Nearly three months ago, in early April, the $1.75bn content experiment known as Quibi lurched from its rocky, much-maligned promotional campaign into full-scale launch. The service offered a tsunami of celebrity-fronted shows segmented into “quick bites” (hence, “qui-bi”) of 10 minutes or less – a Joe Jonas talkshow, a documentary on LeBron James’s I Promise school, a movie with Game of Thrones’s Sophie Turner surviving a plane crash, all straight to your phone. At the time, many of us wondered if Quibi could deliver on its central promise – to refashion the style of streaming into “snackable” bites – or if, teetering under the weight of its massive funding and true who’s who of talent as the world shut down, it would become shorthand for an expensive mistake.
The service, the brainchild of the DreamWorks Animation co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg and the former Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman – two billionaires deeply entrenched in the Hollywood and Silicon Valley establishment – was “either going to be a huge home run or a massive swing and a miss”, Michael Goodman, a media analyst with Strategy Analytics, told the Guardian. Given a string of bad news since its 6 April launch – missed targets, executive departures, Katzenberg singularly blaming the pandemic – and the sunset of its 90-day free trial with millions fewer subscribers than anticipated, the scales seemed decidedly tipped toward swing and miss. But while it’s too soon to declare the end of Quibi, it’s still worth asking: is the promise of the quick bite already over? And what went so wrong?
Since its launch, Quibi has been a battered by a slew of disappointing news. The app staggered early, falling out of the top 50 most downloaded within a week of its launch, and only attracted about 1.5 million active users by the end of May, according to the Wall Street Journal – a drop in the bucket compared to over 50 million subscribers drawn to Disney+, which launched in December 2019, and Netflix’s whopping 183 million global users (Quibi is only available in the US and Canada). Most of those users were on the service’s free trial, which ends this month (a Quibi subscription is $4.99 a month with ads and $7.99 a month without). The company anticipates landing just 2 million paying customers by the end of the year, less than 30% of its first-year target of 7.4 million subscribers.
The much smaller than anticipated subscriber base left the billion-dollar experiment cash-strapped; the Journal reported that Quibi was on track to have spent $1bn by the end of the third quarter of 2020 and though it raised an additional $750m earlier this year, would require another $200m of new funding by the second half of 2021 to stay afloat. Meanwhile, tentpole advertising partners such as Pepsi, Taco Bell, Anheuser-Busch and WalMart were seeking to renegotiate their agreements with Quibi based on pandemic hits to their business and Quibi’s less-than-promised viewership.
Meanwhile, several unflattering reports have depicted internal strife behind the scenes. The Wall Street Journal detailed longstanding friction in Katzenberg and Whitman’s working relationship. Its head of brand marketing, Megan Imbres, departed in April – another high-profile executive exit after the departures of the head of daily content Janice Min and Tim Connolly, the head of partnerships and advertising, last year. Staffers reportedly “seethed” at Reese Witherspoon’s $6m salary for voiceover work on six-minute episodes of the nature series Fierce Queens as Quibi’s poor performance threatened layoffs, according to Page Six. (Witherspoon’s husband Jim Toth is the head of talent and content acquisition at the company.) Quibi’s signature “Turnstyle” technology, which allowed content to flow from portrait view to landscape and back again seamlessly on your phone, is tied up in a patent lawsuit with a deep-pocketed hedge fund.
The bad press has filled a void of commentary on Quibi’s actual content, despite a slate of 50-plus original shows unveiled in its trial period, which the company itself seems to acknowledge: “see guys, we have a good show,” the Quibi account tweeted with a positive story about the Most Dangerous Game, a movie starring Liam Hemsworth broken into chapters – a tongue-in-cheek admission from a service whose inherent lack of shareability (the app did not allow screenshots, precluding memes) stifled potential good buzz.
