The Chinese vertical TV series

The vertical video format has been spreading a lot since smartphones have become the main tool with which we watch videos: for example, last year Instagram introduced IGTV, an application to watch videos longer than a minute that until May were only in portrait format; and even the Stories themselves, which are now also on Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube, are videos or photos that we watch without ever turning the smartphone horizontally.

One of the latest phenomena in the digital world was the success of TikTok, an app for making and sharing short videos always in vertical format. TikTok belongs to a large Chinese company, ByteDance, and it is in China that vertical format videos are having the most success: enough to lead to the production of TV series shot specifically to be watched vertically via your smartphone.

They are still experiments, but given the growing weight of smartphones in the way in which cultural products of various kinds are consumed, it is possible that they can tell us something about how television productions will evolve in the rest of the world as well.

An episode of a popular “vertical drama”, whose English title is Ugh! Life!

The first “vertical” TV series appeared in 2018, produced by iQiyi, a video sharing platform owned by Baidu, and by Tencent Video, the streaming platform owned by the huge Chinese multinational Tencent. The fact that they have spread to China probably has to do with the great familiarity of Chinese users with their smartphones, who are used to using them to do anything (including starting paperwork). As iQiyi explained to the Hollywood Reporter, while in the West we are starting to deal with the excessive use of mobile phones, in China many are becoming more and more dependent on them, creating spaces for new entertainment offers.

The “verticality” of the TV series is not limited to a different cut of the frame, but also has rather striking effects on the content of those series. In a short time, vertical TV series have developed a number of unique and almost non-existent features in other television formats, and the term “vertical drama” is used to define them.

A scene from the “vertical drama” Arg Director

As The Next Web site explained, vertical TV series are generally comedies: partly because it's a genre that is based on short moments that are very rewarding for the viewer, and partly because it's easier to focus a lot on close-ups of faces. of the actors, with their funny and comic expressions functional to the story, and avoid wide shots that are difficult to understand on a small screen.

The episodes last on average between 3 and 5 minutes, have a very fast pace and recurring beats (the so-called punchline), so that they can be enjoyed even if you watch for a short time, perhaps while making short urban trips. However, they are designed to connect immediately with the following ones and be watched all one after the other, a bit like you often do with Netflix but with much shorter times.

Finally, in vertical TV series techniques unusual for traditional television are used, such as dividing the screen into two or more parts, to frame several different moments at the same time and transitions between one scene and another that are somewhat reminiscent of the style of the comics.

In China, the “vertical drama” is attracting great attention and iQiyi said she was satisfied with its results: the vertical TV series Ugh! Life !, released in November 2018, was reviewed 10,000 times in four days, and the company said 89 percent of the public watched it on mobile, generating a good return given the low costs of production. Many other companies have begun to invest in the format and similar content is starting to appear on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, which is very popular in China.

A scene of a “vertical” TV series called Cursed to be single

It is difficult to say whether the “vertical drama” can also expand outside of China. The world of western television series has taken different paths, for now, in some ways chasing cinema and transforming individual episodes into small films for careful production and product quality. In addition, the episodes of the most recent and successful series are usually an hour or more long, which makes viewing via smartphone difficult. Chinese users also seem more inclined than Westerners to watch TV series on smartphones: according to Netflix, only 20 percent of its users watch films or TV series from mobile, while among iQiyi users the share rises to over 50 per one hundred.