Fifteen minutes of prestige: how Hollywood went long on short content | Television & radio


State of the Union opens in a bar, where Tom (Chris O’Dowd) and Louise (Rosamund Pike) hash out an agenda for their marital therapy session over drinks and witty diversions. The two banter and alternately confront and avoid the flailing state of their marriage, before the scene cuts at the therapist’s door.

And by scene, I mean episode. Each instalment of State of the Union, developed and written by Nick Hornby for Sundance TV, lasts a mere 10 minutes – less than half the length of a standard sitcom, and just over a tenth of the latest episode of Game of Thrones. The show, with its two principal characters and single-scene conceit, is peak TV in short-form, specifically designed to fit the time spent between subway stops. At 100 minutes a season, it’s a “refreshing” antidote to seemingly endless hours of original shows, said Daniel D’Addario, chief TV critic at Variety. “There are so many shows nowadays where I think people really feel the burn, because shows can be as long as creators and streaming services want them to be, and they can often be longer than consumers need them to be,” he told the Guardian.

Short-form content is not new – ask anyone who has gone down a YouTube hole of music videos, makeup tutorials or cooking how-tos – but State of the Union represents a growing trend of “snackable”, stylish short-form from some of Hollywood’s major players.

Netflix recently debuted two series with episodes of about 15 minutes: Special, a show about life as a gay man with cerebral palsy adapted from writer and star Ryan O’Connell’s memoir, and Bonding, a series based on creator Rightor Doyle’s past as the bodyguard for a dominatrix. Just last week, Adult Swim greenlit the quarter-hour comedy series Three Busy Debras, from star Sandy Honig (Isn’t It Romantic) and producer Amy Poehler. And the upcoming short-form video platform Quibi – arriving from Hollywood titan Jeffrey Katzenberg, formerly the head of Dreamworks, and former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman – announced the series #Freerayshawn, directed by Antoine Fuqua and starring If Beale Street Could Talk breakout star Stephan James.

In other words, short-form has gone prestige. Once the purview of DIY YouTubers and aspiring creatives looking for a big break (Issa Rae graduated from the minutes-long webseries The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl to HBO’s full-length comedy Insecure), short-form now commands a deep well of resources – the backing of major studios, streaming-service budgets and top talent. And as the slate of original content continues to expand, scripted short-form TV may become the most contested battleground for heavyweight tech and content companies, as everyone from Snap to YouTube to Sundance TV compete for a quarter-hour snippet of attention.

A still from Special



A still from Special Photograph: Netflix

Katzenberg has declared the shift to short-form as era-defining, telling a crowd at South by Southwest: “Five years from now, we want to come back on this stage and if we were successful, there will have been the era of movies, the era of television and the era of Quibi. What Google is to search, Quibi will be to short-form video.”

Quibi, short for “quick-bite”, is a $5 a month subscription service that will break full-length TV and movies into mobile-optimized six to 10 minute chunks. Set to launch in April 2020, the service is already worth more than $1bn and is developing projects with Lena Waithe, Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro, Justin Timberlake and a Fatal Attraction 2.0 thriller with Naomi Watts.

It’s still too early to tell whether Quibi’s world of short-form will fundamentally reshape the hierarchy of Hollywood content. But shows like State of the Union have already demonstrated that scripted short-form can open up TV to new formats and voices that might not otherwise make it to series in a traditional length.

Special and Bonding, for example, both feature marginalized perspectives who challenge the TV status quo, and were probably considered a “risk” in finding a broad audience on broadcast. Netflix’s vice-president of product, Todd Yelling, has said that the decision to go short, standard or long depends on the material. “It’s really about flexibility in storytelling. Some stories are best told in six minutes and some stories are best told in 10 hours,” he told Variety in March.

State of the Union isn’t about inclusion, but it is “a show that for many reasons couldn’t really work at 30 minutes – because of Rosamund Pike’s stature, because of the kind of story that it’s trying to tell”, said D’Addario. Each episode is less truncated sitcom than entry in a length-based genre – a short story to a novel, D’Addario said, made possible by the proliferation of streaming. “Streaming presents this real opportunity to experiment that on broadcast and even on a lot of cable, you can’t really do a shorter show,” he said. “You’re locked into these time slots and these formats.”

Chris O’Dowd and Rosamund Pike in State of the Union.



Chris O’Dowd and Rosamund Pike in State of the Union. Photograph: Marc Hom/SundanceTV

For Sundance TV, which has both a cable arm and a streaming service, the quality of the short product justified the risk of finding viewers. “We loved the idea of using these incredibly talented people to break new ground in television,” its executive director Jan Diedrichsen said to the Guardian. Sundance TV played each new episode of State of the Union linearly, at 10pm each night, and made them available for streaming at 5pm, in time for the evening commute. “If you’re on the train, you’re on the bus, you’re carpooling, what a great time to be able to catch 10 minutes of an episode in a way that a 50-minute episode may not be open to you,” said Diedrichsen of the reasoning.

D’Addario said that’s exactly how he watched I Think You Should Leave, Tim Robinson’s 15-minute sketch comedy show on Netflix – and enjoyed it.

“These kind of fast-moving 15-minute shows that are trying to do a couple things really well, and are you’re in and you’re out in a quarter of an hour, are a really satisfying mobile experience.”

“I love the fact that the creativity around this format really gives you a different sort of satisfying feel in premium television,” said Diedrichsen of the length experiment. While it’s too soon to know how viewers responded to State of the Union – did they watch episodes individually? All at once? – Diedrichsen loves how the show “takes the short-form structure and it makes it premium. The talent, the production values – everything about it feels prestige and high-end.”

Snappy dialogue, expensive lighting, slick production – it’s the hallmarks of so-called prestige TV, pared down to the anti-Thrones extreme. In that way, the new short-form is “as characteristic of the streaming era as is an overlong, somewhat bloated series”, said D’Addario.

I started watching State of the Union for this piece, intending to get a taste of the format through two or three episodes. But soon I fell into the rhythm of binge-watching, that liminal space where real-life hours become show minutes and the pull of responsibilities faded with each autoplay. It’s not unusual for me to lose a whole sleepless night to an engaging seven episodes of TV. This time, though, it was just my lunch break.



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