Quibi is Offering Something Impressive, But Does Anyone Want It?

The world loves Chrissy Teigen, but Quibi is not going to be able to promote the service based on intermittent interest in a sea of middling content

Lucas Quagliata
Jan 13, 2020 · 7 min read
Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

Quibi, the streaming startup headed by Meg Whitman and Jeffery Katzenberg, is set to launch in April. In short, Quibi aims to develop extremely high-quality video (think Game of Thrones) that will be distributed on mobile devices. The content will be delivered in short episodes, likely under 20 minutes. In many cases, episodes will eventually be stitched together into longer pieces of content. It will be a subscription service, so you’ll have to pay to see what Quibi has to offer.

Quibi put their PR campaign into overdrive at CES, the tech expo that occurred earlier this month. Whitman and Katzenberg gave a keynote presentation, talked with reporters, and showed demos of the service in action. They further articulated Quibi’s mobile-first experience, which hinges on its “Turnstyle” viewing format (more on that in a bit). They announced that they had raised an additional $400 million, which adds to the $1 billion they had already raised.

This is unimportant, but since I’m writing about Quibi, I must tell you that the name Quibi is short for “Quick Bites”, as in “quick bites” of content. This is not something that Quibi should be telling people. Instead they should say the name was “just something they came up with”. At first, I liked the name. Using a Q is a power move. It doesn’t have a “plus” or “+” in it which is, counterintuitively, a plus. But now that I know that Quibi is short for “Quick Bites”, I have decided that I hate the name.

Quibi announced that they’re set to launch in April with 175 new shows. I’m sorry, excuse me? 175 new shows? According to FX’s annual study, there were 532 total scripted shows in 2019. Now, that doesn’t include reality TV. While some of Quibi’s shows will be reality TV, but even taking that into consideration this means that a significant percentage of all scripted shows will be from just one service.

The focus on short form video, massive volume of content, and mobile-ready format makes YouTube the closest competition for Quibi, but Quibi is decidedly not YouTube.

YouTube is free and powered by individual users and creators. Quibi sits behind a paywall and is powered by massive corporate investment and bonafide stars. There are projects from just about anyone you can think of. There’s a Judge Judy-esque show where Chrissy Teigen acts as a judge and settles small claims disputes. Her mom is the bailiff. There’s a Steven Spielberg show that you can only watch at night. There’s a project from Catherine Hardwicke where the footage changes when you turn your phone from landscape to portrait mode.

That last piece is the “Turnstyle” feature I mentioned earlier. Not only can you switch seamlessly from landscape to portrait mode, but in many cases filmmakers have created two different video feeds, one for each view. When you turn your phone you won’t see the same show or movie, just in portrait. Instead you’ll see a new perspective created just for portrait mode. You may see what’s on a character’s phone, or an intimate camera angle more fitting for the vertical screen.

In some ways, this seems fascinating. It takes one of the detriments of mobile content — the small, sometimes vertical screen — and makes it a positive. Reports are that the technology is quite impressive, at the very least a novelty worth checking out. It has certainly been exciting for creators, who have expressed their exuberance over a new story-telling device.

But here’s the thing. Beyond the novelty, does anyone want this? Have you ever watched a movie and thought, “I wish I was missing approximately half of this movie”? Will there be notifications that tell customers when they might want to flip their phones?

Katzenberg told Variety: “There’s not a week that goes by where we don’t find some data point in the business where we say ‘That’s good for us,’” and I’m sure Quibi has done their research. How else could they have secured $1.4 billion of funding? Yet, in doing some research of my own, I came across some recent data from Freewheel that seemed to contradict the idea that there is a desire for what Quibi has to offer. For example, 56% of premium video ad views came from connected TV (CTV) and over-the-top (OTT). Ad views in those formats grew by 110% year over year. Mobile ad views made up just 14% of the market and grew at a rate of just 16% year over year. When considering format, live programming grew by 100%, full episodes grew 25%, and “clips”, Quibi’s specialty, grew by just 4%. Even more concerning, “clips” make up just 7% of the market, down from 11% last year.

Truthfully, Quibi’s existence alone should juice those numbers a bit. They’re introducing 175 new shows! Still, it doesn’t seem like there are folks clamoring for the kind of content that Quibi will be creating.

I suspect that if you shared this with Whitman and Katzenberg, they would point out that we’re exactly correct, that this part of the market isn’t growing as quickly as the others. I suspect they would tell you that this isn’t because there is no demand, but because the supply side has been lacking, and that this is an enormous opportunity.

While we can greet that claim with prudent suspicion, we can’t dismiss it with any real authority. Even if we look at failed projects with some similarities, like Go90, Verizon’s failed attempt to enter the world of online video, it’s clear that Quibi has far more firepower and much stronger commitments from content creators. The sheer amount of buy-in from talent and investment from studios has given Quibi more promise than any of its predecessors. Is it possible that Quibi avoids failure simply because all parties — producers, studios, actors, advertisers — were so scared of missing out on its success that they decided to participate?

The answer, at least at launch, is yes. Quibi has secured the commitments, funding, advertising revenue, and distribution deals necessary to give it some runway. But eventually Quibi is going to need to show that consumers are watching. Doing so will probably be a tough road. This isn’t Instagram’s IGTV or Facebook Watch, where subpar content is kept afloat by an easily convertible, massive user base. It’s not Disney+, with its brand identity, the biggest films in the world, and a historically significant catalog. This is a brand new, pretty costly subscription service that needs to reach millions of people in order to stay above water.

Ultimately, Quibi is going to need a giant hit that creates a cultural moment. The world loves Chrissy Teigen, but Quibi is not going to be able to promote the service based on intermittent interest in a sea of middling content. That strategy might work for services that already exist, and that kind of content serves as a reason to keep core services like Netflix, but it will not work for a new service with even a moderate barrier to entry. They need a cultural centerpiece. Given the fact that the content produced for Quibi is exclusive to the service for a limited time and will eventually be allowed to exist elsewhere, they’re going to need that centerpiece quickly.

Why should you care?: Quibi is the most fascinating business case in the streaming world. As Alex Cranz writes for Gizmodo, “Quibi Is Either a Clever Gimmick or the Future of Entertainment”. Only three months to go until we begin to find the answer.

Recommended Reading: Quibi Edition

I drew the information above from the works below. These are some of the best pieces on what’s happening and what it means, if you have time I’d encourage you give them a read.

Quibi Is Either a Clever Gimmick or the Future of Entertainment

This piece best encapsulates the situation. Either Quibi is an interesting bump in the road with some cool feats of engineering, or it is a landmark innovation in how we will consume entertainment on our phones. There is probably not a great deal of space in the middle.

Quibi unveils “Turnstyle,” its flagship mobile video format

Axios always delivers the short and sweet version of the news. Sara Fischer finishes the article with this impressive, rather cutting, summation: “The Turnstyle technology is very impressive, and it truly does feel like something new and different. But it’s unclear whether that will be enough to hook users into paying for another video service.”

CES 2020: Quibi Looks for More Successful Drive While Going 90

Here is the aforementioned callback to Go90. I’m not certain it’s a great comparison, but I’m almost totally certain that Quibi’s executives hate that comparison.

Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman Raise the Curtain on Quibi at CES

This piece focuses a bit more on some of the creative opportunities and projects that are already ongoing.


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