Quibi: Snack-Sized Content, Full-Size Failure
As Quibi's risky billion-dollar bet on premium short-form content rides a steep decline, does its looming failure mean premium short-form content can't be hacked anywhere else?
Image: The Ringer
When Jeffrey Katzenberg announced in 2017 that short-form content would be the way of the future, Variety splashed him on the cover, mild murmurings ensued, and then Quibi was born. In a bid to build out a proof of concept for his theory, Katzenberg has gotten Hollywood and Silicon Valley’s heavyweights to buy the Kool-Aid to a tune of 1.7 billion dollars.
As TV evolves into higher quality, with star power on and off-screen, the cost of putting together big-budget products, that may or may not hit the mark, is staggering. Now, as the big streaming platforms compete with the studios and networks by doubling down on budgets, talent, and innovative stories, we are seeing more stories and more high-quality storytelling than we did before. The audience’s expectations, therefore, are just as high.
At the same time, it has never been so important for content creators to make every second count. With viewing on phones, computers, and tablets, Nielsen is developing a new methodology to figure out who is watching. With this tool, networks and studios can better discern what shows people are really watching and talking about and which ones are struggling for eyeballs. With all the money that goes into production and data mining, an error is a luxury few can afford.
Then, you throw in increased consumption of podcasts, from 19 million in 2013 to 62 million in 2019. As more and more people are listening during their commutes to and from work or running errands to stories like Homecoming, and Reply All, or This American Life’s What You Don’t Know, a case was developing for content that people can consume on the go. So, how could an audio-visual industry built on long-form features and 30-minute sitcoms take advantage of a 10-15 minute coffee runs?
The idea was simple; combine high-quality production and the kind of impressive writing that gave us Game of Thrones, then shrink it into bite-sized pieces of mobile content. Katzenberg proceeded on some additional assumptions that were true then. The advent of ‘TV-Everywhere’ and the growth of streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu created an expectation that content should be unhinged to the television screen, and accessible at all times.
For the Quibi team, that meant pulling the plug all the way out and jamming everything into the one screen people take everywhere—the smartphone. Quibi would be a mobile-only streaming platform serving short bites, premium content that runs for less than 10 minutes, for the on-the-go consumer. In a sea of change and speculation, the Quibi proposal makes a lot of sense and the new platform looked to capture audiences, one bite-sized story at a time.
The global pandemic landed in the US in the spring of 2020. For a few months, the country was assured that the disease was under control. It did not take long before cases spiked so high in New York, that Governor Andrew Cuomo decided to shut the state’s non-essential industries down. For months, states would watch as people got sick, died, and the infrastructure of the healthcare industry was taxed to the max.
What many people anticipated would last a few weeks, or a month, turned into one of the largest lockdowns in recent history. With stay-at-home orders active in most states, people were working from home or unemployed. There were no more commutes, no more lines at the coffee shop, no school runs, no waits at the airport. Everything ground to a halt.
A central premise of the Quibi model, content on-the-go, was destroyed. Worse yet, without a vaccine and no pandemic insurance—because who was anticipating a global pandemic—Quibi would also scrap its red carpet launch event scheduled for April losing a valuable marketing opportunity. With each new development, it seemed like the stars were misaligning. Throwing up formations for failure, instead of success.
With 50 shows and 1.75 billion dollars invested, the platform forged ahead and launched on April 6th. Like most platforms, Quibi would try to woo audiences with a free trial. In this case, it was 90 days, instead of the standard 7-14 days. At the end of the trial period, users would onboard officially at the rate of $4.99 a month for ad-supported content and $7.99 for the commercial-free version.
Unfortunately, Disney+ had made its debut months earlier in November 2019 and managed to rake in 10 million users and 3.2 million app downloads. Even though the platforms did not carry similar content, nor have the same utility, prime time versus free time, the comparisons began to pile in. Especially when Quibi closed launch day at 1.7 million app downloads.
Once users started playing with the platform at home, the next challenge emerged, the app was exclusive to smartphones. There was no option to include the app on a smart TV or cast it. There wasn’t even an option for tablet viewing. So viewers stuck at home with access to premium content on various streamers, as well as short-form content of varying qualities on Youtube started to wonder what they needed Quibi for. Thankfully, Quibi addressed this issue stating that casting was always intended as a feature of Quibi, but that it was never intended to be part of the initial launch.
