It takes a lot to break into the news cycle nowadays. But for Quibi, the mobile-friendly streaming platform launched in April, catastrophic failure seems to have done the trick. Veteran executives Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman waged an astonishing $1.8 billion in investments on what initially seemed an okay idea: short, digestible entertainment starring famous actors, designed to be watched on the go.
Unfortunately for Quibi, a portmanteau of “quick bites,” nobody was hungry.
Especially with the number of onetime commuters now glued to their couches, more people have probably read articles explaining Quibi and its unfortunate beginnings than have actively engaged with the app itself. (Those who remember Juicero, the widely mocked Silicon Valley start-up, will find this dynamic familiar.) The New York Times reported in May that, a week after its launch, Quibi no longer ranked in the top 50 most downloaded free iPhone apps. Out of the 3.5 million people the company said downloaded the app — a third party quoted 2.9 million, per the Times — only 1.3 million were active users.
Like clockwork, the Quibi conversation picked up again this week thanks to a thoroughly reported piece published by Vulture: “Is anyone watching Quibi?” it asked. Below, in an attempt to uncover why the company’s struggles are so difficult to look away from, especially when its content is not, we explore the platform’s life cycle, from its promising inception to a presumed reckoning.
Quibi owes its existence in part to the success of “The Da Vinci Code,” according to Vulture, which stated that Katzenberg viewed the 105-chapter format as “validation of the thesis that consumers want entertainment in small chunks.” As the former Walt Disney Studios head and DreamWorks co-founder, Katzenberg had earned a level of trust that even Dan Brown skeptics couldn’t take away.
The idea, to be fair, made sense on paper. Spanning five to 10 minutes each, Quibi episodes would be easily watched on phones while in transit. Celebrities such as Chrissy Teigen and Anna Kendrick, or creators such as Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro, would attract viewers with their names alone. The app would be easily navigated, its episodes viewable in both portrait and landscape mode, depending on preference.
Even with stay-at-home orders in place, Katzenberg remained optimistic.
“I don’t think we lost the in-between moments,” he told The Washington Post in April. “The virus has just changed them, made them different. You’re not commuting to work or standing in line at Starbucks. But you actually probably have more in-between moments than you did six weeks ago.”
Quibi launched in early April with dozens of shows and immediately reached the No. 3 slot on Apple’s App Store. The service granted new users 90 days free, after which they could pay either $4.99 per month (with ads) or $7.99 per month (without ads). T-Mobile offered its customers a free year of Quibi.
While critics didn’t entirely pan Quibi’s initial lineup, the shows’ lack of traction may speak for itself. Given that the name alone has to be repeatedly justified to the public — you’re right, “Quibi” isn’t any quicker to say than “quick bites” — the launch largely hinged upon star power and perceived convenience. Some theorized the platform might have been more widely watched had it piqued curiosity on social media early on, and that the lack of screen shot capabilities was “detrimental to its success.”
To be fair, a clip from Sam Raimi’s “50 States of Fright” did go semi-viral about a week after Quibi’s launch, if only for its extremely bizarre story. In the episode, Emmy winner Rachel Brosnahan plays a woman obsessed with her golden arm. She winds up in the hospital, diagnosed with something called pulmonary gold disease, but refuses to remove the metal arm poisoning her body: “I can’t take off my golden arm, ever!” she says sternly. Cut to a scene where she lies in bed, her every breath raspy.
Katzenberg changed his tune about a month after Quibi’s launch, telling the Times that he attributed “everything that has gone wrong to the coronavirus.” In response to iPhone users wondering why they couldn’t watch Quibi on their TV sets — therefore rejecting the mobile-only platform premise — Katzenberg and Whitman, the former Hewlett-Packard chief, acquiesced.
And yet, the shows still haven’t managed to catch on. Vulture noted that figures as prominent as Jimmy Kimmel have joked about the failure: “Here I am, standing here like a … fool with nobody watching,” he said at an online version of Disney-ABC’s television upfront. “I feel like every show on Quibi right now.”
In a depressingly comical turn, Quibi’s social media team has joined the mockery. Sharing an article in June about the serialized film “Most Dangerous Game,” starring Liam Hemsworth, the platform’s official Twitter account wrote in tiny letters, “see guys we have a good show.” On Sunday, quote-tweeting someone asking whether anyone had signed up for Quibi, the account wrote, “Asking for a friend.” The next day, it announced three new shows in a Twitter thread, but only shared the basic premises — no official titles, no visuals of any sort. “Just give up bro,” a user replied, amassing more likes than Quibi’s original tweet.
Recall the $1.8 billion and shudder.
ˢᵉᵉ ᵍᵘʸˢ ʷᵉ ʰᵃᵛᵉ ᵃ ᵍᵒᵒᵈ ˢʰᵒʷ— Quibi (@Quibi) June 24, 2020
Where will Quibi go from here? Investors somewhat miraculously haven’t started to flail yet, according to Vulture, and the platform continues to push out new content. Variety described its DIY take on “The Princess Bride,” made by celebrities at home, as “a bright shiny chunk of diversion that amounts to a bait-and-switch — and, just maybe, a paradigm that could point the way to the short-film app’s future.”
Meanwhile, however, Quibi remains the car crash from which we cannot look away.
Jeffrey Katzenberg on his new Quibi venture: We’re ‘proud to be doing something that can lift spirits’