Quixotic Quibi quits

Mobile streaming video startup Quibi, which was backed by Hollywood, has been forced to shut down after its core narrative failed to persuade.

On the face of it, creating a new SVoD (subscription video on demand) service at a time when Apple and Disney were joining the fray was at the very least optimistic. But the cunning plan was to differentiate on format, rather than quality of content, by designing its original content specifically for consumption on smartphones.

This amounted to filming more close-ups and limiting the length of the clips to ‘quick bites’ – hence the company name. There was also some novel formatting technology, allowing dynamic switching between portrait and landscape views. The thinking seemed to be that there was a gap in the market for video that you could just dip into on the go.

The major flaw in that thinking was to assume that demand for mobile video, such as it was, wasn’t already being satisfied by existing SVoD services, as well as catch-up TV apps, YouTube, etc. Consuming content on the go is always going to involve pausing it frequently, regardless of how long the clip is, and the novelty of being able to watch full-screen video in portrait mode was, by itself, a weak USP.

Of course, the coronavirus pandemic didn’t help. Launching any service tailored to people on the move at a time when half of the world was under house arrest was always going to present a challenge. But it’s hard to see how such a poorly differentiated product could ever have succeeded in a very crowded and well-served market.

To the credit of co-founders Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman, they resisted pinning all the blame on the Rona in their letter to employees announcing the decision to wind down the business. “Quibi is not succeeding,” they wrote. “Likely for one of two reasons: because the idea itself wasn’t strong enough to justify a standalone streaming service or because of our timing.

“Unfortunately, we will never know but we suspect it’s been a combination of the two. The circumstances of launching during a pandemic is something we could have never imagined but other businesses have faced these unprecedented challenges and have found their way through it. We were not able to do so.”

Quibi will now try to extract what vestigial value it can for its beleaguered shareholders, which seem to include all Hollywood and a bunch of telecoms companies too. There’s nothing wrong with trying and failing, but the contrasting success of Disney+ this year serves to remind us, once more, that content is king.

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