There’s a new streaming platform in town.
Yes, another one. We’ll all drown in these streams if we’re not careful.
Quibi, founded by Hollywood mainstay and ex-Disney boss, Jeffrey Katzenberg, thinks it might just be different enough to work.
It has big-money backing, big-name stars, and tiny TV shows. Each episode is under ten minutes long and the content is designed for watching on a smarpthone or tablet.
There are comedies, dramas, feel-good reality shows, news, and just about everything else in the roughly 100 shows that are on there already.
Quibi has $1.75 billion in funding behind it, and the likes of NBC and Disney have invested heavily.
Although Quibi sounds like the kind of name you’d give to a cutesy mascot for the Montreal Olympics, it is apparently a portmanteau, combining the ‘qui’ and ‘bi’ parts of the phrase ‘quick bites’.
Look, I never said money bought taste.
Money does buy confidence, however.
At SXSW 2019 (remember events? remember outside?), Katzenberg boomed, “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.”
“What Google is to search, Quibi will be to short-form video.” — Jeffrey Katzenberg, Quibi founder
Should they ever ditch the Quibi name, Hubris might just work.
So far, so bewildering, but what else do we know?
- Quibi launched on April 6 and the app has been downloaded over 2 million times already.
- There are three categories of TV show on Quibi: Series in Chapters (sitcoms, reality shows); Unscripted and Documentaries; and News.
- Series are cut into short chapters, under ten minutes each. Typically, the full length of a series is about two and a half hours.
- It has a lot of TV and moviestars on board. Think Jennifer Lopez, Reese Witherspoon, Steven Spielberg; think the 1990s and you’ve got a good sense of what’s going on here.
- The target market is “A 25-to-35-year-old, multicultural, diverse millennial audience.”
- It has 50 shows already, with another 125 due before the end of 2020. Consider it the anti-Apple TV+, when it comes to content releases. New shows everywhere.
- Quibi needs 12 million paying subscribers to break even. There is a free 90-day trial (you better believe that’s what I signed up for), then you can go for the $4.99/month option (ad supported), or $7.99/month (ad free).
- The key feature is the “turnstyle” viewing, which allows viewers to switch from landscape to portrait viewing seamlessly. It is a welcome development and one that has been needed for a while now.
- You can’t screenshot shows on Quibi. I tried for ages, assuming my phone was on the fritz, but they simply don’t allow it. Apparently, Netflix and Disney+ do the same thing.
- Quibi is basically television for millennials, designed by boomers.
Is there room for Quibi?
Quibi arrived in the same month as NBC’s new Peacock streaming platform and joins what we could generously call a crowded field.
That said, it has identified a genuine opportunity to create new types of content for the much-changed nature of media consumption.
We are on our phones all the time, but very little, high-quality content is produced exclusively for this viewing experience.
If we look at Netflix, they are undoubtedly an innovative company and their business model has changed how we consume TV and movies. They use data effectively, both to understand broader trends and to identify recommendations for each individual user.
However, the format of the actual content still treads a safe, steady path. They take the traditional TV formats and optimize them to great effect, rather than building from the Internet up.
The Bandersnatch episode of Black Mirror was a glimpse of something different, as it allowed viewers to interact with the content and shape the narrative.
Netflix is also starting to produce some shorter shows, but its focus is still on the big TV viewing experience.
Quibi is not alone in spotting this opportunity, nor is it alone in investing heavily to try and seize it.
YouTube’s creators are already focused on shorter content and its TV product continues to gain ground on the competition.
Instagram caters well to the “vertical” smartphone viewing audience and is developing new features to allow more natural viewing in landscape mode.
Quibi is betting that there is a slightly older audience out there that wants old-school production values, in a slick smartphone app.
The very enjoyable The State of the Union TV show (BBC in the UK, SundanceTV in the US), based on the novella by Nick Hornby, showed that this snippier format does not have to mean cutting out the naunce.
However, by focusing so purely on the smartphone viewing experience, Quibi no longer competes with TV.
In fact, it competes with all the other distractions our phones contain.
Netflix does not demand the smartphone screen; viewers can have Netflix on a TV or laptop screen while they continue to use their smartphone.
Katzenberg said to Vulture earlier this year, “Nobody has made [premium] content that was native to, and only for, the phone.”
Well, that remains the case.
Quibi is only weeks old and already it has had to backtrack on its smartphone-only position. TV viewing will be available by the end of the year, due to “huge demand” from Quibi app users.
This hints at the possibility Quibi is offering a solution at the wrong time.
It is created for those intermittent moments we get to ourselves, during an otherwise frantic day. Twenty minutes on the train here, ten minutes in a dentist’s waiting room there.
This leads one to wonder where Quibi really fits in today’s world. It is an app for the on-the-go lifestyle, and we’ve got nowhere to go right now.
Quibi certainly believes that now is a good time to give us all some new content, since we are in need of entertainment.
However, other needs have surfaced during this period.
Bloomberg’s Fully Charged newsletter wrote about the distinction between ‘social media’ and ‘social networking’ this week, arguing that it is the latter that is in the ascendancy.
Social media is an asynchronous communications channel, where one posts content to be viewed by others as and when it appears in their feed.
Viewers can then respond in their own time, if at all.
Social networking is about live communication, whether through a platform like Zoom, or Facebook Live, for example.
This is what people are craving at the moment, evidenced by the booming popularity of apps like Netflix Party.
We crave that connection and another app filled with short TV shows to watch alone might not be what we need these days.
But are the shows any good?
In general, no.
No, they’re not “good”. I mean, they’re not bad, in the sense of say, being evil.
I just wouldn’t, let’s say, choose to spend my time watching them.
That said, the content varies wildly in tone and quality, so let’s have a little look at some examples.
