When you decide to watch a web series how much do you usually watch? When Youtube launched back in 2005 videos had a maximum length of ten minutes, and traditionally shorter videos had an easier time capturing more viewers. Two weeks ago the Kony 2012 documentary shattered viral records despite being a half hour long. Short form is the environment viral videos and web series have grown up in, but before they can really mature they might first need to leave the nest.

Kony video statsIt makes sense to believe that videos need to be short in order to get through the noise and find an audience willing to give them a chance. Shorter videos are cheaper to produce and provide more opportunities for running advertisements as well. No doubt, short form will be the dominant format on the web for some time but for the time being short form narrative has failed to take off outside of a handful of comedy programs. The popularity of the Kony video shows us that audiences do not care about video length if the content is engaging and they are socially compelled to watch.

One of my biggest frustrations with web series has been when I watched them as they were released – one by one by one. Or to a far lesser extent watching these same series after all the episodes had been released and being inundated with title and credit sequences over and over again. Creators do this in some feeble attempt at creating an event out of their show when they really just need to create buzz.

LILYHAMMERNetflix, while not exactly in the web series game, recently made the decision to post all of the episodes of its streaming only show ‘Lilyhammer’ online at the same time. It is one thing to try to create buzz around a specific event – like a television time slot – but it is another to understand your viewing audience and recognize that people viewing at home, on their own time, have set aside time specifically for being entertained. Netflix had already gotten the word out about their show, with many online articles talking about the company’s excursion into the content creation arena. Posting the videos week to week – to attempt to create additional buzz- goes against the nature of the Netflix platform.

The biggest problem with the way most web series are distributed is that they are shown episodically but written more like features. This means that episodes feel more like segments of something greater and never seem to stand on their own. While this makes me want to watch the next section it upsets me that I have to physically do so – and it is far worse if I am forced to wait. I have yet to follow a single series from episode to episode, week to week.

While the Kony video does not seek to create following around a series of videos it succeeded in creating a following around one, long video. Audiences have in turn spent even more time discussing the video online, posting replies, and participating in countless discussions on the subject – and ultimately many have donated to the Invisible Children organization. These deeply engaged viewers are likely the key to sustaining online productions and none of this would have happened if the video was not of a high level of quality.

When someone sits down to watch your show they are setting their time aside to give you a chance to tell them a story. Sure they might close the window 45 seconds in but if you engage them they will keep it open for as long as you do so. The quickest way to get a viewer to give up on your show is to end it and force them to choose to continue before they would have made that decision on their own.

Think of it this way, what other form of storytelling in the past has failed to tell a complete story? Short films may share the limited time component of web series episodes but they all tell a complete story – beginning, middle and end. Hollywood blockbuster trilogies are the same way, and most notably episodic television dramas rarely fail to tell a complete story in their allotted time.

People do not seem to have a tough time sitting through two hour movies, if they are engaged in the story, and people who enjoy your web series typically watch from beginning to end, often for just as long as a feature.

So maybe it is time we start second-guessing the need for web series to be in short form. Mobile views are propelling web video to new heights. The bulk of these views seem to be coming from the ever-growing tablet market, and according to this article posted on Media Post yesterday viewers are starting to form unique habits around their mobile devices. The real question right now seems to be whether tablets will become lean back and relax long form devices or convenient, on the go, short form devices.

No matter how things shake out, it is becoming ever clearer to me that content needs to be true to its format. If you want your audience to sit back, relax and enjoy your show, then make a show that is easy to sit back and relax while watching. If you want to make viral videos that people can view on the go, on their phones or while multitasking then make videos that do that. Whatever you do, please stop trying to do it all.