By Sammy Bovitz
In the age of the Internet, it’s clear that even the most foolproof of ideas can fall apart in practice. Possibly the best example of this is Quibi. A perfect storm of half-baked ideas and horrible circumstances led to the first major streaming shutdown in a while. After a quiet launch on April 6th, 2020, the service rapidly declined before shutting down on December 1st in a very public meltdown.
Former Dreamworks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg came up with the bright idea in 2018 to have a mobile-only streaming service with videos only around 10 minutes long— known as “quick bites”— breaking up movies into small pieces creating fast-paced, frenetic shows you could watch quickly. With help from investors like Disney, Fox, NBCUniversal, Sony, Time Warner, ViacomCBS, MGM, Lionsgate, and nearly every other major American entertainment company, Katzenberg’s team spent over $1 billion to flood Quibi’s library with original content within the first year. The cast wasn’t too shabby either, with Quibi hiring collaborators like Anna Kendrick, Jennifer Lopez, Kevin Hart, LeBron James, the Kardashian-Jenner family, Will Smith, Stephen Spielberg, and Justin Timberlake, among others, to make content exclusively for the service. For the low price of $4.99 a month with ads or $7.99 a month without, this expensive world of digital content was there for the world to enjoy.
Quickly, problems began to arise. First off was the problem that YouTube and TikTok, two platforms that offer short and long-form content for free, already exist. Secondly, the price of an ad-free Quibi subscription was more, at the time, than the monthly rate of Disney+. The third issue was its status as a mobile-only service. Quibi shows could be watched horizontally or vertically, but the app’s versatility started and ended there. Unlike other similar subscription platforms, Quibi was almost exclusively a mobile service. With the exception of an update six months after the launch that allowed it to be compatible with Apple TV, Quibi was stuck on phones and tablets for the vast majority of people. Not only is a service like YouTube available anywhere, the built-in volume and restrictive display of a phone makes it a watching option that is generally seen as inferior to watching something on a computer or TV. Quibi’s exclusive viewing platforms made it generally unappealing for people who preferred setups other than their phones. Adding insult to injury, the Quibi app launched in April 2020, meaning its very nature as a “quick bite” oriented service was the exact opposite of what consumers wanted in the middle of a pandemic. The service was also not available in many territories, launching only in the US and Canada in full, and in limited capacities in the UK, Brazil, Germany, and Australia.
But Quibi had one more ace up their sleeve, and that was the service’s near-unprecedented 90-day free trial. If you signed up for the app by the end of its first month on the market, you received three months of the service for free. The problem with this deal was that it was simply too good to pass up. You get content that Hollywood’s biggest companies spent hundreds of millions of dollars to make for free for three entire months, and then could just stop using it after those months were up. Katzenberg’s team hoped the majority of people would fall in love with the content and stick around even after the bountiful trial, but they were dead wrong. Just 8% of free trial users converted to the paid version once the requirement to do so rolled around, and a few weeks earlier a Variety report projected Quibi would miss its goal of 7.4 million users by April 2021 by over 70%. Fortunately, this report was later proven incorrect, as by April 2021, there were 0 users of Quibi.
By October 2020, the service was confirmed to shut down with less than 500,000 subscribers remaining, and the deed was done by early December. Tech company Roku, bought the company’s content for less than $100 million and rebranded them as “Roku Originals,” a solid bonus for the estimated 55 million users of their streaming device. This purchase included the content that Quibi was developing, though if any of this content will ever be released is a separate question. Only nine originals have been confirmed to be moving to development at Roku, with HBO Max and the CW each picking up one for a total of 11 Quibi shows remaining. Eight of these 11 shows are new, and the only three shows scheduled to continue are Liam Hemsworth’s action thriller Most Dangerous Game, Kevin Hart’s talk show Die Hart, and Jennifer Lopez’s philanthropy show Thanks A Million. The fate of the other 97 existing programs and 116 shows in development is currently up in the air regarding if they will ever continue, or in the case of the latter shows, even release. Quibi’s content library is an absolute mess right now, as its remains currently lie in a mediocre bonus for Roku and a pair of shows that likely were never going to be on Quibi in the first place. In particular, the CW picked up a reboot of Legends of the Hidden Temple, which premiered in mid-October with hour-long episodes, which was completely unlike what it would’ve been on Quibi. The status of HBO Max’s acquisition Public Figures, a show starring rapper Lil Yachty, has not been updated since WarnerMedia’s purchase of the show in November 2020.
It’s truly miraculous that in under two years, a streaming service that was prophesied to be a versatile wild card has been utterly annihilated and forgotten. Quibi’s destiny as a Roku bonus package is one that many nascent streaming services hope to not share, but its demise displays a few important lessons that remaining streaming services should live by.
First off, streaming customers will not buy products just because a famous person or brand is present– you can’t just manufacture credibility. HBO Max stumbled out of the gate due to its lack of compelling originals, its confusing pricing system, and a relative lack of accessibility. But with originals like The Flight Attendant and the wildly successful “Same Day Premieres” program, blockbusters like The Suicide Squad and Dune were brought to the service for free, and the introduction of a lower-price tier with ads, they’ve slowly built up their subscription base and are finally well-suited to challenge Netflix and Disney+ in the way they initially had wanted to. As for Disney+, they very quietly hiked the monthly price to $7.99 in early 2021, but only after The Mandalorian and WandaVision premiered with great fanfare. Quibi priced their ad-free tier at $7.99 a month, and that is simply too much money.
Second, versatility and accessibility are absolutely essential. Streaming services tied exclusively to one platform can be a massive headache. It’s why services like Netflix and even game streaming services like Xbox Game Pass attract new customers, and it’s also why price increases for those services cause such an uproar. Quibi only added direct Apple TV compatibility when it was far too late, and the technical issues Disney+ served up at launch was the only thing holding back their momentum.
Finally, a bunch of executives in a boardroom often cannot predict the tastes and trends of young consumers, Quibi’s target demographic. Peacock thought that The Office was popular on Netflix based on the show’s quality, but didn’t realize part of its success was because it was so accessible, sitting on the most popular streaming service on the planet for nearly a decade. Twitter thought Instagram-style stories were what customers wanted, and then the “Fleet” was roundly mocked, thrown away, and forgotten about in a matter of months. Quibi is the quintessential example of an idea that sounded glorious in theory but failed in nearly every way in practice. Pandemic aside, it’s hard to see the app actually succeeding next to Netflix, Disney+, HBO Max, and even YouTube unless they made major changes. But ultimately, the changes came too little and too late, and now Quibi is merely a cautionary tale that quickly bit the dust.