Why Quibi failed

Back to the shadows.
Back to the shadows.
Image: Reuters/Steve Marcus
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Quibi, the short-form mobile streaming service, may be a short-form company. Just five months since its launch, Quibi is exploring several “strategic options,” including a sale, the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday.

Since its US debut in April, Quibi seemed destined for such an ending. It badly missed subscriber and viewership targets and in June was on pace to sign up only 2 million paying subscribers by the end of the year (its goal was over 7 million). It was forced to manage reports of mass layoffs and rumors that its founder, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and its CEO, Meg Whitman, were not seeing eye to eye. And now it’s fighting a lawsuit filed by a video company alleging Quibi infringed on its patented technology (Quibi denies this).

Katzenberg blamed everything on the coronavirus.

It’s true the pandemic added a wrinkle to Quibi’s launch. The company’s pitch to consumers—bite-sized premium video content you can watch on-the-go or during those “in between” moments of your day—may have played better when consumers were actually commuting to offices and schools. But Katzenberg’s claim also ignores the fact that consumers in the US are using mobile video apps more during the pandemic than they were before it. They just aren’t using Quibi.

In an emailed statement, Quibi said its founder and CEO are committed to the business, and wouldn’t comment on the Journal article.

“Quibi has successfully launched a new business and pioneered a new form of storytelling and state-of-the-art platform,” the Quibi statement said. “Meg and Jeffrey are committed to continuing to build the business in the way that gives the greatest experience for customers, greatest value for shareholders and greatest opportunity for employees.”

Quibi, which raised $1.75 billion from Hollywood’s biggest studios, still has some cash on hand, the New York Times reported. But any potential sale—or last-ditch effort to raise even more capital—is an admission the Quibi experiment has already failed. And its failure was a result of both the app’s concept and its execution.

The content

Quibi’s biggest problem is also its easiest to diagnose: The shows are not good enough. No video platform—no matter how innovative the technology or elaborate the marketing—will work without stuff viewers want to watch. The burden on the content is doubly crucial when viewers have to pay to access it. (Quibi costs $5 per month with ads; $8 a month without them.)

All it takes is one breakout hit to draw viewers to a new service, but Quibi doesn’t have one. Some of its shows are watchable, but that’s a low bar to clear, and none have become the type of platform linchpin all new streaming services hope to have soon after launching.

The series on Quibi (the dramas in particular) are largely transparent attempts to mimic the style of prestige shows you might find on a networks like HBO—except they’re broken into six- to 10-minute chunks. But HBO is a well-oiled content machine and a premier destination for Hollywood talent to take their projects. It’s taken years to perfect a creative development process and  earn the right to spend hundreds of millions on content each year. Quibi tried to skip all the growing pains, and, as a result, may never grow.

Quibi could have invested more in content from celebrities its younger audience might actually appreciate, like YouTube, Instagram, or TikTok stars. Instead, it threw lots of money at the kind of names that older executives might imagine young people enjoy—Jennifer Lopez, Idris Elba, Tyra Banks, Usher, and every teenager’s favorite actor, 53-year-old Kiefer Sutherland.

The competition

Quibi executives contend it doesn’t compete with Netflix or other premium subscription video services. Netflix is fighting for control of your TV, they argue, while Quibi is all about your phones.

That is, of course, incorrect.

All platforms that want consumer attention are in competition with one another. Platforms that use premium video to capture attention are in even greater competition. Whether you watch on your phone or TV, in bite-sized increments or long binge sessions, that is still finite time that must be earned. And consumers have finite resources to pay for all these things.

Quibi thought by focusing on “in-between moments,” it was carving out a niche with less competition. But those moments are already saturated by social media. So in an attempt to not have any competition, Quibi made it so that everything was its competition. It competes with both Netflix and also TikTok. It competes with HBO and Instagram. Hulu and Snapchat. It’s an assault on all sides.

The platform was done no favors by the rise of TikTok, which was becoming immensely popular in the US right as Quibi launched. If young consumers want to watch short-form video on their phones, they go on TikTok, which is free, wildly entertaining (some might say addictive), and can be consumed in whatever timeframe the user wants. Katzenberg told the New York Times in May that comparing Quibi to TikTok is “like comparing apples to submarines.”

Quibi can’t do premium video as well as Netflix, nor quick bites as well as TikTok, falling somewhere in the meaningless middle (behind a paywall you can only access through your phone, no less). There is no audience for that.

The lack of shareability

One of Quibi’s original sins was that it did not allow users to share videos or images from the app to social media. It also didn’t initially allow screenshots. It eventually reversed course on that, but by then it was probably too late. It provided no apparatus with which its content could go viral. No memes. No trending hashtags. It relied almost entirely on its own marketing to drive awareness.

On top of that, Quibi videos could be watched exclusively on smartphones for several months before the company finally added the option of casting content to your TV with Chromecast or Apple Airplay-enabled devices. But there is still no Roku, Amazon Fire, or Android TV capability.

It’s one thing to center the experience on mobile viewing—it’s another to make it so consumers can’t watch the content any other way. It was, and remains, difficult to watch a Quibi with another person. That, combined with the early social media blackout at a time when Quibi needed word-of-mouth the most, made the app’s content the least “shareable” of any of the new name-brand streaming services that have debuted recently. It was already a competitive landscape and Quibi made it exponentially harder on itself by limiting the viewing experience.

The format and length of videos

Quibi shows often seem like feature-length movies that were arbitrarily cut up into 10-minute chunks. Those chunks don’t always have a beginning, middle or end. Successful episodes of TV, however, have structure. There’s a reason the dramatic structure hasn’t changed much since Aristotle explained it in Poetics in 335 BC. Experimentation is great, but you can’t venture too far away from core storytelling principles.

The platform also learned the wrong lesson from short-form consumption—that the unit of time itself was important. Entertainment is already moving away from standard units of time. Thanks to streaming, TV episodes are now anything in between 20 minutes and an hour. Viewers can watch one episode at a time or 10. They want either a truly quick bite (like a TikTok video) or something more worthwhile, like an episode of normal TV. Quibi’s 10-minute installments scratch neither itch.

Ultimately, Quibi could have been more. As a premium, mobile-focused experience, it could have found more interactive ways to incorporate text messaging, cameras, or other smartphone capabilities into the viewer’s content experience to help tell stories. Allowing viewers to decide whether a scene is presented in landscape or vertical video is the right idea, but in practice, it hardly changes the experience—especially when one of those options (vertical video) isn’t pleasing to the eye.

Sometime this decade, a company may come up with a unique take on premium, Hollywood-centric mobile video and then figure out how to make money off it. That company isn’t Quibi.