This year promises to bring a whole slew of new streaming services: HBO Max; Peacock; WhatTimeIsItRightNow.com. (Just kidding, that’s the fake-but-could-absolutely-be-real one from BoJack Horseman.) On Monday, we’ll see the launch of the first—Quibi, short for “quick bites,” which promises lots of celebrity-led programming in snack-sized doses. The service has grabbed headlines and snagged investments from Disney and Alibaba.
But, is Quibi … good? Will it work? Or is it doomed to go down in history as one of the many rejected 30 Rock jokes to make it out of the fictional boardroom and onto our real-life devices? To find out, The Ringer’s Alison Herman and Miles Surrey convened to debate a simple, yet loaded question. Quibi: yea or nay?
Alison Herman: Miles, we are gathered here today to discuss bites—quick ones, to be exact. The world is but days away from the launch of Quibi, the snicker-inducing portmanteau that’s also the latest contender in the Streaming Wars. Quibi comes to us by way of Jeffrey Katzenberg, best known as the cofounder of DreamWorks, and Meg Whitman, best known as a failed gubernatorial candidate in the state of California. (Or maybe that’s just to those of us who grew up here; you might know her as the former CEO of eBay.)
God knows there are more urgent questions facing the world than whether a new streaming service can or should succeed, but since those are the ones we’re qualified to ponder, we might as well. Viewers with newfound spare time and ever-shortening attention spans have also never been hungrier for content to consume. What better time for the launch of a service whose shows and “movies in parts” all promise to weigh in at 10 minutes or less?
Before we dive in, some background: Quibi is a billion-plus-dollar gamble on the idea of “premium short form”—basically, YouTube but fancier and with more conventionally famous people, and therefore not free. After a 90-day(!) free trial, subscribers will be asked to pay $4.99 a month for the service with ads, $7.99 a month without. Quibi specializes in three kinds of shows: unscripted (cutesy reality gimmicks like Chrissy’s Court or Murder House Flip), scripted (those “movies in parts,” like Sophie Turner’s Survive), and daily briefings (current events rundowns like CBS’s 60 in 6). Everything is shot to be viewed on your phone in either portrait or landscape mode.
I have a wild take: I think this could actually work! But there’s also many reasons for skepticism here, including but not limited to the silly name. Miles, I know you’re one of those skeptics, so debate me, coward. Can viewers really be expected to shell out for another monthly subscription? Have YouTube and Vimeo gotten us too accustomed to free clips? Does anyone really want to watch Liam Hemsworth get hunted for sport? (Just kidding, of course they do.) Take it away!
Miles Surrey: I’m genuinely thrilled Liam Hemsworth is getting some Hunger Games–adjacent work, but his Quibi project sounds like something that could be even more disastrous than the Independence Day sequel. Anyway, setting aside the fact that Quibi sounds like something Silicon Valley’s Gavin Belson would hatch in a last-ditch effort to save his flailing company, I have been on the record as someone who believes the service is destined to fail—and that was under normal, non-pandemic circumstances.
Quibi is, presumably, meant to give people an alternative kind of entertainment for their morning commute. (Lol, remember commutes?) Instead of reading a book or listening to a podcast on the subway, why not check out seven-to-10-minute increments of Chance the Rapper Punk-ing unsuspecting celebrities? But with millions across the country—ideally—doing their part to flatten the curve by social distancing, I don’t see how enough people are going to want to pull up some quick bites on their phone when Netflix or Amazon Prime is just a click away on a flatscreen.
And even in more normal circumstances, Quibi would be fighting an uphill battle; this isn’t the first short-form experiment for mobile video. If you don’t remember Verizon’s go90—well, that’s sort of my point. go90 was essentially Quibi before Quibi; one of its buzziest original programs was a reality series produced by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. While Verizon spent more than $1 billion trying to make go90 work, the project folded within three years despite being free. Forking over $7.99 a month for an ad-free version of Quibi when I can pay less for Disney+? I don’t have children and I’d still prefer Disney and its low-key batshit vault of content any day of the week.
Quibi might boast an impressive list of collaborators that includes Steven Spielberg, Reese Witherspoon, and Queen Latifah, but to me this still all seems destined to crash and burn. My most anticipated Quibi release is the five-year oral history when everyone can speak freely about how terrible of an idea this was. We usually agree on things, Alison, so your pro-Bites stance is really surprising me! What do you think is going to make this venture work?
