the moment of truth, which is essentially the moment a consumer sits down and decides what to do with their spare time. And as more and more consumers angle for their phone in that very moment, Netflix is likely going to continue to experiment with shorter videos.
A Netflix spokesperson declined to comment on the company’s plans for short-form content.