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TV executives use short-form series to lure viewers in a big way

LOS ANGELES - Jerry Seinfeld announced several months ago that he would be returning to prime time on NBC in a series of one-minute episodes to promote his 'Bee Movie.' But he didn't know what to call them.

'Minisodes? TV juniors? Tiny-tainment?' the comedian quipped with his usual deadpan.

What about featurettes? Microseries? Pods?

These are all terms that have been bandied about by broadcast and cable executives to describe their brand of bite-sized shows - story-driven shorts usually no more than a minute long.

With shorter attention spans and the rise of digital video recorders making viewers more adept at commercial avoidance, 'breaking up commercial pods with compelling content is a way to make programs and networks more sticky and to keep viewers from drifting, which has an effect not just on the programs' ratings but on the network's bottom line,' says John Rash of the Minneapolis-based advertising agency Campbell Mithun.

When SoapNet began its one-minute soaps in 2003, 'we really were just thinking about building our brand,' says SoapNet executive Deborah Blackwell.

By the third season of its microseries rollout, SoapNet was promoting sponsors' products with compatible themes. Its short-series 'Office Romance' with job site Monster.com focused on the downfalls of love in the workplace. Another, titled 'Too Late,' with dating service Match.com, explored a romantic triangle.

'It wasn't like we had to integrate a jar of mayonnaise into the middle of it,' says Blackwell, who wanted the spots to be entertaining and not just blatant plugs for advertisers. 'And it worked for us on so many levels. It was a fun way to give a little video snack ... to give people a reason to tune in, and it's a really great way to partner with advertisers.'

Fledgling CW network, for instance, started last fall by moving from 30-second to 10-second spots, dubbed 'cwickies,' and 'content wraps,' the network's ad-driven minishows.

'The content wrap was basically an attempt to marry entertainment with messaging in the right environment - sort of more storytelling in maybe two or three minutes in length,' says Bill Morningstar, the CW's executive vice president of national sales.

The content wraps went over well with marketers, so the network moved forward this fall with its half-hour program 'CW Now,' with advertiser brands integrated into the show.

Wal-Mart sponsored the first episode featuring three segments on the release of 'Halo 3,' the hot video game available at its stores.

'What we are trying to do with a lot of this different messaging, whether it's long form or short form, is find new ways to break through and engage the consumer,' Morningstar says. 'Execution, obviously, is key.'

The Seinfeld minisodes airing on NBC this month to promote his upcoming animated 'Bee Movie' are sponsored by Ford Motor Co. The 20 self-contained spots, each about 90 seconds, promise a behind-the-scenes glimpse of production of the film in which Seinfeld voices an embittered bee.

'When you see them they're not just commercials for the 'Bee Movie' (even though) he's talking about the making of the 'Bee Movie,' Marc Graboff, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios, says. 'He's so Seinfeldian in it, you know, that it's just great.'

And with Nielsen Media Research, the television ratings service, now rating commercials, 'we want to make sure there's something there now that the audience wants to see,' says Graboff.

The Seinfeld snippets, which will also run on NBC.com, are part of NBC's plan to boost commercials as entertainment, what they're calling 'pod innovation,' says Barbara Blangiardi, an NBC executive whose job includes 'content innovation.'

'I gotta tell you, when I was asked to take on 'pod innovation,' I didn't know hardly anything about it,' she said.

The fact is: The whole industry is winging it. 'And anybody who says anything different is basically lying to you,' says Ben Grossman, Los Angeles bureau chief of the trade magazine Broadcasting and Cable. 'I mean, it's still not a lot of money in it yet. It's basically promotion. But that said, everybody feels, and probably rightfully so, that they've got to be in the game.'

Sci Fi Channel is using its seven-week run of its two-minute 'Battlestar Galactica: Razor' minisodes as an on-air promotional push. The channel is hoping to pull in viewers for the special two-hour extended episode of 'Battlestar Galactica,' premiering Nov. 24.

'This is an opportunity to tell stories that don't need to be part of the actual show itself,' says Dave Howe, general manager of Sci Fi Channel, 'and it's a great way to create a promotional vehicle to lead into the two-hour event, so it sets it up as a kind of bigger event ... so it fulfills a bunch of different functions.'

But creatively 'it's an awkward format - at least it is for me and my writers,' says 'Battlestar' executive producer Ronald D. Moore. 'When we write hour episodes, we have trouble cramming everything in. The two-minute format forces you into sort of an abbreviated kind of idea of what story is.'

'I mean, it's just one of these sort of things that people are flailing about right now to find different ways to pull viewers in,' Moore continues. 'But long-term I don't know how long you're going to see these little minisodes, webisodes, what'sasodes ... I don't know if they have a long-term sort of future.'

David Neuman of Current TV begs to differ. 'We have a phrase here that we use, that pods should be as long as they are interesting,' he says.

This format of mostly short-form fare works for Current TV because it is programming created by and for the millennial generation - younger consumers who have become ubiquitous 'media grazers,' says Neuman. 'We think the quality of the average minute will be better than average because we will let things be as long or as short as they need to be to tell the story well. We won't let a predetermined length determine what the creative content of the story is.'

Short-form programming is likely to be most effective 'when it involves the very content that the viewers tuned into view in the first place,' says Rash. 'The reason why 'Heroes' works so well on a multimedia platform is not because of the platforms themselves but because the show is good and the characters are compelling.'

Great stories and beloved characters are the thrust behind Sony Pictures Television Minisode Network, available on MySpace. The site, which is sponsored by Honda, features TV shows from the Sony library - 'Diff'rent Strokes,' 'Fantasy Island,' 'The Partridge Family' - that have been reduced to 3- to 5-minute featurettes.

'It's about choice,' says Lisa Dubbe-Herbert, who heads the Minisode Network. 'That's the whole difference here ... and I think that's what the generation that's coming up has shown everybody is: Let me choose how I want to enjoy my medium.'

Now if they only knew what to call them.

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On the Net:

www.nbc.com

www.soapnet.com

www.cwtv.com

www.scifi.com

www.currentv.com

www.myspace.com/minisodenetwork