UPDATE (see below)
I have a bet with a friend that within ten years most TV will no longer come in 30-minute chunks. When you think about it, there's nothing magical about half hours; they're simply an easy way to divide a broadcast programming schedule into segments that start and finish on the hour. Outside of the broadcast schedule, entertainment and news comes in all sorts of lengths, from 30-second clips to three-hour concerts; there's no premium on thirty minutes.
Like so many other conventions that we today accept as cultural
choice, the rigid programming convention of making video in multiples
of 30 minutes is actually an artifact of inefficient distribution. I
think it's going to eventually fade away, replaced by a range of more
natural lengths of video content that reflect the diversity of human
attention spans and content types, not network programming convenience
and advertiser priorities. This is yet another example of the sometimes
surprising implications of the shift from scarcity to abundance in
distribution; it's also an example of how ingrained scarcity thinking
is in our culture.
So what are those more natural lengths of video content? Well, when I look at our own family's video watching, virtually none of it is in half-hour chunks. I don't watch much TV, but I do watch random web video stuff (1-10 minutes) and movies (1.5-2 hours). Our kids watch TV shows on the DVR but they're trained to skip the ads, so video for them comes in 20-minute bites. My wife watches most of her favorite TV series on DVD, which can lead to an evening of anything from an hour to three hours.
My sense is that most video wants to be shorter than 30 minutes. At the moment, it's anyone's guess, so I did a little research to quantify what I could. The results are shown in the chart below. The red bars represents the statistical profile of our current cable programming, minus some uncategorizeable material (HSN, CSPAN). The blue bars are mostly guesswork on my part, informed somewhat by the average lengths of video programming found on bittorrent.
Some observations: I was surprised to find that there's actually more TV today in one-hour chunks than in half-hours (at least that was the case in my analog cable sample). The two-hour bar is movies, but the 2.5 and 3 hour bars are mostly sports. Different times of day have different ratios of half-hour and one-hour programming (mostly 30-minute sitcoms in the early evening and 30-minute kids shows in the morn; hour-long talk shows take over in midday and the later evening). The big picture, however, is all too predictable: almost all current TV programming exists in 30-minute multiples.
In the IP-TV future, where video is pulled on demand from anywhere, I suspect we'll be watching more and more shorter stuff. We're already channel grazing, jumping from one sub-minute video sample to another, so we're clearly comfortable with short stretches of video, even if that's not the way it's supposed to be watched. Why not acknowledge the reality and offer TV in naturally attention-deficit lengths for a generation that's going to watch it that way regardless? Likewise, TV news shows are assembled by stringing together dozens of short items over the course of 30 minutes or an hour; wouldn't it be even better to let viewers pick the ones they want to watch from a menu instead?
Rather than today's peak at 30 minutes, I think we'll see smaller peaks at 1, 2, 10 and 20 minutes (shown). Elsewhere, the time demand curve will smooth out a bit as more shows break the tyranny of the 30-minute multiple. Sports, in particular, could be sliced into dozens of new lengths: full games, highlights, key quarters/innings, last two-minutes, and so on. It's already that way on the web; I suspect it won't be long before TV goes the same way.
(By the way, all these points about the Long Tail changing the size
and shape of media itself apply equally well outside of TV. See this post about the same in articles, books and encyclopedia entries.)
The television moment is becoming more pervasive, as television spreads into mobiles and laptops and game machines. This is creating an enormous demand for programming well-suited to these devices and the situations where they're commonly used. This is the archetypal example of someone waiting for a bus or train, or having a few spare minutes at lunch. This audience often doesn't have the time to watch a 22-minute or 44-minute program; they have a few minutes to spare, and want to be taken out of the moment.
This market generally favors comedy - such as Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim" episodes, which run for 11 minutes, or even shorter pieces, such as "Happy Tree Friends," or JibJab's "This Land" (which had over 70,000,000 downloads in one week). It seems that the shorter and funnier the piece, the further it is likely to travel. That said, this doesn't mean that television is about to devolve into slapstick. Robot Chicken [an Adult Swim show], for example, is often highly intelligent, with jokes that work on several levels simultaneously, including satire, parody, and slapstick.
When you think about it, there's plenty of precedent for this size change in other media. Once written news came in newspaper-article-sized chunks each morning. Now it comes in an infinite supply of screen-sized chunks, published all through the day, just as soon as news happens. Newspapers, as a result, are declining as the marketplace shifts its demand from modestly authoritative news on paper 12-24 hours after the fact to modestly authoritative news on screen 10-20 minutes after the fact. For substance, meanwhile, there are still books and monthly magazines. The market, in other words, is abandoning the middle: people increasingly want both short now and long next month, but not 12 column-inches tomorrow.
I think that the 30-minute show is the newspaper of television--a format born of distribution scarcity that is now past its primetime. Demand will shift to shorter content for convenience and entertainment, and longer content for substance and satisfaction. But the middle will not hold.