Media mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg has done a lot of good for pop culture. His decade spent leading Walt Disney Studios gave audiences a return to classic Disney animated musical movies and stockholders reason to be optimistic about the future of the company. Katzenberg’s departure led to him co-founding DreamWorks Animation where more iconic animated movie franchises grew under his leadership. So even if his latest venture, the short-form mobile video streaming content platform Quibi, ultimately fails — and all signs point to that being the case — Katzenberg still has quite a lot to be proud of in his continuing career. But he’s not acting that way. And he’s not handling the nearly $2 billion bobble with grace either.
In a new interview with the New York Times, Katzenberg addressed both Quibi’s less-than-stellar debut and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Bizarrely, he linked the two together, saying:
“I attribute everything that has gone wrong [with Quibi] to coronavirus. Everything.”
A bold spin, that. As many more level-headed folks, most of whom I’ll assume aren’t near-billionaires, have observed, the fact that more people than ever are home with “free time” and are looking for new and interesting content to stave off boredom or escape the crushing reality of our world should have bolstered Quibi’s appeal, not hampered it. There’s little to back up Katzenberg’s claims, even from the man himself. What’s doled out in this interview, however, is less spin and more promises for the future of the platform. But perhaps the damage is already done.
What’s in a Name?
Name recognition is key in this modern era where Googling the definition of a word is more likely to lead you to a paid ad for an app by that name than the definition of the word itself. Language has been corporatized and capitalized to the point that companies have to resort to portmanteaus or nonsense words (or, in the case of Quibi, both) to get some unclaimed Internet real estate. Other times, the name itself evolves along with the company and its purpose, something that may take years to develop; “Netflix” today does not mean what it did in 1997 and vice versa.
Quibi has the unenviable distinction of being both an obtuse portmanteau — a combo of “quick” and “bites”, which still doesn’t tell the common smartphone-user just what exactly they’ll be quickly biting — and a short-lived experiment that may peter out before it even has the opportunity to rebrand or reframe itself once people understand and recognize the name. Will future folk replace “Netflix” with “Quibi” anytime soon? I highly doubt it. And that’s because the platform has more problems going against it than just a wonky name.
Share and Share Alike
If you want something to go viral these days, you have to open it up to as many social media-sharing apps as humanly possible. Going beyond that, you have to open up that content to as many artificially enhanced avenues as well, ie promoted hashtags and campaigns on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and the like. But even that is not enough, as Quibi’s expensive marketing campaign demonstrated rather well. You have to make that content shareable. It might sound counterintuitive to make original content and proprietary IP shareable outside of your unique platform, especially in light of piracy concerns, but if you don’t let people share memes easily and quickly, you’re dead in the water.
Quibi was initially blocked from sharing its content to platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and Reddit, hotbeds of viral media and proving grounds for up-and-coming talent. The mobile-only platform also locked down attempts to take screenshots or even in-phone video capture. Both were huge mistakes. I found myself wanting to share quite a bit of content from Quibi’s more bizarre offerings but was unable to easily do so, meaning that the chain of potentially viral content (ie free marketing) was broken before it even started. Netflix and Disney+ have similar protections in place on their mobile platforms … but they’re Netflix and Disney+; they’re established, not trying to break into a marketplace as a new upstart. Quibi’s 3.5 million downloads (with active users making up roughly a third of that) pales in comparison to Disney+’s 55 million subscribers, Netflix’s 182 million subscribers, and similarly competitive YouTube’s 2 billion monthly users, the overwhelming majority of whom access content via the mobile app. (Hat tip to The Verge for the statistics.)
Content Is King and Access Is Key
Quibi may have a bad name, but it’s not alone in this regard. Twitch, Mixer, Twitter, goop, Hulu, Seeso, Crackle, Tronc … it’s all nonsense. None of those names tell you what the app or platform or multi-billion-dollar corporation actually offers you. But one thing that allows those nonsense words to move into the zeitgeist and become a part of the working language is global access. So, yeah, Twitter might once have just been an English word to describe short, tittering bird sounds, but give the platform global access and make it easy to share, and suddenly it’s a recognizable word without language barriers that becomes far more famous than the initial word itself. Global access is key, something Quibi also lacks, but content is king.
Keeping with the naming convention for a moment, Disney+ is pretty generic, but it’s short, snappy, and vaguely tells you what you’ll be getting. AppleTV+ is in the same boat. The difference? Disney+ has a ton of archival content that generations of fans around the world have known and loved for years, and that’s all mixed in with new offerings that they hope will draw new viewers to the platform. AppleTV+ … does not. Most if not all of their offerings are based on new ideas and original IP with no nostalgia factor at all. So while AppleTV+ certainly paid out the big bucks for top-tier talent, the gamble didn’t really pay dividends when all was said and done. The platform’s 34+ million subscribers comes mostly from the company widening and easing access as much as possible and really leveraging the Apple-fanatics out there. Unfortunately for Quibi, they opted to go with the AppleTV+ route and pay beaucoup bucks for big-name talent and original works rather than buying up available IP to do modernized takes on classic properties. That’s a lethal misstep in the ongoing content wars.
The Multi-Screen Experience
One of the best things Quibi has going for it is its turnstyle tech, a novel bit of programming and production planning that allows a viewer to experience a slightly different perspective of a scene whether the phone screen is oriented vertically or horizontally, both without black bars on the sides. That’s pretty cool actually. I was impressed with how seamless the transition between orientations was during playback, giving the viewer limited control over the experience. However, it’s also holding Quibi back from transitioning to screens of different sizes beyond the mobile platform.
In theory, Quibi’s mobile-only launch was destined to have some problems but also offered an upside: It could have revolutionized mobile-content consumption. Quibi’s well-produced shorts looked great on the small screen. They were also cut up into bite-sized chunks to better be consumed wherever and whenever someone had a few moments to do so, say on a commute, or in a waiting room, or the toilet (I mean, obviously, c’mon). But withholding new chapters for a day-by-day release flew in the face of binge-watching trends, and limiting the content to handheld screens kept that content from being consumed by more than one person on an account at a time. The aim is to bring said content to TV screens, etc., through other apps in the near future, but it might be too little, too late.
One concession to Katzenberg here is that, yes, more people are stuck at home than normal, giving them full access to more screens than they would have normally, something that limits Quibi’s mystique as “mobile-only.” But the fact remains that those folks are still flocking to Netflix, Disney+ and the like rather than the nascent Quibi.
The coronavirus pandemic should have been a morbid sort of boon for Quibi’s launch; instead, it’s being used as a scapegoat for the platform’s many, many failings. So while it’s possible that Quibi can pivot and rebrand in the months ahead, it’s more likely that this will be a brand that’s barely remembered and only remarked upon as an ambitious experiment and spectacular failure.
Dave Trumbore is Collider’s Senior Editor overseeing Streaming Content, Animation, Video Games, and all those weird Saturday-morning cartoons no one else remembers. Test his trivia IQ on Twitter @DrClawMD