Subscription Vs. Free: The Future of Short-Form Vs. Long-Form Video

Many people, myself included, have spent time thinking and writing about the differences between native digital content creators and TV/traditional content creators.  In general, we frame our thinking against the backdrop of an incredibly fast-moving digital landscape:  new distribution models, connected and smart TV, consumption habits in mobile, net neutrality issues, MSO vs. velecom vs. OTT vs. Xbox -- the list is endless.

Using this digital backdrop, we continue to think of digital content creators and Hollywood content creators as two completely distinct and generally opposing sides, based on some old distribution, creation, and operational models within which they used to fit.  But those models are breaking down. Vertical integration is trending upward, discovery and market share are increasingly difficult to solve, creation costs are going down, and gross revenue per product is dropping.

I would argue that there’s another way to look at content creators through the lens of current marketplace trends -- one that doesn’t rely on old constructs. If you look at what might be characterized as subscription vs. free/bundled content creators and providers, they appear to be approaching digital in different ways. 



Subscription companies like HBO, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and now WWE are investing in long-form content. At the same time, TV and cable networks, and multichannel networks (primarily YouTube-based), which are generally either free or bundled but not directly subscribed, are investing more heavily in short form digital content.  Discovery has launched Sci2, NFL Network has launched NFL Now, NBC News is focusing on digital originals, and MCN heroes like Nigahiga and Tobuscus continue to produce their popular content in short form.  These differing approaches are not absolutes, but they seem to be becoming the online/mobile norms.

So what might this mean?

For one thing, it means that YouTube will remain a place for short-form content, despite Google’s much-publicized channel efforts.  There have been, and will continue to be, experiments with subscription models and long-form content -- but consumers use YouTube in a specific way, and unless that behavior changes, this will remain a domain of ad-supported short-form content. 

It also means that as traditional creators like Discovery, NBC, and others try and build their digital presence with short-form content, they will end up either ceding to, or partnering with, YouTube.  Otherwise, these networks will continue to spend resources on keeping an audience on a site where it is less interested in being.  In addition, while still necessary, the importance of virality may decrease as MCNs aggregate audiences and are able to reach scale with less reliance on smash hit content.  In that way, the long tail may be sufficient when partnered with fewer viral hits.

It also means that long-form content will have a harder time reaching scale.  This is because the audience, as it continues to cut cords and unbundled in a move toward direct subscriptions, will disperse in a way that makes it harder to reach.  Solutions to this problem may include acquisitions like a DirecTV purchase of A&E Networks, similar to Comcast’s purchase of NBC, to amass an audience in the same way that the MCNs are doing on YouTube.  Or, on an even larger scale, this challenge for long-form content may reshape the entire process of digital content investment and creation -- it could move away from the pilot stage and look more like the movie industry (or Netflix), with great sums plunged into fewer projects.

It’s unclear yet whether or not this divide is a long-term trend.  But if so, then the future will focus on long-form content for direct purchase or subscription, and short-form content that is free and ad-supported. Isn’t that what movies, plays, records and books always were to TV, radio, and newspapers?

2 comments about "Subscription Vs. Free: The Future of Short-Form Vs. Long-Form Video".
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  1. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance, February 27, 2014 at 5:46 a.m.

    Long form content seems to be growing quickly right now, so I don't see a problem with scale. The issue may be when this is user-generated content, not traditional "Hollywood" long-form content. Just one example:

  2. Eric Korsh from DigitasLBi, February 28, 2014 at 9:03 a.m.

    Pete - Interesting point about alternative types of long-form like Twitch (feels basically like CSPAN for gamers!). Especially Twitch that is delivered as a different experience on a different platform. Maybe there will be an entire category of Voyeuristic content.

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