Quibi Quibites the Dust: Why the Streamer Failed

Quibi, streaming service and towering monument to mankind’s hubris and folly, is officially shutting down.

Quibi Jeffrey Katzenberg
Photo: Daniel Boczarski | Getty Images

Let’s start off with an important disclaimer. The end of any major company means the loss of jobs and livelihoods for many hardworking people. Hundreds of Quibi employees will likely soon find themselves out of a job amid a global pandemic and a grim economic environment in the United States. We wish them the best of luck in quickly finding gainful employment at other stable entertainment entities. 

Having said that, Quibi is dead…Quibi is finally, blissfully dead. Undoubtedly the first big dud of the streaming era came to an ignominious end today when the Wall Street Journal reported that Quibi Holdings LLC will elect to shut itself down in the face of non-existent viewership, mounting debts, and a patent lawsuit or two. 

Quibi had previously been searching for a buyer to take on all its assets (and its debt) but had already been turned down by Apple, WarnerMedia, and Facebook – mostly because Quibi didn’t even own much of the content on its own servers. The company is expected to hold a conference call with investors today to discuss the decision to shut down. 

The doomed streaming service was the dream of former Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg who wagered that as long as he spent enough money on something, audiences could be convinced to care about it. This turned out to be not quite the case, but not for lack of trying and not for lack of money. 

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Founded as “NewTV” in August 2018, the concept of Quibi was a novel one. The streaming service would develop content to be consumed as “quick bites” (hence the name Quibi) that audiences would consume in 10 minute increments. That concept made just enough sense to spur a truly stupefying amount of deep-pocketed investors to step in to offer up their money. Before producing even one second of content, Quibi had raised $1.75 billion in pre-launch funding from film studios, telecom companies, banks, and more. That money helped Quibi launch with a truly impressive war chest. The streamer had more than 175 shows and movies lined up for its first year featuring an array of talent such as Chrissy Teigen, Sam Raimi, Sophie Turner, and more. 

All was looking good in Quibi-land…and then Quibi actually launched on April 6, 2020. Within one week of the service’s arrival, it was quickly clear that this would be a once-in-a-generation case of corporate failure schadenfreude. Despite offering a 90-day free trial, Quibi found itself well outside of the Top 50 apps on the Apple app store one week after its release. The service could claim only just over 1 million active users, well below its initial expectations. Meanwhile, social media was alight with cringeworthy clips from Quibi’s shows.

The problems with Quibi were manyfold and will likely be the subject of media studies for years to come. So let’s just jump the gun on media historians and get into them right now. 

For starters, Katzenberg, Quibi CEO Meg Whitman, and Quibi’s investors misunderstood how people engage with content in some breathtakingly arrogant and astonishing ways. While it’s likely true that audiences’ average attention spans have tightened in recent years, Quibi just decided to overlook the existence of hundreds of TV shows and movies that continue to absolutely kill it for other streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Max. NBC Universal paid $500 million (or nearly one-third of the entirety of Quibi’s original investments) to secure the rights to The Office alone. And that’s because all evidence, both tangible and anecdotal, suggests time and time again that people are more than happy to binge 22-60 minute episodes. 

Not only that, but Quibi was clearly targeted towards younger audiences…while fundamentally not understanding younger audiences. Per ad tracking firm iSpot, Quibi spent a staggering $63.7 million on television advertising to reach the coveted youth demographic, not realizing that that demographic likely wasn’t watching much traditional television advertisements in the first place. Not only that, but those young audiences already had their fair share of “quick bites” available to them, and for free. Mediums like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Tik Tok had mastered the art of short form content and had granted them to eager young audiences for only the cost of their digital soul (demographic information). Any capitalist worth their salt should be very aware that “Free + Sacrificing of Digital Privacy” will beat out “$4.99 a month + Also Probably Sacrificing of Digital Privacy” every time. 

Then there’s the fact that Quibi was available only via mobile devices and not on streaming providers like Roku and Amazon Fire. In fact, it’s only this week that Quibi finally found its way to living room viewing devices  This is because Quibi could only imagine a world in which people were dying to watch content on their phones and their phones alone. This meant that Quibi watchers couldn’t screenshot, gif, or meme any of the content on Quibi, which in turn created little meaningful social media buzz. Notice how that viral “Golden Arm” bit is recorded on a phone recording another phone.

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But Quibi’s biggest downfall (and what makes said downfall so cathartic for so many) was its hubris. A Vulture story about the streaming service released just three months after its launch now reads more like Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” than a piece of media analysis. It is filled with foreboding dispatches from a company unaware it was already dead. Katzenberg and Quibi CEO Meg Whitman come off as barely caring about television, with Whitman in particular saying “I’m not sure I’d classify myself as an entertainment enthusiast” and offering up only a History Channel special about President Ulysses S. Grant as an example of a TV show she likes. 

That article also features the following truly awe-inspiring passage of corporate ineptitude and carelessness:

“When Gal Gadot came to the offices and delivered an impassioned speech about wanting to elevate the voices of girls and women, Katzenberg wondered aloud whether she might become the new Jane Fonda and do a workout series for Quibi. (‘Apparently, her face fell,’ says a person briefed on the meeting.)”

Not only did the folks at Quibi misunderstand the entertainment landscape, they misunderstood how their app was supposed to work in the first place. Quibi launched during the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, which would be a tough beginning for any company. But Quibi was in the streaming business, and should have hypothetically flourished alongside its many other streaming rivals with potential viewers across the world holed up in their houses with nothing but time and boredom to spare. In an interview with The New York Times, however, Katzenberg said “I attribute everything that has gone wrong to coronavirus. Everything.” In the minds of Katzenberg and Quibi’s investors, watching Quibi was a kinetic activity – something that someone would do while waiting in line for coffee or riding the subway. 

It’s as though the decision-makers at Quibi bought into their own Silicon Valley Apple commercial bullshit in which a country full of beautiful people commuted to their high-paying jobs via readily available public transportation and just wanted to watch quick bites of other beautiful people entertaining them in 10-minute bursts during the brief downtimes in their exciting lives. Whereas other traditional streaming services continue to grow by presenting hours upon hours of bingeable ‘memberberries for a couch potato to have on in the background while they scroll through Instagram.

Based on Katzenberg’s New York Times post-mortem while the company was ostensibly pre-mortem, it seems as though no lessons will be learned here as well. Quibi is unquestionably the first biggest massive failure of the streaming era and it’s also unquestionably won’t be the last. That’s good news for casual onlookers craving the rightful humiliation of very rich executives and bad news for anyone hoping for the continued health of the entertainment industry post-COVID.