The latest satirical show about a rich family bumbling a big business hits small screens this week. But you won’t find it on on Netflix, Hulu, Max, or any other contenders in the streaming wars—instead, it might pop up on your TikTok For You page, shuffled in among influencer videos telling you either to buy snail mucin or not to buy stuff, or maybe clips of people sleeping, dancing, or livestreaming.
Cobell Energy, a series from Don’t Look Up director Adam McKay’s Yellow Dot Studios, lands on TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube on Tuesday. The series, which consists of weekly, short episodes just a few minutes long, was shot vertically, so it’s easy to watch on mobile. It also, according to Ari Cagan, Cobell Energy’s director and writer, lacks the beginning establishing shots common to similar shows made for TV. Instead, it is crammed with the kind of scenes and dialog that cut through the noise on social platforms. The idea, he says, is to get viewers hooked immediately.
“Given that everything is coming to you in this stream, and it is so disposable, it’s really easy to get into the habit of thinking that you can just make something that doesn’t look very good or doesn’t sound very good,” says Cagan. Cobell Energy attempts to push back against that convenience. Unlike cable TV or streaming series of similar quality, though, the show’s popularity will be dependent on the whims of TikTok and Instagram’s algorithms. “I think people are a lot more likely to stay, even if it’s a little slower than somebody shouting at them immediately in the previous video,” he says.
Hollywood has tried short-form video for mobile before—remember Quibi? That effort failed swifty in 2020, despite getting some A-list actors on board. But the trend of watching TV shows and movies on TikTok, even those that are years old, has gained traction in the past year. Call the Midwife, Chicago Med, Sex and the City, and countless other more obscure shows and films often show up on the platform. Paramount Pictures even got behind the trend last month, putting all of its 2004 hit Mean Girls up for viewers for a day.
But unlike Paramount’s Mean Girls page, the bulk of these often somewhat-anonymous accounts don’t have permission to post the clips they do. Some are chaotic, putting up just one or two parts of a show or movie before switching to another, leaving anyone watching along confused. Users sift through comments on videos to try to find the next part of the story.
The trend shows that Gen Z viewers are discovering TV shows in new ways after many households cut the cord on cable. As of October 2022, TikTok was the second most popular app among Americans under 35, jumping ahead of Netflix and coming in behind YouTube, according to research firm Omdia. A 2022 survey conducted by entertainment market firm Hub Entertainment Research found that viewers between the ages of 13 and 24 get almost a third of their entertainment from phones, and less on TV. While many of the TikTok accounts that post movie and TV show clips violate copyright laws by uploading premium content, they also draw eyeballs to shows that may not have been found otherwise.