Quibi was a bad idea, poorly executed. Now it’s dead, just six months after it debuted.
Here’s a quick timeline of its short life:
- Hollywood legend Jeffrey Katzenberg raised $1.75 billion to launch a service that promised to deliver subscribers “quick bites” of “premium video” to their phones. Even though there was no shortage of video, premium or otherwise, that people could watch on their phones or any other devices.
- Quibi launched in April, during the first swell of the pandemic. And even though every other video service saw a huge leap in engagement during the shutdown, Quibi couldn’t find an audience — let alone paying customers.
- Last month, Katzenberg started trying to sell the company. Today, he’s shutting it down.
It was easy to be skeptical about Quibi before launch because ... see above. The real surprise is that it failed so quickly. And even that surprise is a little bit couched. Once news got out that Katzenberg was trying to sell, the only question was whether he’d find a buyer or have to shutter. As I wrote last month, you don’t try to sell your startup five months after launch if things aren’t going terribly, even though Katzenberg insisted otherwise in sales pitches.
But, that said: I would like to see more Quibis in the future.
Not the concept or the execution (again, see above) but the model: Running a media business the old-fashioned way, where you ask people to make something, pay them for it, and then try to re-sell that work to someone else. Because there’s another version of running a media business — what YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook do — and I don’t feel great about that one in 2020.
To recap: Katzenberg and Meg Whitman, the CEO he hired away from Hewlett Packard, paid Hollywood studios, TV networks, and digital shops like Vox Media (which owns this site) to make short videos. Then they tried selling subscriptions to those videos to you.
That’s one way — the old way — to run a media business.
There are lots of variants, and you can debate the right way to scale those companies and how much money you need to make them work, etc. The model includes everything from your local newspaper (if it still exists) to TV networks to Spotify to Netflix. But they’re all using the same basic playbook.
There is also the new — and often much more successful way — to run a media business: Get people to give you stuff for free, get people to consume that stuff for free, and sell their attention to advertisers. You may not want to call yourself a media business — for strategic, valuation, or legal reasons — but you are most definitely in the media business. This has worked really, really well for YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook.
But as we spend a lot of time discussing these days, it’s not clear that the model that YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook use — which is dependent on ingesting as much free content as possible, and distributing as widely and quickly as possible, with as little input from the people who run those businesses as possible — is good for the rest of us.
And at the core of all the proposals to fix those businesses is the idea that they should act a lot more like ... traditional media businesses. These proposals call for the people who run these platforms to pay attention to what they distribute, and even make judgment calls about whether that stuff should be distributed. And, yes: It also involves paying people who make some of the stuff they distribute.
I don’t want to belabor this thought, and I don’t want to oversell it. Quibi would have likely struggled using any model because it didn’t have stuff people wanted to see, and it didn’t have the distribution it needed to get it in front of them, anyway.
And while the Facebooks of the world run on free content, they certainly have to spend money on lots of other stuff. TikTok, for example, spent $1 billion on marketing in a single year in order to get its free videos, uploaded for free by its users, in front of people around the world.
But if you’re going to dunk on Quibi for failing so big, so fast, at least give them this: They failed the old-fashioned way. Which still has an upside.