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Silicon Valley’s sudden obsession with making TV shows

Leading the charge is Snapchat, which so far has the most well-thought-out approach. The company has already launched several shows within its app, and has specific guidelines for what content should look like. Episodes typically run between three and five minutes long, and presented in a vertical, fullscreen format. Snapchat’s head of original content Sean Mills told Engadget that the company thought carefully about how people use their phones and that it had taken time to observe its users’ behavior before coming up with a slate of shows. “We’ve learned a bunch of things about how people tell stories to their friends and some of our media partners have learned about how to create content,” he said.

The company’s findings taught it how to keep its audience engaged, especially now when so many things are vying for our attention. “You have an audience that has a thumb hovering over the screen,” Mills said. “There’s not really a lot of time for slow builds and establishing shots.” By design, Snapchat’s shows have plots that move at breakneck pace so that people don’t get distracted by an incoming alert or message.

That attention to behavior has paid off. Its political commentary show Good Luck America, which began as an experiment to learn what viewers like, has seen its audience grow by more than 50 percent since its first season. The company says GLA now reaches about 5 million average unique viewers per episode.

And for with good reason: Snapchat shows are easy to watch while waiting for a bus or a train, or let’s be real, on the toilet. I don’t have to flip my phone to landscape mode, and each episode is the perfect length for a quick break. I especially enjoyed Phone Swap, which sets up blind dates for couples, during which the pairs are made to go through each other’s phones. It’s just the type of reality TV drama I live for.

Like your friends’ Snaps, these episodes are temporary and only last for about 48 hours before disappearing into the ether. But that won’t be the case forever. Mills said the company is considering creating scripted TV, and perhaps even offering full seasons that are always accessible. Right now, though, the focus is on refining the format as the team continues to work in an experimental phase.

For Snapchat, it’s not about repurposing existing material to fit your phone’s screen. “We’re reimagining what mobile television should look like,” Mills said. That means the company may run into some challenges along the way. For instance, it’s currently not easy to keep track of upcoming shows on Snapchat. But Mills and his team are aware of the problem. “You’ll see a bunch of changes happen over the course of the next year that will address some of that stuff,” he said. Mills didn’t elaborate on what those updates would bring, but a schedule for upcoming shows is an important first step in improving awareness. Personally, I would love to know when to expect the next episode of Phone Swap instead of having to remember or chance upon the clip when I open the app.

Despite the challenges it faces, Snapchat’s experiments so far have been more inventive than its competitors. For example, Apple’s efforts have been far less creative. Its debut original is a reality show called Planet of the Apps. The first episode is free on Apple Music for now, but you’ll have to subscribe to watch the remaining five. Like typical TV shows, each episode runs roughly 50 minutes (although it feels longer). Apple hasn’t bothered to try anything different here. The most creative part of POTA is an eye-catching escalator that’s a spin on an “elevator pitch”. Apple is continuing to play it safe with its next series, the already-popular Carpool Karaoke, the next season of which is set to premiere next month.