From Staged to Unsaid Stories: Why I’m a convert to short-form TV

Despite the failure of "quick bite" streaming service Quibi, the 15-minute drama has a place and a purpose, says Eleanor Bley Griffiths.

Unsaid Stories

Last night, while I was digesting my dinner and avoiding the washing up, I watched a preview of Generational – the powerful first episode of ITV’s new drama series, Unsaid Stories. A couple of days before, during a lull at work, I giggled at an episode of upcoming BBC comedy Mandy. Earlier in lockdown, I enjoyed the delights of watching Michael Sheen and David Tennant master Zoom calls for Staged.

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All of these episodes are less than 18 minutes long. All of them are also great. But in the wake of the abject failure of US “bite-size” streaming service Quibi, I can’t help but wonder: what is the purpose of – and audience for – short-form television?

Now, I have to admit, I experienced a certain level of schadenfreude at Quibi’s crash landing after its big-budget launch in America. What a beautiful disaster! What an exercise in hubris!

The streaming service is the brainchild of Disney exec and DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg, and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman. The two billionaires had a grandiose vision of reinventing television by getting viewers to watch ten-minutes-or-less “quick bites” (portmanteau’d into “Quibi”) on their smartphones while they were taking the bus, or waiting in a grocery queue, or (possibly) sitting on the toilet. The problem was, nobody wanted what they were selling.

“Quibi Download And Sales Figures Tell A Grim Story,” wrote Forbes after Quibi’s April 2020 US launch. “How did a starry $1.75 billlion Netflix rival crash so fast?” asked The Guardian. “Is Anyone Watching Quibi? The streaming platform raised $1.75 billion and secured a roster of A-list talent, but it can’t get audiences to notice,” crowed Vulture.

Sophie Turner in Survive (Quibi)
Sophie Turner in Survive (Quibi)
Quibi

Initially, I assumed a big part of the problem was the core product. Maybe people just… didn’t want to watch bite-size dramas? Perhaps, in those little slices of time, they’d rather entertain themselves in a myriad of other ways – podcasts, music, scrolling through Instagram, Twitter, staring into space, watching paint dry? What if the whole idea of short-form TV is a straight-up dud?

But actually, I don’t think that’s exactly it.

Where Quibi failed was in making the format into the feature, like a gimmick – and then charging far too much money ($4.99 per month with annoying ads, or $7.99 without! That’s a lot!). Throw in the restrictive tech (mobile-only! No screenshots!), and the already-crowded marketplace, and (of course) the pandemic, and the whole thing was doomed.

The concept of an entire streaming service devoted to “shorts” is clearly, demonstrably, a failure. But the shorts themselves? They still have a place and a distinctive role to fill. And on British TV, the format is thriving.

Take Staged, Michael Sheen and David Tennant’s six-part BBC comedy which was created entirely in lockdown. The duo play two actors whose West End play has been put on hold due to coronavirus; now their director has persuaded them to rehearse online, on a video call, with hilarious results. Each episode is between 15 and 18 minutes long.

Michael Sheen and David Tennant in Staged on BBC One

For this particular idea, that is exactly the right length for an episode. The concept fits with the format; any longer and it’d lose pace.

Staged also demonstrated an appetite for “shorts” as part of a wider offering of formats. Even with a late-night broadcast slot on BBC One, it pulled in 1.4 million for the first episode and then stayed solid, even staying above the million mark when it later aired as a repeat. Many, many more will have watched on iPlayer.

Here’s another way to think about it: maybe you wouldn’t pay big money to go to the cinema (remember cinemas?) just to watch a short film. But a short film can be part of the broader viewing experience, which is why it’s always a delight to see a Pixar short before the main movie. 2014’s Lava, a seven-minute tale of a lonely volcano falling in love, is a particular favourite.

Pixar really lays out the purpose of this when it says that “shorts have allowed us to tell stories in different ways than our feature films, but often with just as much emotional impact,” and that “our shorts allow the freedom to experiment,” and that developing these mini-movies allows them to “cultivate the next generation of storytellers” – often giving junior filmmakers a chance to prove their talents and step up into the big leagues.

Diane Morgan in Mandy bbc
Diane Morgan in Mandy (BBC)
BBC

A “short” can also be a stepping stone to a full TV series, as is the case with Mandy – a six-part comedy set to begin on BBC Two on Thursday 13th August. Created by, written by, directed by, and starring Diane Morgan (of Philomena Cunk fame), it began life as a BBC Comedy Short and was then judged to have enough potential for a full commission.

The judgement was right; episode three, in which Mandy becomes entangled with a Salisbury Cathedral-obsessed Russian assassin, is a particular joy. And seeing as the UK doesn’t have the same “pilot season” system as the USA (where they  produce a ton of first episodes and see what sticks), this seems to have been an effective way for the BBC to test the concept out before fully committing.

ITV has also got in on the short-form act, with upcoming series Unsaid Stories – a collection of four “shorts” by black screenwriters which will go out each night from Monday 10th August. As ITV’s Head of Drama Polly Hill puts it, these episodes “reflect what’s happening in Britain today. The scripts are unique, fresh and engaging, about real people in completely real situations, confronting and exploring racism and prejudice. I hope in some small way each of these films will bring about change.”

Unsaid Stories, I Don't Want To Talk About This
Unsaid Stories, I Don’t Want To Talk About This (ITV)
ITV

The Unsaid Stories shorts were written, cast, filmed and edited in just four weeks, which demonstrates another strength of the format: you can create something timely in a very short space of time, and get it on people’s screens ASAP.

Reflecting on the upsides of the “short” format, Jerome Bucchan-Nelson – whose episode is titled Generational – told RadioTimes.com and other press: “The reward [of the format] was kind of getting to the point, I think. I work on a lot of one-hour dramas, and there’s a lot of set-up and built-up and then payoff and twists and turns. And that’s great and it works for that forum. But I think it was just kind of nice to start the film and hit the ground running and then just keep running until you get to the end. It was satisfying being able to race through a script.”

And there’s space in the world for all sorts of formats, from 15-minute dramas to hour-long episodes – as Nicôle Lecky, who wrote the Unsaid Stories episode Lavender, told us: “I do think there definitely is a place for long-form drama, definitely I still love to sit down and curl up and watch something and get engrossed.

“But there’s something about seeing more like a snapshot in time – sometimes you just don’t have the commitment for an hour, I feel, when you’re rushing about. I think they both co-exist in a really brilliant way.”

Hopefully the Quibi debacle won’t discourage broadcasters from commissioning short-form dramas. Early signs are that it hasn’t, although that may have something to do with the fact that 15-minute episodes are much more feasible to shoot than high-end hour-long dramas right now (Isolation Stories and Talking Heads being other prime examples).

But the variety that “shorts” brings to our screens? The opportunities to try something new, see something new, say something new, test out an idea to see if there’s an audience? That’s something to be treasured.

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Unsaid Stories airs nightly from Monday 10th August on ITV. Mandy begins on Thursday 13th August on BBC Two. Check out what else is on with our TV Guide