Viewpoint: R.I.P. Quibi — what now?

OK, so Quibi failed. Everyone is now claiming: I told you so. Some say Quibi was destined to fail with a deeply flawed business plan. Its legendary founder, Jeffrey Katzenberg, partially blamed ...
November 3, 2020

OK, so Quibi failed.

Everyone is now claiming: I told you so.

Some say Quibi was destined to fail with a deeply flawed business plan. Its legendary founder, Jeffrey Katzenberg, partially blamed the pandemic.


It’s uncomfortable – perhaps amusing to some – to see aging executives confidently throwing around $1.8 billion to attract teenagers in what can only be described as an epic fail. In retrospect, the pundits ask, how could the executives not know this outcome in advance? Didn’t they do their homework? Or talk to kids?

Katzenberg is a hero to many, including me, for his creative expertise, especially in animation and being the “K” in Dreamworks SKG, with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen.

But we should remember that he’s also the guy who said in 2008 that 3D movies were “the next great frontier for filmmakers.”

So even the best and brightest can be wrong. More than once.

But let’s look at the creative premise of Quibi, not the flawed business model. Quibi was based on what seemed like a no-brainer: the rise of short-form programming. It’s everywhere online and attracts a young audience. We’ve seen how YouTube has given birth to an entire solar system of stars and low-rent content free from the strictures of so-called professional production – varying not only in length, but in taste, characters, styles, editing “rules” and subject matter. It’s safe to say that this homemade programming won’t win awards for cinematography or writing; nevertheless, it is incredibly popular.

All you have to do is look at the jaw-dropping figures of YouTube stars and influencers such as Dude Perfect (54 million subscribers) and Vlad and Nikita (just under 57 million). Spend a few days surfing through these and other YouTubers and their Channels, and it’s easy to think: I can do better. Way better. And with just a fraction of those viewers, my “ratings” will be high enough to generate millions in ad revenue and subscribers with my superior programming.

There’s more than a bit of condescension in the views of the professional entertainment establishment toward this home-grown, user-generated medium. But we seem to forget that new forms of distribution almost always disrupt the entertainment marketplace with alternative programming and differing expectations of their audience. On the surface, YouTube may seem like it’s just a low-cal version of Hulu. But it is fundamentally different from traditional networks and streamers, where quality can make a difference and “programming” is based on a model of movies, series and mini-series.

We should have learned the lessons early. After all, in the 1980s and ’90s, cable was different from broadcast, and was built on alternative programming and counter-intuitive scheduling. And if you really want to go back, broadcast TV was first thought to be an extension of radio in the 1960s, but those behind it soon discovered it could thrive with unlikely personalities such as Ed Sullivan and franchises like the Today show.

The truth is that the entertainment industry is rife with lessons that are never learned. When it comes to creative production, programming and marketing, the failures are often ignored, especially in the factual entertainment world. Of course, programs bomb all the time (think Utopia or I Wanna Marry Harry), but failures at the corporate level are more plentiful than you may think. There are whole networks that seemed like a good idea, only to collapse because the investment wasn’t worth the return, the execs missed the warning signs, and the audience said “No thanks.” Stroll down memory lane and recall just a few fact-based networks that went under: Fox Reality Channel. America’s Talking. Satellite News Channel. CBS Eye on People, The Esquire Network…

So, while Quibi couldn’t cash in on short-form programming, its contribution may be in its failure. Thanks to Quibi, we have a more acute understanding that the audience always decides what it wants to watch – and no amount of money or marketing can make it do otherwise.

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