In a recent article in the Los Angeles Times,Anthony Zuiker said that he chose to release “Cybergeddon” digitally because he believes the format represents the future of storytelling. It remains unclarified in the article, but I assume he is referring to the two-way and immersive cross-platform capabilities of digital, and not the “screen.” Regardless, I like the way that Yahoo is distributing “Cybergeddon.” It’s a subtle evolution that better positions “Cybergeddon” for success than some other recent digitally released series, such as "Aim High" or" H+". Put simply, it’s a better marketing plan, for two primary reasons:
Short form content (such as Loony Tunes and Spongebob) has traditionally lived best in stand-alone format. That is, each episode needs to be watchable on its own, from the perspective of story. Characters may take longer to develop, and arcing storylines can progress across seasons, but generally speaking each episode must be its own short story.
While the “Cybergeddon” episodes are only slightly longer than traditional digital in length for this type of storytelling (they clock in at 10 minutes), they are being released three episodes at a time. This may seem like a minor modification, but 30 minutes is a comfortable time frame to dedicate to a dramatic piece of content -– and it’s not something that I’ve seen in episodic digital releases.
Imagine watching “The Godfather” or “Lost” in eight-minute increments, and then waiting a week to see the next iteration. It would be maddening. In fact, to watch "Lost," you’d need a recap that was longer than the episode to catch up before you started watching.
Somehow, because of either screen size or observed behavior, digital has a presumed short length. But the reason for that is the earliest videos were short UGC clips and tiny pieces of larger content that we were more familiar with. The digital = short conclusions may have been self-fulfilling from the start - inputs evaluated were the inputs available. If bandwidth were less of an issue, if people made long form content available (or made it at all), or if the content had converged on the first screen sooner, perhaps we would have seen more engagement with longer content. The lesson is that short content is probably best served via digital, but digital needn’t be short.
Native digital content, whether entertaining or informative, has generally been an archived experience. Even dedicated live streaming events try, to the largest extent possible, to archive for a continued and broader experience. Digital properties rarely release content episodically with the intention of having an audience watch at a specific moment in time. H+ attempted this by releasing content weekly at a specific time. But still – the episodes were short and they tried to add value with a social audience on the web – essentially a same-screen experience (which to date, outside of VH1 pop-up video and Mystery Science Theater, has failed). Currently, those social experiences that are connected to content are, typically, best when paired with linear (live) viewing.
But “Cybergeddon” has packed its nine 10-minute episodes into three days -– which is a version of appointment viewing. I’ve written about this before, but if you think of a movie as a three-week appointment viewing period within which the value of seeing the film is based on the window of social, pop culture or community dialogue, then you can begin to see the value of releasing “Cybergeddon” as a three-day mini-series. Just like “Roots” and “Rich Man Poor Man.”
The recent Olympics and last year’s March Madness opened many eyes to the utility of digital in live viewing. There is no reason to think that digital release cannot be an appointment event similar to traditional television. In fact, the social tools that are purpose built for community experience around appointment events (such as concerts, sporting events, and TV shows), have just as much functionality with digital series.
As with all marketing, the digital strategy can’t make the content itself good. For instance, H+’ YouTube views show a steady, inexorable descent, but its marketing program has had interesting elements. That is why I see “Cybergeddon” as a step forward in the marketing and distribution of premium video content -- despite its reviews.