Katzenberg has blamed Quibi’s struggles on the pandemic – and, to be fair, it did not help the rollout of a mobile-only service designed for the harried weekday’s interstitial moments and bannered with celebrity name power to launch at a time when Americans were quarantined with their TVs as celebrity culture burned. But to attribute all of Quibi’s issues to the pandemic is “fallacious”, said Daniel D’Addario, the chief television critic at Variety who reviewed Quibi’s debut slate of series. The content’s blanket strategy of celebrity – Witherspoon narrating a spot about cheetah female empowerment on Fierce Queens, Chrissy Teigen as Judge Judy in relationship court – was “uniquely poorly suited to this moment” he told the Guardian, but “the format would’ve always been a disaster”.
Notionally, Quibi endeavored to industrialize a new frontier of television: short-form narratives – that is, episodes of 15 minutes or less – at its shortest and most expansive. The concept is not entirely new to Hollywood – Netflix originals such as Special, Bondingand the sketch comedy series I Think You Should Leave, as well as Nick Hornby’s State of the Union on Sundance TV, zipped in 15-minute episodes – and has long been the staple of YouTubers and creators on short budgets (think Issa Rae’s YouTube mini-series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, her precursor to the HBO series Insecure). But Quibi’s pitch was no less than redefining the unit of corporate Hollywood entertainment to the “quick bite”. “Five years from now, we want to come back on this stage and if we were successful, there will have been the era of movies, the era of television and the era of Quibi,” Katzenberg told a crowd at South by Southwest in 2019. “What Google is to search, Quibi will be to short-form video.”
But in practice, Quibi’s content felt less revolutionary than underbaked, slapdash concepts sledgehammering the viewer with abrupt hits of celebrity. The overarching theme was of “celebrity names without thinking through what they would be doing that is interesting or novel”, said D’Addario. Its chunked movies and unscripted offerings felt “undernourishing”, D’Addario added, and offered little marginal benefit to the free celebrity fare on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube or TikTok. Why pay for Quibi, when “if you want snackable Chrissy Teigen content, her social media provides that for you without this sort of hackneyed, first-thought courtroom set-up.”
The Quibi experience has been decidedly less than fresh thanks to numerous hurdles built into the service: first and foremost, the mobile-only limitation, which precluded viewing on a bigger screen and also the ability to text, scroll, or multi-task while watching the content pitched to our fractured attention spans. Quibi’s mobile-only imposition especially hampered the service as many Americans quarantined at home with the option of larger screens and ever-growing streaming services – Netflix and Hulu, obviously, as well as Disney+, Apple TV+ and the new HBO Max – to fill them.
Quibi’s business model assumed an endless appetite for entertainment until we die, but its mandates, short-form, mobile-only, paid subscription, subsumed the all-important choice from consumers used to frenetic, constantly refreshing and expanding amusement on demand and on phones with YouTube and TikTok, for free. “We’re in a world where the viewer expects to have control over the what, the when, the where, the how they’re going to watch content, and Quibi has taken a lot of that away from them,” said Goodman.
With the three-month trial ending, can Quibi turn the ship around? Goodman noted the service’s sometimes quality content as a point in its favor; D’Addario pointed to Quibi’s sillier, confectionary unscripted options – Dishmantled, a cooking competition hosted by Tituss Burgess, and queer culture competition Gayme Show – as promising ideas for an app that gets less risible the more it leans into unserious, unburdened fun.
Quibi’s saving grace may lie, ironically, in reneging on what was supposed to be its breakthrough: the streaming wars’ novel mobile-only, short-form service. Quibi has already indicated a move away from the mobile-only part, as the company is in talks with Amazon Fire and Roku to bring the app to TV. And Quibi could move away from the hard 10-minute caps, allowing viewers to segment the shows as they please and creators more wiggle room. Which means Quibi’s survival might not depend on becoming the new Netflix, but becoming Netflix – perhaps a tough pill to swallow for a service aiming to become its own verb for short viewing. “They’re learning that the decisions that they expected to hang their hat on are not the things that consumers want,” Goodman said. “It’s not a question of pandemic – it’s a question of: do consumers want it?”
Adrian Horton is arts writer for Guardian US.