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Saturday, January 16, 2021

Quibi: Why did the video app go so wrong?

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By James Clayton
North America technology reporter

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image copyrightQuibi/Getty Images
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Quibi pulled the plug on its video-streaming service this week, capping an extraordinary year for the company.

At the start of 2020, it was seen by some as the future of “snackable” smartphone entertainment.

Shows were shot so they could be watched full-screen in both portrait and landscape mode, with users able to switch with a turn of their handset.

And the firm spent hundreds of million of dollars of the near $2bn (£1.5bn) it had raised to create an library of exclusive short, bite-sized content.

Many media companies signed up, including the BBC, which had its own news show on the platform.

But somewhere along the way things went very wrong.

Quibi presentationimage copyrightGetty Images
image captionQuibi’s Turnstyle technology let users switch from vertical to horizontal views of its shows and back again at will

I spoke to three of Quibi’s content creators.

They all still work in the industry, and so asked to remain anonymous.

The interviews below have been edited for brevity and clarity.

‘Jonathan’ is a writer who worked on a daily entertainment news show

I wasn’t alone in being sceptical from the very beginning. Why would people pay money for short form content that they can already get for free?

Once it started it was pretty clear that things weren’t going well.

We started production about a week before New York City shut down because of Covid. We had plans to build a studio – it was going to be a much bigger show. And so very quickly, we had to pivot.

At first, I just felt fortunate that I had a job. Everything was just so chaotic.

First, it was like: “Oh, we’re going to be a news show.”

By the end, it was a fun pop culture entertainment show. I mean, it was trying to get celebrities to come onto the show. We pivoted several times.

Quibiimage copyrightQuibi
image captionQuibi hoped its mix of big-name stars and eclectic content would prove popular

Jeffrey Katzenberg – Quibi’s co-founder – was very much involved in the show. We were far from their biggest show and he was giving us notes – he was hands-on.

Oh, absolutely. I can’t imagine the CEO of Netflix calling up the production teams to give his personal take on stuff.

There were executives at Quibi we’d get notes from. And then we’d get different notes from Jeffrey Katzenberg.

They were always trying to figure out what was working, and I think in the end the answer was just that Quibi itself wasn’t working.

It felt like the executives of Quibi just had no concept of who their audience was – so they made like a little bit of everything.

It always comes down to content, there was nothing that popped on Quibi.

Jeffrey Katzenbergimage copyrightGetty Images
image captionJeffrey Katzenberg was chairman of Walt Disney Studios and chief executive of DreamWorks Animation prior to founding Quibi

Basically, nothing went viral in a good way.

Maybe if they embraced the silliness of it a little bit more, embraced the fact that people were laughing at them, it would have worked better.

Clearly I should have just realised from the very beginning that they didn’t really know what they were making.

But that probably wouldn’t have stopped me. I don’t regret it at all. I got to make stuff I was proud of.

‘Michael’ was a producer for a ‘daily essentials’ current affairs show

There was a great sense that this could be something different. I thought the premise was pretty good.

In terms of money, I was not the “big talent”.

They were getting paid millions of bucks to make something, so they didn’t care whether it was successful or not.

But for me, I wanted it to be successful.

When the decision came that we were still going launch despite the pandemic, there was a decent amount of worry.

Quibi appimage copyrightQuibi
image captionQuibi faced criticism for not making it easy to view its shows on TV or share clips on social media

Worry, but also hope, because people are going to be at home. Everyone was going to be watching stuff.

When we saw the initial figures on the App Store, it was good news, because you could see there was interest early on.

The worry part for us started hitting more in early summer. Are people watching what we’re doing?

And there weren’t a lot of answers coming from management.

So you were concerned Quibi wasn’t releasing viewing figures?

Honestly, for me a little bit, and I knew it worried other people.

And so when the news came that Quibi was shutting, it wasn’t surprising.

It was this kind of relief, because we had heard so many of these rumours before. Reports of the falling subscription rates and issues with management.

When it comes down to it, it didn’t work because when you’re charging for something that can be found – to some degree – somewhere else, it’s a tough sell.

Management didn’t fully understand its audience. If you’re gunning for those younger viewers, you have to know what they want – and I don’t think they did.

There was this glee watching this thing fail.

But there were so many people – editors, producers, a lot of people – who lost their jobs. People forget that.

‘Julian’ was an actor on a drama series

I was super-pumped about the idea and concept of Quibi.

People consume entertainment in such a myriad of different ways these days.

media captionWATCH: Quibi aims to change how we watch shows on phones

I thought short-form content like this made a lot of sense.

When you create an entirely new platform like this, the sky’s the limit.

They’d invested in a number of celebrities to carry the shows and gave opportunities to some amazing show creators.

Look at what Amazon and Netflix did – I thought Quibi could have been around for a long time.

I think one of the main aspects that Quibi was trying to capitalise on was people watching on devices as they were out and about. Waiting for a bus. Sitting in a coffee shop.

Unfortunately, starting out in the time of a global pandemic was devastating.

The concept is a tough sell anyway. You know, there’s so much content out there already.

So what is the thing that’s going to draw people to Quibi? The idea of the short-form, quick-bite thing.

I don’t know if that was enough to make it work, but we’ll never be able to tell because of when it was launched. It didn’t get a fair shake to see if it was a viable thing.

In response, Quibi provided the following statement given in the names of its chief executive Meg Whitman and chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg:

While the result was not what any of us wanted, we did accomplish a number of things.

We opened the door to the most creative and imaginative minds in Hollywood to innovate from script to screen, and the result was content that exceeded our expectations.

BBC Around The Worldimage copyrightBBC/Getty Images
image captionThe BBC was among several established news broadcasters to make exclusive shows for Quibi

We challenged engineers to build a mobile platform that enabled a new form of storytelling.

And we were joined by 10 of the most important advertisers in the world, who enthusiastically embraced new ways for their brands to tell their stories.

Quibi’s [failure is] likely for one of two reasons: because the idea itself wasn’t strong enough to justify a stand-alone streaming service, or because of our timing.

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