The last year has seen a host of new streaming platforms enter the fray, with millions of dollars spent on the high-profile launches of Apple TV+, Disney+, Quibi, HBO Max and Peacock. Among each of these new services, only Disney+, led by runaway hit The Mandalorian, is generally considered a success. None of the others have had a breakout hit, and each (including Disney+) have launched with their fair share of bugs and incompatibilities.
Most recently, both HBO Max and Peacock debuted without deals in place on Roku or Fire TV, the two most popular streaming devices. Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic has slowed the production pipeline for virtually everyone.
But no one has had a rockier ride than Quibi.
Quibi (short for “quick bites") was designed to be a streaming platform for younger viewers who have been increasingly gravitating away from traditional TV shows and movies to watching shorter-form content on their phones. Quibi would offer viewers a number of original scripted TV shows and movies (officially known as “Movies in Chapters”) and unscripted reality titles to choose from, each of which would release new 10-minute “episodes” on a weekly (or in some cases daily) basis. Rather than feeling pressured to binge-watch an entire 8-13 hour season of television, the thinking went, viewers could keep up with Quibi’s shows without sacrificing as many hours from their days.
Naturally, early marketing for the service focused heavily on the lightweight, low commitment nature of the platform, and the 90-day free trial offered at its launch only reinforced that message. The company was so commited to the idea that its content was designed for mobile viewing that was only made available as a mobile app, a decision that ended up costing it big time when it launched in early April when most of the country was under stay-at-home orders. While the service launched with an impressive number of originals featuring some very big names, the fact that it was forcing homebound viewers to watch their shows on their phones (rather than their TVs or computers) made it an instant target of derision.
Making matters worse, the app's limited viewing features left viewers forced to record their phones with other devices if they wanted to share images or clips from a Quibi show online. Shows and episodes that had the potential to go viral and boost the streamer’s profile — like the insane episode of 50 States of Fright featuring The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s Rachel Brosnahan as a woman who becomes obsessed with her golden arm — failed to generate traction because of the streamer’s complete lack of online sharing methods. Instead of people talking about the actual content of the shows, the conversation turned to mockery of Quibi’s inability to anticipate modern consumers’ viewing habits.
Things only got worse for Quibi from there. In an apparent attempt to rehabilitate the platform’s ailing image, Quibi founder Jeffrey Katzenberg embarked on a post-launch press tour and blamed the coronavirus for the service’s disappointing debut. The irony of a streaming service blaming its troubles on the pandemic at the same time that its competitors were experiencing record viewership spikes wasn't lost on people, as discussion surrounding Quibi only became more derisive.
Katzenberg and company have since said that his coronavirus comments were made with an intentionally comedic tone, but that hasn’t stopped the bad press. In one Vulture piece, Quibi’s CEO Meg Whitman was asked about her own favorites TV shows and she was quoted as saying she wouldn’t “classify” herself as an “entertainment enthusiast,” while later in the same piece saying Katzenberg hoped Quibi’s shows would reach the same cultural heights as a select few TV hits of the distant past, like “America’s Funniest Home Videos, Siskel and Ebert, and Jane Fonda’s exercise tapes.” Those are bizarre reference points for anyone in Hollywood to be citing in 2020, but they're especially concerning coming from the founder of a streaming service that's so heavily targeting younger consumers.
Whether Quibi can overcome the missteps of its launch and subsequent miscalculations made by its head executives remains to be seen, but there are some encouraging signs. The company recently enabled screencasting so that Quibi subscribers can watch shows on their TVs. And to their credit, at a time when new original content has slowed to a trickle on TV networks and most other streaming services, Quibi has continued to roll out new originals with some very big names on a weekly basis. If another service had released a new comedy series starring Kevin Hart and John Travolta (as Quibi did with Die Hart llast month), or a new Lorne Michaels-produced series featuring the likes of Tina Fey, Andy Samberg, Maya Rudolph, D'Arcy Carden and Patton Oswalt (as Quibi did with Mapleworth Murders earlier this month), they'd likely be celebrated for having something new and compelling to offer viewers instead of more warmed-over content from overseas.
As much of a joke as Quibi may be today, it's worth remembering that people laughed off Netflix when it first launched its online streaming service, and that cultural phenomenons like Friends, The Office and Game of Thrones all had inauspicious debuts. Just don't ask Quibi's cutting edge CEO Meg Whitman about those three — she prefers to watch The History Channel.
Alex Welch has written about television and film for TV by the Numbers, IGN, The Berrics, Paste Magazine, Screen Rant and GeekNation. Follow him on Twitter @alexrwelch.