At the end of the trial period, the numbers told a very interesting story. After 3 months, approximately 90% of those early free subscribers decided they didn’t need Quibi. Of course, a global pandemic that requires everyone to be home all the time is probably the worst time to launch a content solution catering to an on-the-go lifestyle.
So, Quibi founder and revolutionary industry man, Jeffrey Katzenberg is now in a pickle. How do you troubleshoot a bad launch? As of July the app has been downloaded 4.5 million times and has 1.6 million subscribers. Katzenberg has said that he is treating this as a beta run, an opportunity for the company to learn from the ecosystem and hopefully pivot the platform in some way to success. We will see.
It is worth noting, however, that platforms like TikTok, have seen a surge in subscribers and use. The notorious short-form, user-generated content platform is still resonating with audiences despite being banned in India. Several videos have gone viral and captured people’s attention and even made some careers. So, perhaps it isn’t just that Quibi is short-form, it might be that it is not clear how Quibi adds to the streaming landscape in a way that resonates with users.
The use of short-form content in a paid subscription format is an interesting experiment for Hollywood, but in other regions, short-form has other interesting uses.
Experiments in Storytelling
On the other side of the Atlantic, more people are taking risks. Whether by design, a ploy to reduce production costs, or purely for experimental purposes, Nollyweb (Nigerian web series community) has been testing this concept for a few years now, with exciting results.
Though not exclusively Nigerian, pioneer web series MTV Shuga ushered celebrities like Lupita Nyong’o into the spotlight. The show was created to educate young people on sexual health, reproduction, and sexually transmitted illnesses and diseases. At a point in the epidemic where all solutions were welcome, MTV Shuga was an opportunity to use the art of storytelling, decent production, and digital distribution to change the direction of youth culture. Now in its eighth season, still educating and entertaining, it looks like MTV Shuga was the right idea.
Then came the projects financed by banks as part of customer acquisition and brand management strategies focused on the Nigerian consumer base. NdaniTV, RedTV, and Accelerate TV are some of the notable Youtube channels launched by GTBank, UBA, and Access Bank respectively to capture the attention of mobile-first millennials and Generation Z, customers. With a growing youth population, it makes sense that Nigeria’s big banks would want to usher in the next generation of customers in a way that reflects our digital world. These are arguably the biggest budget projects in Nollyweb.
Numerous filmmakers experiment on YouTube, as well as content creators looking to build an audience, everyone is using the internet as the medium of choice to distribute their content. In the absence of a pipeline to major networks, or telecommunications companies, the internet is the great equalizer, if you can cut through the noise.
The beauty of having NdaniTv’s Skinny Girl in Transit or RedTV’s The Men’s Club is that we get TV-quality production, with experimental storytelling. With other projects like the Daniel Obasi’s Udara which he partnered with photographer and storyteller Yagazie Emezi, and Dutch wax print company Vlisco, culture, tradition, and filmmaking come together for a surreal experience back and forth in time. Other countries like Kenya are also using the web to explore content creation. The artist collective, The Nest Collective is multidisciplinary and has several projects ranging from music, to typography, to film, on their website. All over the internet, content creators are coming together for the specific purpose of using the short form medium to push boundaries and tell unheard
Amid the experimenting, animators have jumped into the fray. The hilariously terrifying Smiling Hat’s Freak the Fxxk Out, or the children’s educational Bino and Fino make way for diverse genres of content. The more creators play outside the box, the more they discover modalities that others either left fallow or were unaware of their existence.
Scripted content is not the only winner in the short-form game. As Facebook’s Red Table Talk has learned, unscripted, non-narrative shows can be a hit as well. Accelerate TV’s King Woman series, or the celebrity-filled cooking show, Off the Menu with Soliat Bada provide alternatives to audiences hungry for options.
The mobile age is here, and short-form, or quick bites, as Katzenberg calls it, is already an exciting space to watch. The question is, will experimenters in Nigeria, and other African countries stick to their guns, and expand the complexity of their stories without expanding the time on the watch clock? Or will they get sucked into longer episodes, using the short form format as a teaser to longer-form storytelling?
Only time will tell (pun intended). I hope more Afro-storytellers take up the challenge. Perhaps, Quibi won’t be the only player to experiment with the format.
Content Biz Bailout
Interested in Checking out some short-form content? Here are some good places to start. This list is a good mix of scripted drama, talk show, crime thriller, and science fiction. Let me know what you think!