Quibi's Real Issue Isn't Covid-19 or Screencasting, It's Ego

Illustration for article titled Quibis Real Issue Isnt Covid-19 or Screencasting, Its Ego
Image: Quibi

After reversing its stubborn insistence on making Quibi a mobile-exclusive streaming service, the company will finally begin rolling out casting support to its, uh, relatively small group of subscribers.

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Speaking to founder Jeffrey Katzenberg for an interview, the New York Times reported that Quibi’s iOS users will get casting support “this week,” while Android users will get it later on. (Gizmodo reached out for comment about whether all content on the platform would be able to be casted but did not immediately receive a response.) But while screencasting Quibi’s short-form videos may open the service up to a wider audience of viewers looking for things to watch at home, it’s not going to remove Quibi’s biggest obstacle to own its success: the incredibly fragile egos of its top brass.

When Quibi initially launched last month, the company failed to read the writing on the wall for what lay ahead in a post-covid-19 world, opting to launch the service as a (mostly) mobile-only service in spite of social distancing and stay-at-home orders that were already underway. Speaking with the Times about whether he regretted launching the service when he did, Katzenberg told the paper that had the company known “on March 1, which is when we had to make the call, what we know today, you would say that is not a good idea.”

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“I attribute everything that has gone wrong to coronavirus,” Katzenberg told the paper. “Everything. But we own it.”

To be clear, the covid-19 crisis has not created an especially kind launch environment for a service whose entire purpose is to keep people entertained while they are on the go. But Quibi did launch at a time when most streaming services are absolutely thriving. To some degree, there is no better time to launch a streaming service than right now, with so many people stuck at home and turning to streamable content to keep them entertained. Look no further than Disney+, which launched only a few months ago and has managed to wrangle an astonishing 50 million paid subscribers worldwide. The coronavirus crisis has created an unparalleled appetite for content. It should have been a slam dunk.

But even with a free 90-day trial, Quibi has managed to secure somewhere around 3 million subscribers. (The Times cited Sensor Tower, an app analytics firm, as reporting 2.9 million, whereas Quibi claims 3.5 million users.) Its launch day numbers were in the hundreds of thousands, which is embarrassing. Even Katzenberg admitted to the Times that the figures aren’t great, saying that they were “not close to what we wanted.”

Katzenberg also admitted that there were “a whole bunch of things we have now seen in the product that we thought we got mostly right” that did not pan out. Apparently these include its news-focused Daily Essentials clips, which—wouldn’t you know it—people do not need right now because they have more access to news and entertainment than ever at home on much, much larger screens. But the biggest tell for Quibi’s barrier to success happened in a bizarre exchange between Katzenberg and the Times reporter, who asked about TikTok’s success.

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“That’s like comparing apples to submarines,” he told the paper. “I don’t know what people are expecting from us. What did Netflix look like 30 days after it launched? To tell me about a company that has a billion users and is doing great in the past six weeks, I’m happy for them, but what the hell does it have to do with me?”

What a strange response to a question about a similar, mobile-only streaming service! This defense also reeks of the same dumbfounding idiocy as when Quibi CEO Meg Whitman reportedly made internal comments comparing the relationships journalists have with their sources to those of sexual predators—all over a leaked memo about the company’s fundraising. You can almost taste the defensiveness over an exceptionally bad launch come through in Katzenberg’s big boy meltdown over a normal ass comparison to a similar product here. And this—not coronavirus—is Quibi’s death knell.

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Right now, Quibi is playing catch-up. As the Times noted, the company has shifted its marketing strategy to advertise individual shows rather than a new service that no one understands. And that’s a start. A service is only as good as the content on its platform, and Quibi’s signature “Turnstyle” tech is neat but was never enough to carry the service on its own—regardless of whatever Whitman and Katzenberg were able to spin to their investors.

But in the coming weeks and months, the service will be clawing at subscribers who are also looking at other, newer service launches with the revamp of CBS All Access later this summer, the launch of super-stuffed HBO Max this month, NBCUniversal’s soft launch of Peacock, and any number of the other 500 streaming services that already exist. All of these will probably do just fine, given that we are living through a time that actually necessitates more content, not less.

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If only Quibi could have seen it that way.

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DISCUSSION

Corona virus or not this service was only ever going to be attractive to a niche market. Every streaming service from Netflix to amazon to even Plex has realized that you need to give people options on how they consume the content. Every single smart TV, tablet, smart phone, or streaming device I have used can download an app for any of the big streaming services. When you limit you audience to a mobile device, you limit your market share and hence your earning potential.  This was obvious to just about anyone right from the start.