Quibi and the Brave New World of Mobile Entertainment

A few weeks ago we talked about the rapid advances in streaming and entertainment since the pandemic tightened its grip. And in that piece we spent a couple paragraphs dunking on the surreally bad non-starter of an idea that is Quibi.

We have fun here.

The thing is, we just couldn’t imagine a platform of awkwardly short, pre-packaged, episodic entertainment with no user interaction and no way to share doing well. It’s not TikTok; it’s not even Instagram Stories. Quibi’s UVP was the fact that its 10-minute bursts of entertainment were to be directed by some pretty heavy hitters. Jeffrey Katzenberg thought this would be enough.

Turns out? Probably not.

While it’s still early days, things aren’t looking good for the $1.75 billion fledgling. The platform signed up close to a million users during its free trial period in April, but to date only about 72,000 of those stuck around after their two-week trial to continue their paid subscription. And an 8% conversion rate isn’t enough to sustain life in an already hopelessly crowded entertainment ecosystem.

You Could Just Squeeze the Bag

It’s easy to write off Quibi as an obviously bad idea — the Juicero of entertainment apps — but these missteps could have happened to anyone (maybe not Juicero’s missteps; that thing was just ridiculous).

Quibi thought the emergence of a new medium meant a new way of telling stories, and they’re not completely off base there. The advent of radio meant storytelling could happen without visual interruption that gave away secrets and separated audiences. That changed the types of dramas that were presented. Likewise as film technology progressed, writers and storytellers realized you could do more than point a camera at a stage; you could play with light and motion; you could alter perception and tell different stories.

Quibi’s fundamental thesis was that mobile presents an entirely new medium for telling stories. There’s vision there, even if it was misguided in its execution.

The Medium Defines the Message

The problem is Quibi’s storytelling, however visionary, was still created by filmmakers and television producers for film and television audiences and not people waiting in line at the dry cleaner or waiting to pick up their kids from school. Good content; wrong audience.

And as the lockdown eases and more people ease back into daily life, the sheer unsuitability of the kind of entertainment Quibi is presenting becomes clearer.

When your attention is half-taken by the menu in your hand or the other passengers on the bus, you’re less likely to sink into the kind of rich, layered entertainment these directors are creating. Not because it isn’t good — because it isn’t good for your phone. It’s a lot easier to watch somebody impersonate Trump or prank a friend or ridiculous animal fights with Mortal Kombat sounds in the background. In a real movie, there are characters and story arcs and things to notice.

Maybe we shouldn’t like mindless, cotton-candy-level-of-nutrition entertainment, but we’re human.

Sometimes, that’s the job.

More is More

Mobile is a new medium, and it does present a new way of telling stories. But it’s also a new medium for creating them. The rarefied worlds of the Katzenbergs and Spielbergs and Del Toros are built on scarcity — scarcity of skill, of opportunity, and of release. What if the definitive nature of mobile is abundance instead of scarcity? There are 46 million installs of TikTok per month in the US alone. The scale is massive. So if we want to look at this like television, TikTok can run a thousand pilot episodes a minute, boost what works, and ignore what doesn’t. No need for a professional eye to curate.

And lastly, Quibi suffered from a lack of user involvement that was nearly shocking in this day and age. Part of what makes TikTok and YouTube and Instagram so successful is that we are invited to be artists. We are all players on the stage.

Mobile isn’t a movie theater in miniature; it’s an entirely new way of telling stories. And very often that means letting the user tell their own.

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