Sculminating with journalist Benjamin Wallace for a Vulture Earlier this year, Meg Whitman, CEO of Quibi, distilled the essence of the new streamer into a few words: “Water, by the way, is free,” she said. “People pay for the convenience and the premium.”
“Premium” has always seemed to be the unifying idea behind Quibi. Prior to launch, the company raised $ 1.75 billion (billion!) Due to the brave and absurd assumption that we all want more videos that we watch while catching a bus or pooping – and that, for example, 5-10% of us would be willing to pay to improve that experience. (For those wondering how well Quibi’s shows are suited for live viewing, my colleague Kevin Fallon wrote an excellent review.)
Sadly, a tragedy has struck a country full of potential streaming customers: Deadline reports that Whitman and Quibi founder Jeffrey Katzenberg chose to disband the ‘quick-bite’ streaming service after just six months – a process that could take months. (Whitman might not be out of a job for too long; in a separate twist to “2020,” Joe Biden’s team would be eyeing her for a cabinet position.) The app was presented to us as the future of the entertainment – but his The rise and fall was primarily defined by schadenfreude.
Quibi inspired curiosity and dismay from the start. Like Katzenberg – known to revitalize Disney with Who wants Roger Rabbit skin and The little Mermaid and Aladdin before launching DreamWorks with Steven Spielberg – generating interest and funding, celebrity deals seemed to come to fruition overnight. Spielberg, Chrissy Teigen, Jason Blum, Sophie Turner, Lena Waithe and countless others have rushed to join projects designed to be watched on phones (horizontally or vertically) for ten minutes at a time. All the while, skeptics were wondering: Who is all this for?
A cynic might argue that Quibi’s loss seemed inevitable from the start; it is, after all, an app for young “digital natives” designed by two billionaires in their sixties whose cultural touchstones include Jane Fonda’s workout videos and the History channel series. Grant. (Seriously.) And besides – on what planet do we need another video platform to entertain us while we line up for coffee or kill time on a park bench? In what universe Would enough people pay $ 5 to $ 8 for this service?
The problems weren’t just philosophical. When Quibi launched, subscribers discovered that the app didn’t allow multitasking. More established VOD players, like YouTube, had already become the norm. So if you watch this Chrissy Teigen judge show you must really look at that. The app also initially blocked followers from taking screenshots – crushing any Quibi project’s best chance of getting the word out on Twitter. And that doesn’t say anything about interactive video company Eko’s patent infringement lawsuit over the best part of Quibi’s interface: its seamless orientation switching, which allows subscribers to watch shows in either portrait or landscape mode.
And then came the cardinal problem with far too many fledgling streaming services: the shows themselves were largely nothing out of the ordinary. With the exception of the odd Emmy winner here or a campy Sam Raimi with Rachel Brosnahan as a girl with a golden arm there, Quibi will likely be remembered, primarily, as a microcosm for the apocalypse in Streaming 2020: So many platforms, so many shows, so many A-listers – and yet, one way or another, so little to watch.
In a recent essay, Vanity Fair TV critic Sonia Saraiya noted that streamers have embraced bloat as a convention – inundating an ever-growing number of streaming services with a deluge of series all produced to an increasingly frenzied clip.
“What American television production seems to be doing really well is doing poor infill,” writes Saraiya. “We live in a vast universe of simple ‘content’; that’s good, but it exists above all to take up space. The imperative of the platform is to fill the hours with a diverse range of material. The business strategy is amount. It’s still possible to make a great streaming show, but creators need to work against the incentives of the platforms, not with them.
Quibi content, ironically, defies streaming’s biggest sin by keeping its offerings short or at least chopping them into discrete chunks. Some of the creators of Quibi seem to have relished the challenge of punctuating their work in a new way; Guillermo del Toro seemed excited about the potential as he spoke with Wallace. But the fact that the producers who created the content for the service would have retained the rights to those projects – meaning they could put them together to run them long on another service after a certain number of years – guaranteed also that all projects could be assembled. and run in long form on other platforms later, if Quibi goes down.
Yet there was probably some glimmer of the future in Quibi. At some point, “premium” mobile entertainment could easily become a viable business model. Maybe these creators just weren’t the ones who made it – and the timing was certainly wrong anyway. (Not just because of the pandemic, as Katzenberg lamented in his disastrous New York Times interview this spring either.)
“Maybe these creators just weren’t the ones who made it – and the timing was certainly wrong anyway.“
Young Quibi users, millennials, have less disposable income to spend on content that, increasingly, seems designed to exist rather than captivate. Many already have at least one, if not more, streaming subscriptions – for Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon, or AppleTV +, or Disney +, or HBO Now, or Peacock. Yet, paradoxically, a good television has become more difficult to find.
In addition to the issues that Saraiya highlights, there are the practical issues associated with the actual use of streaming services. Licensed content is constantly moving from one platform to another as rights change hands; user interfaces are often poorly designed; and even the American programming itself seems to decline in quality to support the relentless turnover. Is it any wonder that potential Quibi users hesitated before signing up for another filler library?
Quibi never gained traction with people who had no financial interest in caring because it was not designed for them. But it has lit up a gulf that has become increasingly difficult to ignore – between what the titans of the industry produce and what consumers actually want. And most importantly, I can’t overstate this, Quibi gave us Rachel Brosnahan’s golden arm along the way. Is it crazy to say, borrowing a word from the Quibi star and Perfect alum Anna Kendrick, will I miss this when he’s gone?
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