What Quibi Gets Wrong – and Right – About Small-Screen Streaming

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Viewer opinions are split on the “quick bites” approach, where episodes never run longer than 10 minutes

A Conversation With Quibi's Founder Jeffrey Katzenberg And Quibi Creators Lena Waithe, Veena Sud, And Kaitlin Olson At Sundance 2020
Photo by Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images for Quibi

It’s been a rough first six weeks for Quibi. The new streaming service, led by founder Jeffrey Katzenberg and CEO Meg Whitman, launched in early April with a who’s who of stars and nearly $2 billion in funding. But the early reviews haven’t been kind to either the app or its bite-sized shows, which tend to run about 5-10 minutes long. TheWrap spoke with a number of early Quibi users and found the app falls short in three key areas: content, technical features and marketing. Overall, it’s a toxic combo for Quibi to overcome. In less than two months, the Los Angeles-based company has already had to weather complaints that subscribers cannot cast shows to their smart TVs, grapple with the fact its content isn’t shareable on social media and backpedal on a cease-and-desist order Quibi sent to a fan-based podcast. “I have checked [Quibi] out, and I’m not a huge fan,” Morris Franco, a Brooklyn-based viewer, told TheWrap. “The app seems cool at first, but the content is horrible.” Quibi’s critics became vocal last week when Katzenberg told The New York Times “everything” about the app’s underwhelming launch stems from the coronavirus pandemic. Both Katzenberg and Quibi were then widely skewered on Twitter. Across both Apple’s App Store and the Google Play app store, Quibi has 3.2 million downloads to date, according to Sensor Tower, though Quibi execs told The Times that figure is closer to 3.5 million. Some of the downloads were driven by Quibi’s 90-day free trial, which it offered through the end of April. Over the past two weeks, app downloads have held steady at about 40,000 per day, a Sensor Tower rep added. Quibi did not respond to TheWrap’s request for comment. Franco said he watched a number of Quibi’s shows when he first downloaded the app, like the “Punk’d” reboot with Chance the Rapper, which he said was “solid.” But the acting in “Most Dangerous Game,” a feature-length movie starring Liam Hemsworth, is “horrid,” according to Franco, and “Chrissy’s Court,” a courtroom comedy show starring Chrissy Teigen, was so bad he “immediately stopped watching.” At the same time, viewers have been split on the whole “quick bites” approach, where episodes never run longer than 10 minutes. Harry Vanderhoof, a 28-year-old viewer from Astoria, Oregon, said he watched “Most Dangerous Game,” “Chrissy’s Court” and “Flipped,” starring Will Forte and Kaitlin Olson. His verdict: “They’d be good to watch if they weren’t so short.” For Vanderhoof, “8 minutes to tell a story doesn’t work,” and instead leads to confusing storylines that make it feel as if he skipped ahead during a two-hour movie. “I probably won’t watch once the free trial is over,” he added. Others have gravitated toward both the content and shorter runtimes. Jhadira Sauceda, a recent subscriber from Orange County, Calif., said she’s enjoyed the compact episode structure. “They get to the point, and I like that,” Sauceda said. “They’re so short that I don’t need to spend a lot of my attention on it.” In particular, she pointed to “Flipped” and “Chrissy’s Court,” which she said is “quick, funny and to the point. I already finished the full season.” That’s what Whitman had in mind last year when she told TheWrap Quibi was designed for “on-the-go viewing” — something viewers can enjoy while waiting in line at the grocery store or commuting to work. Those opportunities have been severely curtailed, though, with most Americans operating under stay-at-home orders for the last two months. Critics say Quibi launched under ideal circumstances, with millions of people left with little more to do than stream content while lounging on their couch. Still, even fans of Quibi’s shows have run into issues. Sauceda mentioned the one thing she didn’t like was her inability to watch Quibi anywhere but her phone. “I was watching it on my iPhone, and usually with other streaming services you can mirror [the content] to your TV. But there wasn’t a setting where I could watch it on my smart TV,” Sauceda said. “Sometimes I just want to hang out in my room and switch from watching on my phone to the TV.” The inability to watch a show on TV and use the phone as a second screen for social media is a complaint several subscribers mentioned to TheWrap. Some users said they’ve grown used to being able to watch their favorite shows while also scanning Twitter or scrolling through Instagram — something they can’t do if they’re watching a Quibi show. “It’s funny they say that it’s targeted at millennials [and Gen Z’ers] because like, we all do s— on our phones while we watch Netflix,” Angeleno Scott Prichard said while laughing. “No one watches shows on your phone because then how the hell do you tweet?” Quibi’s top brass have heard these protests, too, and have looked to pivot. Earlier this week, Whitman told TheWrap iPhone users will soon be able to watch Quibi’s shows on their smart TVs. Integrating WiFi-enabled TV casting technology into the Quibi app was always part of the plan, but Quibi accelerated it to meet the unexpected in-home viewing demand as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, according to Whitman. But perhaps the biggest hurdle Quibi faces is simply getting users to understand the app and download it. “A lot of my friends have no idea about it,” Amber Carrington, a senior at the University of Southern California, told TheWrap. Sauceda shared a similar story, saying she “had no idea it even existed” until late April, and even then, she “thought Quibi was more a video-editing app.” Quibi’s marketing push has leaned on having a few stars, like Chance the Rapper, show that waiting for a “Quibi” — or a “quick bite” — while at a restaurant isn’t a big deal, since they can just watch a few shows. The goal, obviously, is to drive the point home that Quibi is your app-of-choice for watching original short-form content, even if you only have a few minutes to spare. That message doesn’t appear to have connected with users, at least out of the gate, and the same goes for using “Quibi” as a verb. (It’s seemed eerily similar to Gretchen from “Mean Girls” trying to make “fetch” happen.) A handful of Quibi users interviewed by TheWrap said they’ve seen ads for Quibi on different social platforms, including Snapchat and TikTok, but they weren’t necessarily the reason they downloaded the app. The ad messages, they said, were muddled: They downloaded Quibi either after reading an article about the app or seeing one of their favorite celebrities mention it. Compounding matters for Quibi has been the conspicuous dearth of memes or social traction its shows have generated. This is due to the app blocking screenshots, which has kneecapped fans’ ability to share their favorite moments and get word of mouth going. (The opposite end of this would be Netflix, which has long benefited from screenshots going viral. Think Andy King from the “Fyre” documentary or, most recently, of all the memes tied to “Tiger King.”) Quibi execs are now looking to rectify this, too, by working to let users screenshot its shows. Even organic fan efforts to drum up interest have gone sideways, with Quibi threatening to take legal action against “Quibiverse,” a podcast that looked to “report on everything Quibi — the good, the bad, the unhinged.” Weeks before Quibi launched, the company forced the podcast to remove “Quibi” from its name; the podcast is now dubbed “Streamiverse.” Katzenberg ended up going on the show recently to extend an olive branch after Quibi received unflattering coverage for its initial decision to hit the podcast with a cease-and-desist letter. The lack of social traction has left Quibi’s true believers on an island at this point. Carrington said she’s “obsessed” with Quibi, and pointed to a number of unscripted shows, like “Shape of Pasta” and “I Promise,” as well as Quibi’s “daily essentials” news shows, when asked to share her favorite content so far. “The content has been taking heat since it launched, but I think a lot of the stories are really interesting,” Carrington said. All it takes is one hit show to permeate the pop culture bubble for Quibi to win millions of new subscribers.