It’s not particularly difficult to argue that Quibi, the streaming video service invented by longtime entertainment executive Jeffrey Katzenberg and former HP Enterprise and eBay CEO Meg Whitman, is a flawed idea.
When entrepreneurs build companies, it’s standard procedure to identify a problem that needs to be solved first. The more pressing the problem, the better the idea’s potential. Building another subscription video streaming service doesn’t solve a clear problem. There are dozens and dozens of streaming services. There are arguably way too many already.
Quibi announced Wednesday it will launch April 6 for $4.99 per month with ads or $7.99 per month without. Quibi will be unique from other streaming services because it will create “a true partnership between technology and creative,” Tom Conrad, Quibi’s chief product officer, said today at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Quibi’s pitch is to make appealing content to millennials looking to watch longform content broken down into shorter bites on mobile devices. Quibi showcased its “Turnstyle” feature, which will allow users to turn their smartphone or tablet to watch content in both portrait and landscape modes.
“There’s a long history in Hollywood of technology creating new ways for storytellers to tell their stories,” Whitman said in an interview with CNBC’s Julia Boorstin Wednesday, citing the theater, movies and television as new mediums at certain times in history. “What we announced today at CES is a new technology platform that is designed to make viewing on your phone a completely new and unique experience.”
But it arguably isn’t. Verizon already attempted to create a mobile-first video service for millennials back in 2015. Dubbed Go90, Verizon attempted to make YouTube-but-better video specifically for young people watching on their phones.
Turns out there wasn’t a big audience for what Verizon was selling. Verizon shut down Go90 in July of last year.
“The industry never really understood its strategy,” Peter Csathy, founder of media advisory firm Creatv Media, told Digiday last year. “But, they happily took their money, with most reporting that Go90 overpaid for their content.”
The good news for Quibi is Go90 already happened. Katzenberg and Whitman can specifically look to Verizon’s failed attempt at manufacturing mobile content for evidence on what not to do. Katzenberg has frequently noted that less than 10% of Netflix viewing occurs via a phone — proof, he said, that Quibi’s business model is fundamentally different than companies showcasing longer form content such as Netflix, Disney+, Hulu and other streaming services from traditional media companies.
“Our use case we believe is 7 in the morning until 7 at night when you’re on the go,” Whitman said. “You’re commuting, you’re waiting at a doctor’s office, you’re waiting for friends to join you for lunch or waiting for a meeting to begin. Today consumers are watching nearly 80 minutes of video a day on their phone, up from six minutes in 2012.”
Katzenberg told CNBC last year that Quibi is operating “in a white space that is our own to lose.” But that seems like a tough argument to swallow. What white space is that exactly? YouTube and TikTok already offer short-form content that billions of people apparently want to see. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snap offer video and non-video content meant to be consumed in bite-sized form.
Is the white space premium content cut into chapters? That, too, seems thin — nothing is stopping people from pushing pause on a favorite movie or TV show when a meeting begins.
The bull case for Quibi is the shift away from cable TV and toward streaming services is a rising tide that lifts all boats. The media research firm LightShed estimates Quibi will sign up 8 million subscribers by the end of 2020. Some T-Mobile customers will get Quibi for free, similar to how family plan subscribers get free Netflix, which will help Quibi’s subscriber count.
“With consumer thirst for content increasing by the day as the legacy multichannel collapses and time spent on mobile increases, we believe uptake of Quibi will be rapid,” LightShed analysts wrote in a note to clients.
In the streaming wars, eventually, there will be winners and losers. If Quibi stumbles on some hit shows, it can be a winner. Must-see content will pay for many flops. But that’s the same challenge every single streaming service has, and Quibi is competing against deep-pocketed challengers including Amazon, Apple, Comcast, Disney, AT&T and others for consumers’ time and budget.
Whitman said Wednesday she expects Quibi to be profitable in more than two years but fewer than 10. Both Whitman and Katzenberg have had major success with previous ventures. They’re obviously two very smart people. Betting on Quibi is a bet on them.
My fear is betting against Quibi seems like a bet on logic.
(Disclosure: Comcast’s NBC Universal is the parent company of CNBC.)