Quibi: How Past Short-Form Video Fumbles May Signal Tough Road Ahead

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“It’s going to be tough getting people’s attention on smartphones,” Colin Dixon, the chief analyst at nScreenMedia, says

If Hollywood had a “trending tab,” Jeffery Katzenberg’s Quibi would be at the top of the list. Opinions are mixed about whether the mobile-only subscription video-on-demand service will succeed, but history tells us creating a business off the back of premium short-form content is hard. “There have been various attempts to monetize original content that’s direct-to-mobile and short-form, and, to date, I can’t think of one that has been successful,” Guy Bisson, research director at Ampere Analysis, told TheWrap. Over the past 10 years, companies looking to capitalize on shrinking attention spans and the rise of mobile have come and gone. Some mobile-centric platforms, such as Verizon’s VCast and Flo TV, which came out prior to 2010, hit the market at a time when watching video on smartphones was a novelty. Others, like Verizon’s go90, weren’t able to attract enough consumers to grab the attention (or money) of advertisers, which inevitably led to go90’s closure in 2018 — and that was despite it being free, coming pre-installed on millions of Verizon-owned phones, and offering NBA and NFL coverage. Vessel, another short-lived short-form video platform, was founded by former Hulu executives Jason Kilar and Richard Tom. The company launched in 2015, only to be acquired and immediately shut down by Verizon, so it could use the tech for its own platform. Even Facebook, which has over a billion people using its site daily, has struggled to get people to use its free video platform, Watch. The slow adoption ultimately led to a complete restructuring of the service, by no longer requiring users go to a specific section of Facebook to view premium content, and instead integrating it with the News Feed and into existing Facebook pages. Companies have spent a considerable amount of money trying to capitalize on viewing habits, which for years were believed to be shifting toward short-form. Verizon lost an estimated $658 million on its venture and Facebook is estimated to have spent $1 billion on premium video content in less than two years. If go90 or Facebook Watch were paid subscription services, would consumers have been as generous to the platforms? Yet, paying for short-form content is exactly what  Katzenberg and CEO Meg Whitman have in mind for Quibi, which is scheduled to launch in 2020. With the company spending up to $100,000 per minute on its programming, it plans to charge subscribers $4.99 for an ad-supported service and $7.99 a month for an experience free of ads. So where does it differ from these past video ventures? Unlike Facebook Watch and go90, Quibi is backed by some of the biggest players in Hollywood, such as Disney and Warner Bros. It also has the firepower of Hollywood heavyweights like Jason Blum and Guillermo Del Toro backing its content. And unlike go90, Quibi has already sold $100 million worth of ads. Still, not everyone in the industry is convinced Quibi can crack the code of made-for-mobile, premium short-form content. “It’s going to be extremely challenging. I wouldn’t want to bet against Katzenberg, but there’s a number of reasons why it’s challenged,” Bisson said. Bisson believes one of the bigger issues Quibi faces is changing the way consumers categorize short-form. “It’s content that generally the precedent has been set that one doesn’t pay for it,” he told TheWrap. “Secondly, the way people view and engage with that content is very different from drama and long-form content. And thirdly, even the core demographic they’re going after is still watching the big screen, as well, and they tend to be using that big screen for higher-value content,” added Bisson. “The fact that they watch tons of mobile clips is almost, in a way, irrelevant, because the sort of content they’re experiencing is very different.” Like Bisson, the fact that consumers are now spending more time on mobile than TV doesn’t have Colin Dixon, the chief analyst at nScreenMedia, convinced that a mobile-only SVOD service is the answer to this growing trend, especially when SVOD giants like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon allow users to watch content on every device with a screen. “In my mind, [Quibi’s] already made one mistake and that’s making it exclusively on mobile,” Dixon said. “It’s going to be tough getting people’s attention on smartphones. You’re not just competing with Netflix and HBO; you’re competing with games and Facebook and YouTube and everything