Quibi, that much-hyped, much-talked about piece of mobile streaming software, wants you to believe that it is a mobile-native content consumption experience.
I do not agree.
Quibi is betting that they can take Hollywood to the future. Their theory is that mobile content is the future, and for Hollywood to participate, it needs to come to mobile in a format that’s native to the platform.
Thus, Quibi is presenting video in shorter video clips - 8-10 minutes long, and delivering on a bunch of nifty UX features, the most notable of which being that you can watch a Quibi on any orientation.
This is Quibi’s bet. Like, many people, I think that’s a bet they’re going to lose, but for slightly different reasons than raising too much money, raising too little money, the lack of screenshots or the lack of a breakout show.
Quibi’s essential thesis assumes that people want to watch Hollywood content on their phones. I don’t know that this is true. When technology changes how we consume or create content, it changes the content itself. The most commonly-cited example of this is about radio and the dawn of television. I’ll let Meg Whitman, Quibi’s co-founder speak on it herself:
When we look back at the great leaps forward in entertainment, what we often see is the initial attempts at using a new technology aren’t anything like the ones that last. For example, when television made its debut, creators had no idea how to take full advantage of the new platform. Some early television shows simply featured announcers reading from radio scripts into the camera.”
She's right. New technology creates new opportunities and patterns for media creation, consumption and monetization. What’s more, these advances often bring new classes of creators to prominence.
In many ways, it feels like Quibi started from the question, "how do we make Hollywood TV mobile-native?" instead of asking "how do we make high-quality mobile-native entertainment?"
For example, a traditional TV show makes money by selling ads. To do this, a 24-minute episode is broken into about 3 chunks. Each of these chunks needs a mini-cliffhanger at the end of it to ensure the viewers sit through the ads. This is what a good chunk of Quibi's scripted content looks like - each chunk presented as a separate quick bite. On the other hand, Netflix makes internet native content. As a result, their creations can tell longer-drawn stories that don't need mid-episode cliffhangers to work. What's more, because most Netflix shows are released for binging, it's easier to make slow-burn shows – creators are less worried about their mid-season ratings. Here's Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, speaking to Mashable in 2013.
Gilligan also noted Breaking Bad may have met its demise after season 2 had it not been for streaming video on demand, as it ushered in new viewers and encouraged time-starved people to keep watching at their own pace. "I think Netflix kept us on the air," Gilligan emphasized.
Leaving the internet at large and focusing on mobile, it's important to remember that mobile is extremely personal. Your phone belongs to you, and the apps you have on it might be used by the entire world, but they're configured particularly for you – to keep your memories, connect with the people you want to connect with, and show you the content you want. Mobile is also social – 5 of the top 10 apps on the App Store are social apps (add YouTube and that number becomes 6).
Perhaps this is why user-generated platforms provide the most popular form of video content on mobile – they simultaneously provide users an opportunity to express themselves, as well as a highly-personalized feed of content for them to consume.
So when you think about Quibi - a mobile viewing experience with no ability for the users to interact with the content besides watching it, it feels anachronistic to what a mobile-native content platform should do. This might explain why one of the biggest complaints Quibi users had was not being able to watch it on their TVs. It felt like traditional TV - mostly static, impersonal, not interactive - so why be forced to watch on their phones?
The other thing that user-generated platforms do (for no other reason than there's really no other way to go) is to be built around personalities. Creators drive UGC platforms, and while users might enjoy a creator's content, they often form a relationship with the creator. And that's something else Quibi can't really claim to. By using the traditional "show" system, users might be looking out for actors and stars, but they're essentially following show titles, and have no tools to create communities around them within the app.
Contrast this with TikTok - which is an example of what mobile-native video looks like. By focusing on creators, it allows users to form or join communities. By providing a ton of sharing options, including (gasp) allowing downloads, it filled the need to enjoy content with others.
What's more, it leveraged the expectations of interactivity, providing more discovery methods than we've previously seen. Everything from the fullscreen swiping interface to the use of video effects, audio tracks and hashtags as search vectors tap into users' decade of mobile use.
The result is a combination of creativity and ridiculousness that feels strangely familiar over time. And even when TikTok apes content from older mediums, it does so in a way that’s so transformative, the result is original again.
I should make it clear don't think Quibi is doomed.
I do think that their north star is a bit off. Instead of trying to bring Hollywood to mobile, they might consider focusing on bringing high-quality content to mobile. Instead of trying to squeeze Hollywood onto our phones, Quibi has the opportunity to rethink mobile television from the ground up, leveraging the universe created by mobile devices.
That might look like a few things.
It might look like centering creators and influencers instead of TV shows. Leveraging the talent of people who’ve built audiences on the internet, and empowering them with high-end production capabilities could be very powerful. Consider that influencers that became famous on these platforms have very different content creation styles than celebrities that traded real-world social capital for social media clout. And when those celebrities wanted to expand their star power online, they often adapt to the creative styles of these platforms - think Will Smith or Doja Cat on Instagram, or Jason Derulo on TikTok. What's more, they're more willing to leverage their communities to drive viewership.
It might look like providing social tools for users - from something as simple as commenting, to group watching, interactive live shows, and the ability to share download and share short clips.
It might involve building interactive features, either as simple as hearts, live TV with polls, or as complicated as choose-your-own adventure content. Technology provides so many opportunities for interactivity that Quibi hasn't even begun to scratch the surface of.
In the end, it will look like rethinking what quality content on mobile looks like in the long run. And they'd better hurry - TikTok just hired away Disney's head of streaming to become CEO.
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Got a minute? You should also read:
- Why Quibi will succeed – eventually by Addictive founder Simon Andrews, in which he makes the argument that Quibi has enough space to figure out how to be even more mobile-native than it currently is.
- This and this by Nathan Baschez in which he first makes the bull case for Quibi (short content is here to stay), and then asks why it isn't working in response to this New York Times article.