Pandemics, Paid Streaming, and the Pace of Progress
Tigger, Self-portrait, 2020
We said we weren’t going to talk about anything related to…the situation this week, but COVID-19 has woven itself into everything and altered the way we live, the way we work, and the way we look to the future. Or, more specifically to today’s column, the speed with which the future is reaching us.
What’s interesting about the shifts we’re seeing in these days of sheltering in place is that we’re enjoying (dubiously) tech advances we’d have expected in 5 or 7 years — today. Necessity is mothering invention on a mass scale, and the impact is felt from medicine to entertainment.
We’ll focus on the latter today, to give you a break from the intensity of the former.
From the Sublime
Suddenly we all have time, we’re all home, and sports are canceled. Entertain us. Netflix, Apple, and Amazon Prime, are heeding the call.
Last week Apple began quietly offering in-app purchases to best frenemies Amazon (which Ben Thomson astutely analyses here), removing that last barrier between us and incessant TV binging. Netflix is pouring light entertainment on us to soothe our stressed-out minds, like Extraction (this year’s presumptive blockbuster) and the shamefully inaccurate but still deeply diverting Tiger King.
Musicians are giving live performances on their sofas, and Apple is even planning a massive, virtual benefit for COVID-19 relief with Billie Eilish and Elton John and Stephen Colbert and a bunch of other people you probably couldn’t ever get tickets to see.
It’s a golden (or at least gold-plated) age of entertainment because it has to be. Companies are pushing as we pull, and apps we may not have seen for months and partnerships we might not have known of for years are happening right now.
There’s simply no other choice for these industries — adapt or die.
To the Ridiculous
This week Jeffrey Katzenberg’s $1.75 Billion (with a B) mobile-streaming service Quibi launched, and saw a pretty impressive 300,000 downloads on its first day. For an unknown app with a weird name and an incomprehensible UVP, that’s nothing to sneeze at. Eh, maybe not the best phrasing these days.
Quibi, stupidly, tells its stories in “chapters.” Available only on mobile devices, the subscription-based app delivers shows in brief, 10-minute bursts, and has Warner Bros., NBCUniversal, Disney, BBC Studios, Lionsgate, and MGM on board, who will reportedly create all sorts of content — from comedy to documentaries to news.
So why is this the dumbest thing ever? You could argue that since short-format platforms like TikTok are so massively successful, Quibi is a sure thing. But TikTok is interactive. It’s shareable. It’s very funny. It’s 15-60 second bits of silliness that are designed to go viral (again, bad phrasing).
Quibi is static, awkward, and sits in a stupid middle ground between a clip and an actual show. Worst of all (for them), while we’re seeking out more entertainment than ever these days, we’re not doing it on our phones. As a New York Times study shows:
In the past few years, users of these services were increasingly moving to their smartphones, creating an industrywide focus on mobile. Now that we are spending our days at home, with computers close at hand, Americans appear to be remembering how unpleasant it can be to squint at those little phone screens.
Hey, maybe we’re wrong. Maybe Quibi will be the next big thing and we’ll have to eat our words.
Stay tuned and we’ll tell you in ten minutes.
What Happens Next?
Eventually, sooner than the long days stuck inside make it seem, the pandemic will be over and life will return to some semblance of normalcy. Then what? Do these rushed-to-market apps and suddenly popular services stay the center of our attention?
Services like Slack have it just fine after everyone goes back to work — they’ll just keep running and being successful. But Netflix and other content-creators will have huge chunks of their most valuable stuff in the already-watched pile and no ability to make new stuff for a while.
Will every restaurant and shopping service continue to offer “contactless” delivery, and will the way we interact (or don’t) with the outside world shift for good?
These are hard questions, and pretending we know the answer is just folly. But there’s no question these are strange, fascinating, surreal days we live in.
For now we’ll just enjoy the ride.