Quibi, the shortform video streaming service designed for people to enjoy on their phones, has shuttered after less than a year of existence.
Led by veteran Hollywood executive Jeffrey Katzenberg and former HP CEO Meg Whitman, the streaming service was designed to be a revolutionary way to watch videos on the go, with shows and films specifically formatted to work in both landscape and portrait modes. With nearly $2 billion raised before Quibi even launched in April and a long line of Hollywood talent on board to provide movies and shows, Katzenberg and Whitman felt pretty good about their prospects — even if analysts and media critics questioned the duo’s strategy.
Then the United States joined the rest of the world in shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic just a few weeks before Quibi launched. Quibi, a streaming service built around the premise that people would watch its shows on the go, now faced an entire population of potential subscribers stuck at home. In its brief six months of life, Quibi also faced a lawsuit backed by a wealthy foe, subscriber woes, and product feature hump. It never managed to escape being the app to ridicule.
So why did Quibi fail? Those factors all played in, but it was executives’ fatal misunderstanding of what Quibi should be that led to its inevitable and rapid downfall.
1. Nearly all of Quibi’s shows were terrible
It’s the most obvious reason but also arguably the biggest. An entertainment streaming service needs titles that are going to convince subscribers to sign up and stay, but Quibi was packed with mediocre content that seemed to come from studios and networks happy to finally sell off the projects sitting on their basement floors for years. Katzenberg and Whitman invested more than $1 billion in top Hollywood talent, and projects from top studios, that nevertheless failed to produce anything of quality.
Most titles felt like jokes straight out of 30 Rock. Then there were “Daily Essentials,” a lineup of programming that appeared daily and focused on a certain subject, like recapping late night shows or giving sports updates. They were the equivalent to videos found on YouTube — except on YouTube, the same type of content was better and free.
(Disclosure: Vox Media is partnered with Quibi on two shows and there were discussions for a Verge show in the future.)
There’s a reason I bet 99 percent of people reading this can’t recall more than a few Quibi originals. Wireless? Die Hart? Survive? Do any of these ring a bell? The only show I can remember is Murder Unboxed, and it never even premiered. Nothing about Quibi’s shows were at all memorable.
2. People’s daily lives changed; Quibi didn’t
Quibi was designed to be watched on phones, and for the longest time, Quibi executives seemed reluctant to budge on that design. Quibi seemed positively opposed to adapting to its new world at first. The company relented and slowly started adding support for Apple’s AirPlay and Google’s Chromecast so people could cast from their phones, but doing so disabled Quibi’s Turnstyle technology, the only thing really setting its shows apart at this point. It wasn’t an ideal fix. Quibi didn’t actually release an app for Fire TV and Roku set-top boxes until this week… just one day before Katzenberg and Whitman announced they were closing up shop.
3. Quibi failed to invest in the power of memes
The only viral Quibi clip was recorded from another phone. Quibi didn’t launch with the ability to take screenshots or share clips from its shows and films, and without those sharing features, there was no way for people to easily discover and engage with Quibi’s series. This all speaks to the company being led by people with no real understanding of what the future of entertainment is, especially on mobile devices: it’s not just about what people are watching, but the interactivity of turning what you’re watching into content across your own social media networks.
4. Quibi’s price was too damn high
The fact that Quibi charged $5 a month for garbage bin entertainment (or $8 a month without ads) was nonsensical. The entertainment people were getting for free on platforms like TikTok, YouTube, and Twitch, combined with the highly talked-about shows and movies they were paying for already on Netflix, Amazon, and Disney Plus, left Quibi’s additional price not exactly something to be desired. Quibi tested a completely ad-supported free tier in Australia and New Zealand a couple of months before the company shuttered, but by that point, it was too little, too late.
5. Did anyone outside of Media Twitter know about Quibi?
Think back to the last time you saw an ad for Quibi on TV, Instagram, or TikTok. What about a specific show? Quibi was notably bad at marketing. There was an expensive Super Bowl ad that failed to actually demonstrate what Quibi was (that ran months before Quibi was available), leaving people more confused than anything else. None of the ads for shows ever traveled on TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook. Arguably, part of the reason Quibi and its various series, including many of its multimillion-dollar bets, never took off is because no one outside of Media Twitter knew they even existed.
6. Problems at the very top
Before Quibi launched, Whitman and Katzenberg were already running into problems with each other. Whitman threatened to quit as the company’s CEO, finding that Katzenberg was dictatorial, undermined her authority, and belittled her, according to The Wall Street Journal. On top of that, neither Katzenberg nor Whitman truly seemed to understand how people use their phones, what people want from streaming services, or why something like TikTok and Netflix worked. It’s hard enough to get a company off the ground in an increasingly competitive market; it’s near impossible if the two heads of that company can barely work together.
7. Why should Quibi exist? Quibi never figured it out
The problem that Quibi could never address was, “Why do I need this?” Katzenberg and Whitman repeatedly said “we’re not competing with Netflix,” but Quibi was competing with Netflix and every other app. Without a library of great content that other streamers have or social capabilities that other apps use, Quibi needed one show to get people to open the app. That never happened. There was no reason to ever open Quibi. A streaming service needs to feel essential to people’s daily lives to survive; Quibi never even made the case to get people to download.
8. If I’m on my phone, I’d rather watch TikTok
Streaming services and social media apps aren’t just vying for your credit card; they also want your attention — constantly. If people are spending their days watching Netflix, playing Fortnite, scrolling through TikTok, and posting on Instagram, it’s going to require something exceptional to take their attention away. Quibi was full of spaghetti content — noodles thrown at the wall to see what sticks. While Quibi tried to get people’s attention, time spent on the aforementioned apps (and sites like Twitch and YouTube) grew rapidly. It wasn’t that people didn’t have more time at home to watch things; they just didn’t want to watch Quibi.
9. An ongoing fight over Quibi’s main technology
It didn’t help that throughout all of Quibi’s short lifespan the company was facing a lawsuit from a competitive and well-financed tech company, Eko, over the app’s Turnstyle technology. That’s the very tech Quibi prided its seamless portrait / landscape mode transitions on. While the lawsuit by itself likely didn’t finish Quibi off, having to fend off a legal challenge to its key technology was just more kindling for the already growing fire.
10. Its entire thesis is wrong
I can not stress this enough: Quibi didn’t work because no one at Quibi knew what it should be, what people wanted, or how people use their phones. Its entire existence is predicated on the idea that people want high-quality shortform content every single day, but executives arrogantly failed to acknowledge the simple point that people have routinely been getting that, for free, for years. Quibi didn’t fail because TikTok existed; it failed because executives refused to see TikTok as its biggest competition. Instead of learning from the very apps people spend hours on every day, Quibi stuck its nose up and said, “we’re doing something different” — even if no one is particularly interested.
11. And yes, the pandemic
Fine, Katzenberg: yes, the pandemic probably hurt Quibi. It didn’t single-handedly kill Quibi, though. All of the above points — not being able to adapt, bad content, lack of social sharing, no effective marketing — weren’t because of the pandemic. It was because of poor leadership and a lack of insight into consumer behavior, wants, and needs. Did the pandemic hurt Quibi by removing the coffee lines and subway rides during which people potentially could have watched its shows? I doubt it. Even if the pandemic didn’t happen, Quibi would have failed. It just would have taken another few months. Quibi’s problems were built into Quibi’s design. The fatal blows were delivered before it even launched. The pandemic just accelerated its demise the same way the pandemic has accelerated unprecedented success for many of Quibi’s competitors that got it right.