Producers, directors, and writers should understand that viewers today are enlisting a decision-making heuristic similar to the one Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes used to determine which suitors deserved her limited supply of contraceptive sponges. We ask of each show: Is it couch-worthy?
But couch-worthiness is not the sole criterion for successful media. Even though intention has become the scarcest resource, attention remains valuable. It’s just that now people often dole it out in smaller increments, and in different contexts than they once did. For instance, I’ve still seen all 46 episodes of Silicon Valley and all 33 episodes of Billions, because that TV set in my pocket allows me to enliven the dead spaces in my days with something more compelling than staring into space or hate-scrolling on Twitter.
Mike Judge, the creator of Silicon Valley, and Brian Koppelman, David Levien, and Andrew Ross Sorkin, the creators of Billions, might be miffed that I haven’t deemed their brilliance worth a trip to the couch. They shouldn’t be. I watch their shows religiously. It’s just that my practice is more Reform than Orthodox. This is key: Interstitial media isn’t a lesser category. It’s just a different category.
Once creators acknowledge that legions of viewers are encountering their work on different terms, they can begin rethinking the structure and grammar of their creations. For example, if I’m going to watch an hour-long drama in three or four separate short stints, why not divide each episode into chapters—literally labeling Chapters 1, 2, 3, and so on—which would allow me to stick a bookmark in the show the way I do with books, which I never read in one sitting? Not every show is for binge watchers, though many producers and streaming platforms seem to assume that they should be.
Or why not challenge the length conventions themselves? My favorite phone shows tend to run either 30 minutes or 60 minutes. But those lengths are merely artifacts of how broadcast television and advertising were configured 50 years ago. Since interstitial media is a growing category, it’s worth producing programs specifically for those interstices. James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke and Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee are early, though perhaps inadvertent, examples.
The opportunity, as several YouTube channels demonstrate, is potentially huge. For instance, I’m surprised that Netflix, whose algorithms can likely identify me as a city-living, college-tuition-paying, Prius-driving white guy, doesn’t allow me to find shows by duration. Say I’m in an airport security line with 10 minutes to kill. I’d love to be able to open the Netflix app on my phone, indicate the length of wait, and get a list of short programs to fill that space.
At the moment, that sort of programming doesn’t exist. But once Netflix realizes the demand, it could create the supply—and in so doing mint an entirely new format. Call it Netflix Minis—super-short programming expressly designed as interstitial media. In the 20th century, fixed hour and half-hour time slots gave us the three-camera sitcom, the self-contained police procedural, and a new visual vernacular. In the 21st century, interstices could do something similar. They could give rise to freshened storytelling techniques and even new types of stories.