AH: I’m going to start by appealing to our shared burden as professional TV watchers for The Ringer dot com, a great website. Aren’t you tired? Tired of all the streaming shows that run 60 minutes when they could’ve been a crisp 40? Tired of these companies that seem to think they’re entitled to so much of our time without making much of a case for why they deserve it? Tired of trying to fit it all in? Recently, I turned on the finale for an HBO prestige miniseries I happen to quite enjoy, if “enjoy” is the right word for a series set in a bleak dystopia. But when I saw it ran to nearly feature length, I groaned.
I could sure use some TV—or rather, “TV,” since Quibi is such a phone-forward experience—that keeps it mercifully brief. And while I may have an unusual amount of skin in this game, I don’t think I’m alone. Everyone I know is overwhelmed by viewing options, and would likely share my sweet relief at the ability to inhale six episodes in an hour instead of just one. Quibi may be demanding a relatively substantial investment of funds (and even then, only after three months!), but it doesn’t ask for much of our time.
Your point about commutes is a solid one, and in the time of the coronavirus, everything from podcast downloads to Los Angeles air quality speaks to how little travel is going on right now. But I’m going to call out your New York centrism here; Brooklynites may be wolfing down their bites on the A train, but no one’s putting on Gayme Show while they’re driving, no matter how badly they want to know who’s crowned Queen of the Straights. Today’s youth have already had their appetites whetted by TikTok and Office marathons; Quibi may be more expensive than what they can already find for free.99, but it also may be meeting them where they already are.
Or maybe I’m just starved for novelty and quarantine has eroded my judgment. Who can say?
Surrey: I’m probably in the minority here—especially among overworked writers who cover TV for a living—but I don’t mind savoring some Long Chews when I’m in the mood. (Shout-out Nicolas Winding Refn’s Too Old to Die Young, may you one day be viewed by more people than me, Chris Ryan, and a dozen Film Twitter zealots.) Of course, there are a lot of shows/showrunners who seem to believe longer running times are a sign of “prestige,” a phenomenon Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk aptly coined as the “manspreading of TV.”
If there is a demand for shorter programming, Quibi isn’t necessarily the only thing that could fill the void. We’ve seen Netflix experiment with some original short-form content like Love, Death & Robots, as well as a series we (and many others) loved from last year, I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson. (I still hope you die, Harley Jarvis!) SundanceTV, of all places, even did a show last year called State of the Union, which was 10 episodes that ran at about 10 minutes apiece. With the right approach, I feel companies like Netflix that already have a foothold in the Streaming Wars can release their own quick bites—while also offering other types of programming at a much more reasonable price.
But I must also confess not knowing much about the teens and what they’re into. I couldn’t name a single YouTube celebrity; but if I’m not mistaken, Alison, you’ve recently signed up for TikTok, so maybe you have a better sense of what’s going on with the youths right now. But even with my anti-Bites stance, I would love to inhale all episodes of Murder House Flip in my current state. Are there any other Quibi shows that you think could become a hit?
AH: Miles, thank you so much for acknowledging my newly acquired TikTok expertise, i.e., a few hours of flipping through cute animal content while teens occasionally mock me for my old age. I now feel fully qualified to assess the state of our youth, including their interest in soapy teen thrillers where Mark Duplass shows up as a creepy teacher. (That would be When the Street Lights Go On, a “movie in parts” that begs the question: When was the last time Mark Duplass turned down an acting job?)
Speaking of that big red “N”: Maybe I’m so optimistic about Quibi’s chances because it seems smart to try to play a different game entirely, instead of pulling an Amazon Prime and pouring money into a thus-far lesser Netflix alternative. (Those experiments you mention, including 15-minute comedy specials, are definitely interesting, but they’re not the bulk of what Netflix is up to.) Honestly, I think quantity might trump quality here. I can’t say I found Chrissy Teigen snarking at her mom or Keke Palmer presiding over a dildo race to be Emmy-worthy entertainment, but any critic knows that what’s good and what’s popular are unrelated at best. I just think Quibi is trying to fill an actual gap in the marketplace, not crowding into a niche that’s already amply stocked.
In the spirit of Quibi, however, we should probably keep things brief. Any final thoughts before we retreat to our screener caves?