Thanks A Million
I’ve only ever heard that phrase said passive-aggressively, but there’s no room for irony on this show.
It’s all schmaltz, all the time.
Ten “grateful celebrities” (their words) each give away $100,000 to some deserving person.
As I said, it’s very on the nose. They thank people with a million dollars and that is the show.
It’s a nice enough premise and if you liked Undercover Boss (who didn’t?), you’ll like the pay-off here.
Elba vs. Block
I watched a couple of these episodes, actually.
It’s a fascinating attempt to squeeze every Jerry Bruckheimer-style, macho trope into a tight five minutes. In tone, it is an extended Yorkie ad.
The core conceit is that there are cars and speed and often, flaming trash cans.
The sub-plot is that Idris Elba, an actor, can drive.
The sub-sub-plot is that Ken Block, a driver, cannot act.
Thing is, we already know Elba can drive. He’s done numerous shows about it, some of which were actually engrossing. The longer format gave him a chance to tell a bit of a story, but he can barely squeeze a soundbite in between the sounds of crashing metal here.
Still, there’s enough action here to keep anyone distracted, even if the dramatic tension of ‘actor racing against pro driver’ won’t win any awards for novelty. Plus, everyone likes Idris Elba.
Quibi claims to be “for millennials aged 25–35” and, given that I still hold a tenuous, slipping grip on the fringes of that demographic, I’m insulted.
It starts with someone called Tituss Burgess screeching, “Y’all ready to see me blow some shit up?”, to which the answer is a hard and eternal “no”, but I endured in the interests of this review.
He shoots a meal at some food bloggers and celebrities, who then have to figure out what the ingredients are and recreate the original recipe in 30 minutes.
The closest to the real recipe wins $5,000. This is what we’ve come to.
One food blogger displays admirable chutzpah in saying, “I’m here because I love food.” No better way to respect your guild than by licking bits of pitta bread off a CSI outfit.
There’s screaming, quick cuts, and someone literally says, “Fuck parsley.”
People probably love it. I am not one of those people.
Yep, Punk’d. The 1990s influences come at you thick and fast on Quibi. A lot of the content is incredibly similar to that MTV era where they ditched the music and wheeled out cheesy dating shows instead.
This time round, Punk’d is mercifully cut to just five minute episodes, which certainly compresses the narrative arc.
Smug celebrities talk about how funny it will be to “punk” a famous friend for about ten seconds, then a car explodes on the punkee or they can’t find their keys or something, then the punkers immediately put the punkee out of their brief discomfort and they can get back to being smug together. The natural order returns.
We normally laugh at the celebrities for falling for it, but to be fair to this lot, who would foresee a “punking” in 2020? I’d jump out of my skin if somebody punk’d me now.
The only inventive thing they’ve done is to host a virtual screening of episodes in the Fortnite game, which is a pretty good idea, if only the content were better.
Ok, it’s not your thing, but what do the real TV critics think?
The press reaction has been mixed, as you’d expect from such a wide array of shows.
A few critics have found merit in the Thanks A Million show, and the sitcom, Flipped, is said to have its moments. The FT recommends a sneaker show called You Ain’t Got These, believe it or not.
Beyond that, the reaction has been overwhelmingly negative.
Forbes offers, “If Quibi feels like an uninspired cash grab, you’d be right.”
They contend that today’s viewer has “an average attention span shorter than a goldfish”, which isn’t actually true but at least points to a pertinent fact. At least, I hope it’s not true or this newsletter format is wildly misjudged.
There is certainly more competition than ever for our attention span, however long it may be. There is a lot of good TV out there, so we are simply less tolerant of bad content now. Still, we will invest the time in something worthwhile, and many of us are doing exactly that in this lockdown.
Wired summed it all up thusly,
“TV, but on phones! You know — for kids?
That’s it. That’s the pitch.”
Well, what’s next on Quibi?
There’s a section on Quibi where you can see shows that are coming up soon.
Regular readers will know that I have a lot of ideas for TV shows and the like, many of which are scoffed at. Then, I see pretty much the same idea out there, executed poorly, making serious dough.
So, there’s a show coming up on Quibi called Barkitechture, where yeah, they make houses for dogs. I’ve a notepad filled with similar ideas, always starting with the pun and working back. My Central Bark TV show (The Dogs of Central Park: Their loves, losses, and scrapes with the law) is still accepting funding.
I’ll watch Barkitechture, probably on mute, since they say the following phrases in just one minute of trailer footage:
“That is off. The. Leash.”
“Teamwork makes the dreamwork, baby! Yeaaaahh!”
“Who wants rosé?!”
But this is the kind of show that could work very well indeed in this format, rather than just cramming bad sitcoms into shorter episodes.
Quibi: The summary
What is so surprising about Quibi is that it could identify a problem with precision and then decide that the solution is to retrofit mediocre sitcoms into that space.
It feels like straight-to-VCR content in a high-tech app.
The viewing experience is better than other streaming apps and there are nifty features that I’m sure others will imitate.
Quibi could work, if it managed to get independent creators on board. There are plenty of people out there with the expertise and imagination to use this format effectively, if given the opportunity.
Painful as this recognition may be, it’s not the 1990s any more. Just getting Spielberg on board won’t guarantee success.
Quibi will need those must-see shows, of course.
Disney+ leads with content, which is what I’d do too if I had Ratatouille in my roster.
One challenge with short-form content is that it has to pack a punch, or it will be forgotten just as quickly as it was viewed. Quibi needs a lot of must-see shows, then, since we’ll get through the good ones in no time.
Even with an uninspiring start, Quibi has the potential to usher in a new way to view TV shows. At the very least, it is trying something new and it has the money to keep trying until it cracks the formula.
It is just surprising that they lost their nerve when it came to the actual programming. We’ve all been Punk’d.