In another universe, Quibi ($PRIVATE:QUIBI) might’ve been a smash success. If the streaming wars had weaker players or perhaps if teens rejected TikTok, Quibi’s ten-minute bite-sized “TV shows” could’ve been the perfect entertainment for a generation of short attention spans. It has all the Gen Z-friendly ingredients: Buzzy celebrities and influencers, fast-paced programming, content made to fit on your phone, plus a cool $1.75 billion from investors. But just because a recipe has four appealing flavors doesn’t mean they’ll produce a good meal.
Months of quarantine meant more viewers were spending time at home with Netflix. TikTok saw record-breaking engagement in June, as users reached peak boredom with nothing to do but learn viral dances. Quibi launched mid-pandemic, while these existing streaming and social apps were integrating themselves deeper into people's lives, but it would be foolish to blame the company’s failure on COVID-19.
The unfortunate timing could’ve actually worked to Quibi’s advantage, earning the attention of restless, quarantined Americans. But founder Jeffrey Katzenberg and CEO Meg Whitman never really understood their audience, or their product.
Quibi’s 90-day free trial period ended last week. And according to Sensor Tower data analytics, the platform only converted about 8% of early users into paid subscribers. Despite the fact that the app has been downloaded approximately 4.5 million times, just 72,000 initial users remain. Some advertisers are even trying to get out of their contracts early. That’s not a good sign.
On its first day, the Quibi app rose to number 3 the in Apple App Store. The app’s ranking dropped to number 284 by mid-June. On May 3, Quibi’s App Store ratings count surged to 120% growth day-over-day. By May 7, day-over-day growth was down to 0%. Today it’s at 1%.
The merging of social media and entertainment spelled danger for Quibi
In 2018, Quibi raised $1 billion in funding from major Hollywood film studios, TV companies, telecommunications companies, tech companies, banks, and other investors struggling to get a grip on Gen Z. Quibi was teed up to be the next big thing in entertainment. Meanwhile, TikTok, which was also founded in 2018, was predicted to be the next big thing in social media.
The companies weren’t supposed to be rivals. But over the last few years, social media and entertainment have become one and the same. Or, rather, social media has absorbed entertainment, at least for younger audiences. Instagram stories are like plotless reality shows. We watch celebrities feud in real time on Twitter. This year, Snapchat caught on to the trend and launched Snap Originals episodic content. TikTok teens are filming their own dating shows. With all this free bite-sized entertainment, what would draw a person to Quibi?
Big names and production value fall flat
As a DreamWorks co-founder and former Disney studio head, Jeffrey Katzenberg had an impressive roster from which he could call in favors. He milked those connections for all they were worth, but they don't seem to be worth all that much.
Chrissy Teigen hosts a Judge Judy-inspired series, but Katzenberg may have overestimated Teigen's fan base and the desire for a millennial courtroom show. I would watch Idris Elba do pretty much anything, but I’m less inclined to tune into his car-stunt program. The famously quirky Anna Kendrick stars in a comedy alongside her boyfriend’s sex doll, a concept so stupid no actress could salvage it, no matter how charming. The Kardashians have a mock reality show about their newest family member, “Kirby Jenner.” I won’t even bother to comment on that one.
“People on Quibi have $100,000 a minute to make content,” Katzenberg told Vulture. “That doesn’t exist on other platforms.” Evidently, slick production and celebrity appeal will only get you so far. The medium is the message, after all. And the medium kind of sucks.
A schizophrenic content mine
Quibi’s user experience is as frenetic as its programming. Similar to TikTok, the homepage greets you with an algorithmically curated stream of content, “For You.” My current lineup includes a show about a rideshare driver-slash-killer, a self-help guru who wants to teach me about meal-prepping, NBC News’ The Report on Roger Stone, and TMZ’s No Filter on Lizzo.
It’s as if the programming was created in a chaotic game of MadLibs. The show descriptions are bloated with buzzwords. Your Daily Horoscope is an “astrological workplace comedy” cartoon. Murder House Flip gives you “true crime meets home renovation.” Quibi has no vision. Quibi’s target audience is everyone, so it ends up reaching no one.
Rather than create culture, Quibi reacts to it. In what can be understood as a response to “cancel culture,” Quibi makes its content as inoffensive and uncontroversial as humanly possible. The pranks on Chance The Rapper's Punk'd reboot are merely harmless mix-ups. This summer, comedian Ron Funches will host a show where fellow comedians compete to compliment “some pretty bad subjects.” If they don’t have anything nice to say, they lose.
No sharing, no community
Some shows seem poised for viral moments based on sheer absurdity. A few months ago, a clip from the Quibi original The Golden Arm made the rounds on Twitter. In it, Rachel Brosnahan has — you guessed it — a golden arm, as a result of her “pulmonary gold disease.” The clip features Brosnahan on her deathbed, whispering, “When I die, bury me with my golden arm.”
Quibi really did something with golden arm girl pic.twitter.com/vFWq3lgRUw— Ramsay (@offbrandheelz) April 16, 2020
The problem is, the Quibi app doesn’t allow you to screenshot or record its content. Users are unable to share Quibi’s kooky programming with their social media followers. They can’t generate memes about it. This kind of gap proves how little Quibi understands its audience and what the Gen Z/Millennial viewership wants out of entertainment.
Quibi saw explosive attention on social media around its release, but the chatter went quiet. The company's Facebook mentions peaked in May at 402,000. That number has since plummeted 84%, down to 64,000.
Quibi is standing in its own way. By sequestering content to our tiny screens, Quibi limits what kind of community can form around it. Friends aren’t going to crowd around a phone to binge watch The Golden Arm. There will be no post-quarantine Quibi viewing parties. This content is designed to be ingested alone.
Quibi's mistakes and missteps
Quibi's first mistake was in assuming people want to be on their phones all the time, and in reasoning that what’s missing from entertainment is mobile compatibility. People want star-studded drama series and bizzare sci-fi flicks and silly competition shows. They don’t, however, want to watch them on a handheld screen.
As of now, the app offers entertainment detritus, the industry’s runoff. “If we have a show that’s going to be a huge hit, you pitch to Netflix, HBO,” one producer told Vulture. “If it doesn’t get traction, you pitch to Quibi.”
The company reportedly has an estimated $750 million by the end of this year’s third quarter, so there's still room to turn things around. But Quibi has a choice to make. It can pivot to producing kooky, shareable content, or it can expand beyond the “quick bites” model it was named after.
About the Data:
Thinknum tracks companies using the information they post online - jobs, social and web traffic, product sales, and app ratings - and creates data sets that measure factors like hiring, revenue, and foot traffic. Data sets may not be fully comprehensive (they only account for what is available on the web), but they can be used to gauge performance factors like staffing and sales.