Nano-Toons? Mobisodics? Pocket Vaudeville? What Will Mobile Media Look Like, Anyway?

It was only a matter of time before TV programmers started rethinking their content for the app age. Or maybe this is a revival of an old mobile content idea whose time has come.

On Friday a report in The New York Times revealed that Cartoon Network is planning a Cartoon Anything mobile app to launch later this year with original 15-second video content. The free package will also include games, trivia and polls. CN is calling the effort a “micro-network” designed to capture the enormous amount of time kids are spending with smartphones and especially tablets at home. Unlike other cable-oriented apps, however, Cartoon Network Anything will be free for all and not require authentication of a cable subscription for access.

CN Digital VP Chris Waldron characterized this as an effort to “boil down Cartoon Network to its essence, to the smallest device… . This is a four-inch device concept.” The app will deliver a blend of lean-back and interactive videos as well as polls and games. Some of the video content will be exclusive to the apps. Users will be able to swipe through the selections and “like” content, providing feedback that CN will be monitoring to assess the popularity of new ideas.

The idea of TV networks creating new formats of content for the smartphone is not entirely new, although few have ventured beyond repurposed TV during this smartphone age. Before the iPhone era, ABC embarked on mobile original short-form serial drama. They experimented with story arcs, editing and framing styles, and small, easily recalled cast rosters that seemed more digestible to short attention spans and the small screen. While these series were immediately forgettable and short-lived, they represented the first attempts at reimagining traditional genres for the new formats and circumstances of the tiny screen.

Constructing native programming types for new digital platforms has a decidedly mixed history overall. Arguably, the Internet itself has been a graveyard of failed notions of what post-TV genres might be. Anyone remember the original attempts at Web-based entertainment like the aborted The Den, the downright weird Pseudo TV, the text-drive The Spot, and ridiculously ambitious Entertaindom from the doomed AOL Time Warner Merger? In the mid-2000s, hip TV execs tried a series of Webisodic series that spiked in their first episodes only to drop off a cliff, and out of sight, in subsequent issues. There was a brief moment at the dawn of video podcasting when Mondo Media was doing genuinely funny work like Hard Drinkin’s Lincoln, The God and Devil Show and Thugs on Film when flash based non-serial three-minute shows seemed plausible. But distribution and recidivism remained a problem. Sustaining an audience for even creative fare was a persistent issue.

It wasn’t until YouTube established a distribution and creation mechanism that we started to see a new kind of video programming emerge. It was non-episodic for easier random access. It was both short and usually packed with even smaller segments. And it was usually driven by eccentric or loud personalities. And most of it had, and still has, an amateurish edge. After all of those years of TV trying to bring its production values, high concepts and serialized arcs to the Web, the class clowns in the school halls turned out to be the source of a new genre that worked better on the platform.

I look forward to any attempt by professional content thinkers to innovate creatively on the mobile platform. Despite the many false starts on the Web, I still have some faith that a micro-screen, mobile stage should give birth to new aesthetic forms. But we already see glimpses of it coming from amateur sources. Look to the emerging stars of Vine and Instagram. There is amazing work going on there working in comedy that communicates in five-word phrases and fleeting glances. At last week’s OMMA SXSW, our session on Instagram and Vine included executives from GE, Gannett and Lowe’s, all of whom said that these nano-video formats were informing their thinking about storytelling and compression across all other media. Over the summer at the Mobile Insider Summit we had the editor-in-chief of NowThisNews share their realization that 15-second storytelling was working on such a compressed narrative arc that the essential points needed to be conveyed in the first few seconds.

Every new media platform needs to find its own endemic forms and genres. If you look at the earliest shorts in the film industry (“Fun in a Bakery Shop” circa 1902) you see in protean form some of the essentials of film aesthetic. There is slapstick, animated special effects, action, fighting. And of course the main character is a worker/artist manipulating forms into folk art -- expressive of what film itself was becoming. Following a similar pattern later in the century, family-centric situation comedy became the native and new forms for radio and TV. The first media device in the living room took the living room as its main subject. New media find their own native genres over time.  

Mobile media could do worse than look for inspiration in the very first film shorts of over a century ago. Some of that energy and those protean elements are already apparent in mobile media. Look at the Vine and Instagram celebrities and see how they are using video to suggest essential aesthetic elements of a six- or 15-second narrative. Glances, double-takes, catchphrases, slivers of everyday life, pregnant moments, moments at the brink of meaning -- this is the stuff of micro-video art. Then add to that the sequencing that can occur in a timeline stream -- how these nano-vids can add up to something when dispersed in an unpredictable, personalized aggregation of subscriptions. Somewhere in there is a unique mode of expression germinating. I don’t know what it will be yet, no more than we could see in the one-minute silents of 1902 a clear path to “City Lights.” Only in retrospect is it apparent.    

This is exciting, fresh and new because it forces creativity into channels that at first feel as restrictive as did filmmaking in Edison’s Black Maria movie studio in West Orange, N.J. or as did broadcasting drama, comedy and symphonies in sound-proofed closets, the first radio studios.

It is time once again to have some fun in the bakery.        

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