else that’s going on on that device.” In a recent interview with TheWrap, Whitman acknowledged these concerns, while also acknowledging the company was poised to avoid the pitfalls made by other mobile-first ventures. “We have a much higher quality of content — the producers, the directors, the stars, the amount we’re spending per minute of content,” Whitman said, comparing Quibi to go90. “It’s really much more similar to Hollywood content, the major studios.” Daniel Tibbets, former executive vice president at GoTV, one of the first companies to venture into mobile-first content, is skeptical about Quibi. “I think what we were doing at GoTV is exactly what Quibi is doing today: They’re doing it 14 years later and where the technology has obviously improved greatly, but some of the things may be antiquated,” he told TheWrap. “And it’s more or less quotes I see in the trades where we talk about when people watch mobile — in line at the bank is one quote that keeps coming up, and I don’t think that’s accurate. People just want to watch good content.” This concern has seemingly scared away some of the bigger content players from making mobile-first shows. For years now, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has suggested its biggest competition isn’t Hulu or Amazon, but apps and mobile-friendy video services like Snapchat, Facebook and YouTube. That doesn’t suggest Netflix and other SVOD services will shy away from it forever, only that Quibi is taking the first major crack at it since companies like go90 faded into oblivion. “Mobile-first video content is still an afterthought for Netflix and the other major SVODs,” Peter Csathy, founder of Creatv Media, said. “That may be because the SVOD leaders today either simply have other things on their mind, or aren’t believers in funding mobile-first content with the billions they are already spending.” There is some reason to believe Katzenberg and Whitman are entering the market at just the right time, in comparison to go90 and other dead ventures. Americans are continuing to spend more time on their phones than ever before — giving them more time to interact with digital video. In the last year, Americans in both the 18-34 and 35-49 age brackets have sharply increased their time spent on smartphones each day, with both demographics moving from about 2 hours and 45 minutes per day to more than 3 hours and 30 minutes, according to Nielsen’s latest Total Audience Report. “I think [Katzenberg and Whitman] launched this approach at a perfect time,” Dixon told TheWrap. “I’m not saying that it’s perfect because it’s guaranteed to succeed. I think it’s perfect because it was almost guaranteed to get Hollywood to sit up and pay attention.” Still, despite spending more time than ever before on their phones, the jury is still out on whether customers will actually pay for mobile-first video content. Only 39% of Americans say they are interested in premium, short-form shows that are mobile-first, according to a recent survey from Hub Entertainment Research. But the younger the viewer, the more likely they are to be intrigued by Quibi; of the 323 respondents between the ages of 16 and 24, 71% said they’d found the idea of a subscription short-form service “appealing.” This sentiment was echoed by Penelope Luna, a 24-year-old from Los Angeles, who said she’d likely pay the $4.99 monthly fee for a strong content slate with limited ads. I remember watching Pixar movies, and they have that short film at the beginning,” Luna said. “I think that would be an interesting take. People already watch videos on Instagram anyway, but a whole streaming service based off of that could be cool.” When it comes to differentiating itself from the pack and past failed attempts at short-form, content will be key, according to Paul Hardart, former Warner Bros. exec and current New York University film professor. “Katzenberg and Whitman are smart and they certainly have good talent relationships, so it’s all going to come down to the execution of the content,” Hardart said. “Is this stuff people want to see?” So far, Quibi has been betting on big names to grab the attention of fickle streamers. In the last few weeks, Quibi has greenlit shows from Lorne Michaels and Seth Myers, Idris Elba, and a Don Cheadle-led sci-fi teen drama. Directors Sam Raimi (“Spider-Man”), Guillermo del Toro (“The Shape of Water”) and Antoine Fuqua (“The Magnificent Seven”) and producer Jason Blum (“Get Out”) are all expected to produce content for the service. Those heavy-hitters will need to deliver a short-form version of “Stranger Things,” or a breakout hit that viewers must see, in order to drive success.