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‘State of the Union,’ ‘Special,’ ‘Bonding’ Prove Short Form Is Not Small Content

There has been much said — and many headlines written — about peak TV providing almost 500 scripted series last year and showing no signs of slowing down. One area not often taken into consideration in that equation is short form, which is seeing its own emergence of creative, high-brow content.

Some of the top deliverers in the genre include Netflix, which offers six series including Ryan O’Connell’s “Special,” Solvan Naim’s “It’s Bruno” and Rightor Doyle’s “Bonding,” as well as Sundance, which has “State of the Union” from writer Nick Hornby, director Stephen Frears and stars Chris O’Dowd and Rosamund Pike as a married couple who meet in a pub for 10-minute conversations before their weekly counseling sessions.

“While there is obviously lots of short form programming out there, we think this is a really premium environment for a short form series with A-list talent, an A-list writer and an A-list director,” says Sundance Now and SundanceTV executive director Jan Diedrichsen. “It really elevated what the golden age of premium television could be in the short form space.”

For Hornby, who admits he was actually inspired to try the format by watching the pre-HBO webisodes of “High Maintenance,” the shorter time spent with the storytelling made it more accessible, allowing him to write scripts between other projects. He feels the audience also appreciates the shorter time commitment asked of them.

“You can watch one on the bus and feel like you’ve accomplished something on your journey,” he says.

And Diedrichsen agrees: “There is real quality and value in these short-form series. They can actually be incredibly satisfying and don’t just have to be seen as an appetizer. As content continues to explode, viewers are much more comfortable taking these shows in shorter bites that fit much better into their schedules.”

For O’Connell, whose series is loosely based on his own experiences as a gay man with cerebral palsy trying to find a relationship, “Special” was told in 15-minute episodes because it was originally sold to Warner Bros.’ Stage 13.

In that time frame, he admits you only have room for “an A-story and a light B-story,” but he appreciates how bingeable his show is in this format.

“[The entire first season] is two hours, basically the length of a movie, so it’s definitely doable,” he says. “Nowadays I’ll start watching a show I really like and stop at Episode 7 because another show came out. I have a lot of half-finished shows I genuinely adore.”

Similarly, Doyle pitched and sold “Bonding,” his dark comedy centered on a psychiatry student who also works as a dominatrix, to another outlet prior to Netflix, which allowed him to play with the format before landing on episodes that run between 13 and 18 minutes.

“The story is lean because the episodes are lean,” he says.

At some outlets, executives inquired about elongating the completed episodes to fit more conventional running times, but Doyle says that didn’t seem right for the project.
Of course, the aforementioned just encompass the scripted side of things, but there’s an even larger flurry of unscripted content, from FX’s behind-the-scenes pieces with “What We Do in the Shadows” and “Mayans M.C.,” to Apple’s James Corden-produced “Carpool Karaoke” and National Geographic’s “Life Behind Live Below.”

Across the board, these premium short-form series have changed the game of the format after a year that also saw the Television Academy tighten its eligibility rules. Now, the organization puts together panels to vet and identify “Emmy-competitive series.”

And short form content creation certainly shows no signs of slowing down.

“I don’t know if we’re at peak short form yet — we probably have a little while to get to peak — but I do think there’s a lot of excitement in the space, and for us the excitement is around the creative possibilities,” Diedrichsen says. “It isn’t driven by budgets or downsizing; it really is [about] how [we can] do things different, play with the form in a way that’s unique.”

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