What does Quibi teach us about streaming under quarantine?

A woman laying down, eating popcorn with a remote in her hand.

As streaming services gain increasing prominence due to social distancing regulations, major players are constantly looking for ways to differentiate themselves and grab viewer attention. Whether it’s Disney+ announcing that they would be streaming a filmed live performance of Lin Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” a whole fifteen months before it was scheduled to premiere in theaters, Netflix releasing an interactive “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” special, or the cast of “Parks and Recreation” reuniting on NBC and Hulu, VOD and OTT platforms are determined to grab their audiences as best they can.

One of the more interesting streaming services to emerge during quarantine has been Quibi, which was founded by Jeffrey Katzenberg (of Disney and Dreamworks fame) nearly two years ago, but launched for the first time in early April of this year. Much has been made of Quibi’s unique approach to content — which focuses on short-form videos topping out at roughly ten minutes a piece — but, as the future of the service looks unclear, Quibi also looks like a case study in what audiences want and don’t want during this pandemic.

Quibi: The wrong content, or just the wrong moment?

There’s no way that Katzenberg and Quibi CEO Meg Whitman could have predicted that their brainchild would have to be delivered into the current crisis. As he’s discussed at length, Katzenberg originally envisioned Quibi’s bite-sized content offerings as the perfect companion for work commutes and other jaunts, offering movies in installments (which Katzenberg likens to the short, gripping chapters of Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code”), a wealth of unscripted shows, and daily update programming. After all, if your train ride to work is only eight minutes, starting a thirty minute episode of television, only to have to resume it nearly nine hours, isn’t ideal.

As reports of Quibi’s less than ideal launch have rolled in, it’s important to note this, because a service designed to keep people entertained as they go to the office debuting at the exact moment people are no longer able to go into the office feels like something from a O. Henry short story. 

And it’s unfortunate, because Quibi has a slew of engaging content and has been trying to push the envelope of how people stream from the get-go. There’s the soon-to-premiere “Spielberg’s After Dark,” a horror anthology show that will literally only be available for viewing after the sun goes down in a viewer’s region. There’s also the much-touted perspective change for viewers who alter the orientation of their phone (officially known as Turnstyle): in landscape a video will play in traditional widescreen, while a phone upright will display a portrait-mode-esque close-up.

Still, for all of these gambits that Quibi is taking, it may just be that short-form content isn’t as appealing to audiences at a time when so many people are spending their days binging entire shows, trying to find something that can fill the hours rather than the minutes. And, while there have been legitimate and interesting conversations about the efficacy of Quibi restricting itself to smart phones (though it was recently announced that casting to televisions will soon become available) or the way in which accounts are managed, this hiccup in Quibi’s ability to find its footing feels like an example of intriguing innovations revealing themselves at the improper moment.

The current pandemic is keeping media on its toes. How services weather it could determine their future

It goes without saying that the past few months have been difficult for the media industry, even with the incredible support organizations have shown for one another in innovating their digital media workflows. Finding ways to keep engaging with isolated audiences, filling massive programming and events gaps, and planning for a frustratingly unclear future take their toll.

Those enterprises that are succeeding are the ones that are listening as closely as possible to the needs of their viewership. In some cases this requires radical changes in strategy, and in others it means providing stability, familiarity, and comfort. 

With HBOMax launching its services on May 27th, it will be interesting to see — in comparison to Quibi — how that platform fares. Quibi found itself launching at a deeply inopportune time, and those narratives have largely overshadowed the genuinely interesting content that the service is providing, and the truly unique way Katzenberg and company are trying to redefine what streaming can be. 

What comes next for Quibi is uncertain, but how the platform adapts to the next few months will go a long way to determining its place in the OTT world when this chaos abates. Given that the service has positioned itself as a testing ground for content — Quibi funds or purchases shows and movies to air in installments for seven years, while the creator of the media retains rights to the longform version — asserting its ability to thrive through COVID-19 and beyond is essential to the service’s survival, and the willingness of creators to sign over their assets.

Whatever the results are, they’ll offer a sharp template for how our industry can weather crises like this.

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