Mine is shorter than yours…yipeee!

In the topsy turvy media world, ‘conventional wisdom’ about film-making is being rapidly undone by the march of what is now known as ‘Digital Natives‘ — those currently under 30 years, who have grown up taking Internet, mobile phones and video games completely for granted.

These Digital Natives are not inclined to watch long duration documentaries. Five minutes is about right. With effort, we can get them to sit through an offering of 10 to 15 minutes. Half an hour is ‘really long’. One hour or 90 minute films — just forget it.

The sooner we face up to this reality, the better. We may not like it, but it’s not the end of the world.

In fact, it challenges us in the media to strive for greater economy of words and time.

As anyone who has worked in television news will confirm, it is indeed possible to tell a story in 100 seconds, if we package it well and carefully. Purists might call it dumbing down of television. Pragmatists would see it as customising to suit new audience realities. I go along with the latter view.

TVE Asia Pacific is not a broadcaster on its own. We produce and distribute content to over three dozen TV channels and networks spread across the Asia Pacific, now home to the world’s largest television audience. It’s through these ‘Emperors of Eyeballs’ (as I like to call them!) that we reach out.

Our broadcast partners have a good idea what their audiences want. Channel after channel tells us that the preference is for shorter, more compact programming. It would be naive to ignore this feedback and market intelligence.

The truth is: we can communicate ‘serious’ content — as long as the packaging and duration are to suit the audience realities.
That’s why TVE Asia Pacific’s recent productions have mostly followed the 5 minute format: we begin, tell and end a self-contained story in just 300 seconds.

Our recent series are examples: The Greenbelt Reports, Digits4Change and Living Labs.

The Greenbelt Reports by TVE Asia Pacific

And that’s a lot of time on screen. We have covered complex issues in exactly five minutes: for example, combating soil salinity with low cost methods; building ‘bio-shields’ of mangroves against the sea’s ravages; and using webcams and satellite links for tele-health.

These and other films continue to be broadcast and used in a range of education, advocacy and awareness efforts across the Asia Pacific and beyond.

No one has really complained about them being too short — except for some film-makers. Some have dismissed our efforts as ‘tabloid television’ and ‘not really documentaries’.

We remain unaffected. We do produce half hour documentaries from time to time, for specific purposes and defined audiences. But to ignore the mass audience trends would be to box ourselves into a tiny part of the audio-visual landscape.

We now know it is much harder to produce shorter films than longer ones. The challenge is to distill and compress without oversimplification or distortion.

So the sooner film-makers get over their obsession with length, the better. It’s not the duration of a film that matters most; it’s how a story is told. Some of the best stories are also the shortest.

To cite my favourite example from the print world, Ernest Hemingway once bet his friends 10 dollars that he could write a self-contained, full story in less then 10 words. He produced what is still considered the world’s shortest short story:
“For sale.
Baby shoes.
Never worn.”

It’s hard to beat that one for its amazing economy of words and sheer power of story telling.

How short is short today? Read leading wildlife film-maker Neil Curry’s views in my post on 27 July 2007

Read my post: Moving images move heart first, mind next

Read my post: Can you make a one-minute film for a better planet?

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