When motion pictures were invented at the end of the 19th century, most films were shorter than a minute, because of the limitations of technology. A little more than a hundred years later when Web videos were introduced, they were also cut short, but for social as well as technical reasons.
Video creators, by and large, thought their audiences were impatient. A three-minute-long comedy skit? Shrink it to 90 seconds. Slow Internet connections made for tedious viewing, and there were few ads to cover high delivery costs. And so it became the first commandment of online video: Keep it short.
New Web habits, aided by the screen-filling video that faster Internet access allows, are now debunking the rule. As the Internet becomes a jukebox for every imaginable type of video — from baby videos to “Masterpiece Theater” — producers and advertisers are discovering that users will watch for more than two minutes at a time.
The viral videos of YouTube 1.0 — dog-on-skateboard and cat-on-keyboard — are being supplemented by a new, more vibrant generation of online video. Production companies are now creating 10- and 20-minute shows for the Internet and writing story arcs for their characters — essentially acting more like television producers, while operating far outside the boundaries of a network schedule.
Some are specifically introducing new shows this month with the knowledge that TV networks generally show repeats and reality shows over the summer.
Yet TV networks get much of the credit for the longer-length viewing behavior. In the past two TV seasons, nearly every broadcast show has been streamed free on the Internet, making users accustomed to watching TV online for 20-plus minutes at a time. By some estimates, one in four Internet customers now uses Hulu, an online home for NBC and Fox shows, every month. “Dancing With the Stars,” the popular ABC reality show, draws almost two million viewers on ABC.com, according to Nielsen.
“People are getting more comfortable, for better or for worse, bringing a computer to bed with them,” said Dina Kaplan, the co-founder of Blip.tv.
Ms. Kaplan’s firm distributes dozens of Web series. A year ago all but one of the top 25 shows on her Web servers clocked in at under five minutes. Now, the average video hosted by Blip is 14 minutes long — “surprising even to us,” she said. The longest video uploaded in May was 133 minutes long, equivalent to a feature-length film.
Dave Beeler, a producer of “Safety Geeks: SVI,” about a threesome who make the world more dangerous as they try to protect it, said the “fallacy that anyone post-MTV has no attention span” is being refuted by the success of original video Web sites.
While online video is not going to replace television anytime soon, it is now decidedly mainstream. About 150 million Internet users in the United States watch about 14.5 billion videos a month, according to the measurement firm comScore, or an average of 97 videos per viewer. Although the Web lacks a standard for video measurement, comScore says average video durations have risen slowly but surely in the past year, to an average of 3.4 minutes in March.
To be sure, many of the most-watched videos are still as short as a song. But YouTube, the dominant video destination, recently recognized the trend and added a “Shows” tab to its pages, directing users to long-form TV episodes and movies. Jon Gibs, a vice president for media analytics for Nielsen, said online video — projected by eMarketer to be a $1 billion business in 2011 — is at a pivotal point.
“Historically it has been very much a clip-based experience online,” he said. “We believe we are moving into a transition period where more of that viewership is going toward long-form video.”
Much of the video innovation is coming from people who — empowered by inexpensive editing equipment and virtually no distribution costs — are creating content specifically for an online audience.
“On the Web, producers have this delicious freedom to produce content as long as it should be. They’re starting to take advantage of that,” Ms. Kaplan said.
What took so long? Tom Konkle, Mr. Beeler’s production partner on “Safety Geeks,” suggested that the shorter-is-better rule reflected limitations in Internet speed and server space. As computer power has improved, the video experience has too.
“A few years ago, three minutes ‘watching’ your computer felt like a novelty; now, it’s as familiar as your television set,” he said.
Two years ago when the comedian David Wain was stitching together the first episode of his series “Wainy Days,” he called Rob Barnett, the founder of the video distribution site My Damn Channel, and asked whether a nine-minute video would seem drawn out. Mr. Barnett deferred to the creator, and an hour later Mr. Wain called back with his mind made up: he would slice the first episode into three parts.
“I bet you, if this phone call happened today, we’d go with a nine-minute piece,” Mr. Barnett said. “I think it comes down to quality winning out over minutes and seconds.”
In short, the storytelling is superseding the stopwatch. “If there’s good storytelling and good production values, people are willing to engage with the content,” said Eric Berger, a senior vice president of Crackle, the Sony video site.
More than anything else, the longer viewing spans may speak to the maturation of the medium itself. Mr. Konkle said that the first kinetoscopes, in the 1890s, were about 30 seconds long, because the format required outrageously long strips of film.
“It was also accepted as fact that 30 seconds made for a good kinetoscope. This is what filmmakers thought the audience could handle,” Mr. Konkle said, drawing a parallel to the early days of online video. “It probably felt like a giant dangerous leap to short films of three minutes.”
Blockbuster movies now, of course, are measured by the hour, not the second; the most popular one last year, “The Dark Knight,” clocked in at two and a half hours.