Before YouTube, people turned to iFilm for video entertainment. While the site would occasionally publish a viral video without the written consent of the rightsholder; iFilm largely housed movie trailers. Viacom acquired iFilm for $49 million in October 2005.
While they were advertisements, trailers were the quintessential short form of entertainment. But as a sign of how little "professional" video content existed at the time, iFilm was able to build a syndication business by aggregating movie trailers and redistributing them around the Web.
Definition of Long Form Content?
I always ask media executives, ad planners and content owners for their definition of long-form content. Judging from responses, there's absolutely no standard or widely accepted definition. In fact, the definition is a matter of context. For example, when we started producing videos in 2006, our average video lasted 30 to 120 seconds; as such, anything over two minutes seemed long-form. Today our average video lasts two to five minutes, so anything over five minutes is long-form (to us). Ask a studio executive and you shall get a very different answer. As more content appears online and the business of video grows, the answer will vary accordingly.
A Matter of Rights
By merely focusing on aggregating, iFilm and the like were at the mercy of content owners and what they made available online. At the time, that was trailers. Today, we are seeing a wide array of content being made available online, but not necessarily to the aggregators.
Before Hulu launched in 2007, what the traditional media companies (TMCs) called long-form content was nonexistent at best and DOA at worst. When it did exist, it was found on Bitorrent or The Pirate Bay -- not exactly rightsholders' ideal home. Hulu changed things, prompting YouTube to remove the 10-minute cap on video length in June 2008.
Hulu's success can be credited not simply to the quality of content but also to the convenience of being able to time shift. Indeed, as chronicled in this New York Timesarticle, Jason Kilar told Charlie Rose in 2009 that "media was an impulse business. Viewers don't need '30 Rock' the way they need food or water, but if you can make it easier to consume, people will consume more of it. The 'aha moment' for consumers was when they saw that basically they could consume '30 Rock' when they wanted - when it was convenient after the kids went to sleep, or in the morning when they had a break. And that's very liberating, it's very empowering, and I think at the heart, that's a big part of the Hulu value proposition."
Kilar is right; that might very well be the power of Hulu, because it's the convenience of legally watching super-premium content when you want that made the service popular.
But therein lies the rub. As the TMC owners behind Hulu rethink their strategy and cut back on content and convenience, Hulu appears doomed. The convenience of watching long-form content whenever they want works for busy parents and professionals -- but what about the children? And what about the ADHD generation?
Since Hulu launched, TMCs have used the Web as a distribution platform to push their traditional models. In other words, they will use the Web's pipes to try to get consumers to subscribe or license content but not publish for free in the hopes of generating advertising revenues.
With Netflix's market cap growth, Apple's iTunes transitioning from music to television and movies, Amazon and CBS' recent deal, Time Warner's TV Everywhere and Comcast's Xfinity, rightfully a lot of the focus has been placed on long-form programming using the power of the web to reach consumers.
Personally, I think that social and technological shifts will make the Web a medium for short-form programming, and there will be a regression to the mean, especially with the "cool crowd."
While TMCs are starting to do a decent job of using the Web to experiment and distribute their content, they're only scratching the surface. If and when they can take their traditional assets and bring them to life online in a format and style that younger audiences will embrace, then they will unlock considerable value. The problem, of course, remains the same: online video remains too small for TMCs to fully embrace with their existing assets, let alone pour in more resources to repurpose the media for online habits and preferences. But if they can find a way to accomplish that goal, then it's lights, camera and profits!