Quibi is dead, dead ere its prime, is something poet John Milton never would have written mournfully if he were chronicling this cursed year of 2020, the year when a streaming company tried in earnest to clip our already shrinking attention spans and get us to spend even more time staring into our phones as if they were reflective pools, our hands ever poised for thumb thing.
On one level, I’m sorry to hear that the streaming platform Quibi has shut down less than seven months after its April 6 launch. Jobs have been lost, and money has been wasted — a lot of money, since founder Jeffrey Katzenberg and CEO Meg Whitman raised some $1.75 billion to fund the venture, along with hundreds of millions in ad money. It’s a mess, and lives have been upended in the process, with almost no economic fallbacks because of the pandemic. All the Hollywood investment money that’s already been spent could have gone toward, I don’t know, PPE, or maybe another season of Netflix’s “GLOW.”
But on a purely cultural level, I’m good with saying goodbye and “we hardly knew ye.” When I hear the name Quibi, a portmanteau derived from “quick” and “bites,” I think of greasy, lardaceous fast food. The McService turned me off from the moment I first heard about it, in 2018. I never really wanted to see viewers watching finely minced 5- to 10-minute episodes on tiny TVs while waiting in (a socially distanced) line at the coffee shop. For one thing, it promised to further degrade the act of viewing. Yes, if we’re not in the dark anonymity of a theater, but sitting in our den or bedroom, we are probably going to be interrupted at points in a show or movie, and viewing will be compromised. But Quibi was all about celebrating taking in shows and movies in scattered fragments, while the world intruded and competed for attention. It was designed to get you to partial-watch, which is suboptimal, just more chipping away at our already compromised focus.
And it seemed as though Quibi would represent yet another step further into solo viewing, after binge-watching has already made water-cooler conversations about TV shows next to impossible. At least now, if we want to binge, we can binge with friends or family on our home TVs. With mobile-only programming, we are forced to watch alone. If you look at the broader release tendency these days on successful streamers including HBO Max and Hulu, they involve premiering episodes weekly like HBO and Showtime. The weekly release model enables a community to build around a show, with fans processing the story together since they’re all on the same episode. It also keeps the show in the public eye for a longer period, for the length of the season. Quibi promised to pull us in the wrong direction.
The failure of Quibi comes as a reminder that you can’t force something to happen in entertainment, no matter how much money and clout you have. The idea of creating slick TV shows solely available on small mobile devices may sound forward-thinking, since we’re forever scrolling; but then so did the Edsel, and New Coke, and Premiere smokeless cigarettes. Turns out there is no niche of digital natives longing for such miniaturized content, as Katzenberg and Whitman assumed, even though Quibi shows featured popular talent including Sophie Turner, Liam Hemsworth, Laurence Fishburne, Queen Latifah, Anna Kendrick, Chrissy Teigen, and Chance the Rapper. And then those who do long for quick bites on their phones can get it already anyway — for free, on YouTube, Vimeo, and other services.
Arguably, Quibi failed because of a few difficult external factors. The pandemic was a major drawback when it came to a product meant for people to use on the go. No one was going anywhere or waiting in lines for months after Quibi launched. Also, we are in the middle of a streaming service overload, as the likes of Peacock and Disney+ keep coming at us. Viewers may have been saving their streaming money for other, more versatile services and services that, unlike Quibi, include one or two breakout series and libraries of popular oldies. Quibi’s queue of shows was remarkably uninteresting.
But my intuition tells me that Quibi probably would have tanked even if it had been released during a more opportune year. It’s an idea whose time shouldn’t come, and probably won’t, an idea whose logic is misguided. RIP, Quibi, 2020-2020. Fittingly, you had a very short life.