Quibi’s quick demise: A look inside the mobile-only streamer’s fumbled launch

quibi's flawed experiment

Big name executives. Big stars. Big advertising commitments. Big hype. Quibi’s future looked bright when it rolled out, topping Apple’s App Store at No. 4 on its April 6 launch day.

But subscribers, downloads and rave reviews didn’t follow as it slipped to No. 53 a week later and fell out of the Top 100 by April 25. By May 12, it had plummeted to No. 316. So, what happened?

Founder Jeffrey Katzenberg blamed the coronavirus and subsequent shelter-in-place orders that brought Americans’ focus back into the home. But Brightcove’s Q1 2020 Global Video Index showed that during the 18 days after the U.S. declared a national emergency on March 13, entertainment viewing on mobile devices — the only screens on which you could watch smartphone-targeted Quibi — surged 195% over the same period in 2019.

As the pandemic worsened, entertainment viewing on mobile devices continued to increase with views on smartphones increasing nearly 41% compared to 2019 with time watched up 21%, according to preliminary data from the Q2 2020 Global Video Index. With smartphones continuing the robust viewership growth we’ve seen for over four years now, it is clear the pandemic was not to blame for Quibi’s troubles. Let’s take a look at what else may have played a role.

Quibi’s flawed hypothesis

Videos within Quibi’s news and entertainment content library are each under six minutes long, designed to be “quick bite” entertainment to be consumed in life pauses such as waiting at the dentist’s office, during the commute to and from work or between meetings. While Quibi’s executives have called the app an experiment, its hypothesis is flawed, and there are several other experiments of a similar vein that already have failed.

The hypothesis: Audiences will be interested in premium, short-form content on a mobile device; more specifically, that Quibi can attract — and hold — a millennial audience that has grown up on free YouTube content, shared social video and other mostly user-generated fare. And, be willing to pay $4.99 a month for it (with ads), or $7.99 a month for ad-free content.

There’s the rub. Quibi assumes its primary audience will be satisfied with short-form content, or by content made up of 6-to 10-minute chapters. Quibi assumes a willingness to pay for it and assumes it occupies a unique niche. So far, that hasn’t been the case.

Quibi’s ailing isn’t related to COVID-19

The streamers app, optimistically, has been downloaded by 3.5 million people, and the company last month said just 37% are active users, despite an initial 90-day free trial (it’s now being offered with a 14-day free trial). Katzenberg, meanwhile, blames the platform’s troubles on the coronavirus.

“I attribute everything that has gone wrong to coronavirus,” Katzenberg said in a New York Times interview. “Everything.”

I disagree.

The pandemic, if anything, should have served as a springboard for Quibi, driving adoption and viewership higher because mobile devices continued to be a major screen for watching entertainment video.

At the root of Quibi’s failure to launch is that it has the same path and made the same flawed assumptions as other failed efforts like Verizon’s Go90 and Comcast’s Watchable, underestimating the video maturity — no — the normalcy, of its target audience.

The bottom line

Today, content doesn’t just have to be good — it has to be available on every screen. That’s the expectation the best OTT services have helped establish.

Over the past month, Quibi has tried to quietly reinvent itself. After complaints from some consumers that they wanted to watch it on bigger screens, the app was updated to allow casting to some smart TV platforms. Quibi is also delaying the debut of new content until the start of 2021, as it didn’t find a standout winner among its initial releases.

But will users be willing to pay $4.99 or $7.99 for the service once the free trials run out?

As I said back in April just after the service launched, I’m afraid that dog just won’t hunt.

Stay tuned and stay well.

Jim O’Neill is Principal Analyst at Brightcove. You can follow him on Twitter @JimONeillMedia and on LinkedIn