Quibi has been around for a week. Eight days, to be exact. Which, according to terms dictated by the imaginary reference book known as the Editors’ Almanac, is the perfect amount of time to write some sort of stunt piece. This kind of participatory immersion had quite a moment at the advent of the streaming era—first as a way for journalists to contend with the phenomenon of effortless binge-watching, then as an excuse to gawp at the new reality of all-at-once releases that began with House of Cards. (Full disclosure: WIRED was not immune.)
Seven years later, these new practices have settled into default expectations. When Disney+ and Apple TV+ launched in November, no one jumped to strap themselves in Clockwork Orange–style to mainline those platforms’ +-sized offerings.
Then came Quibi, the weirdest idea with the weirdest name since the Pizza Hut P’zone.
A mobile-only streaming service, with episodes that max out at 10 minutes and shift depending on how you hold your phone? And with more than 40 series deploying at launch? You could almost imagine the headlines. “I Watched Everything on Quibi So You Don’t Have To,” say, or “I Spent 24 Hours With Quibi and My Quibrain Is Quiburnt,” or even “I Nibbled an Edible Every Time Quibi Showed Me an Aggressively Gen Z-Baiting Ad and Now I’m Crouched Naked in My Backyard Swatting at Nothing.”
It’s telling, then, that precisely zero culture critics grabbed a catheter and got to work. Nor should they have. Even with the reduced run times—Quibi stands for “quick bites,” as no one would ever know—doing that makes as much sense as watching everything on basic cable. Which, come to think of it, is a workable analogue for the new service.
With nary an exception, Quibi’s offerings feel like they’ve jumped (or limped) off the block of channels that comes between old-school networks and premium providers like HBO. For the kinda-OK drama that you’d find on USA, there’s Survive, starring Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner as a woman whose suicide is thwarted by a plane crash and then finds the will to live. For the slightly higher-concept kinda-OK drama you’d find next door on TNT, there’s Most Dangerous Game, with Liam Hemsworth as a terminally ill man who agrees to be hunted by the ultra-rich in order to leave his family financially secure. The Stranger, which began yesterday, tromps on already frayed nerves with the story of a ride-share driver who finds herself being stalked by a recent passenger. Nobody’s not in jeopardy.
For that feeling of old MTV shows, there’s … well, there’s old MTV shows. Quibi’s launch slate includes revivals of both Punk’d—with Chance the Rapper in Ashton Kutcher’s prankmaster shoes—and dating show Singled Out, replacing Chris Hardwick with Keke Palmer and Jenny McCarthy with comic Joel Kim Booster. There’s also dance competition The Sauce, which, with its YouTube-phenom hosts and a grand prize that would barely cover tuition costs at Iowa State next year, feels like an MTV revival despite not actually being one.
HGTV addict? Add spooky music and you’ve got Murder House Flip, in which people renovate and move into homes where—wait for it—murders occurred. Love Motor Trend? Watch SKRRT With Offset, in which Migos’ least charismatic member gets into cars. Crave those talking-head nostalgiafests VH1 used to pump out? Accompany Will Arnett as he dives into terrible Canadian TV shows and other cultural curios on Memory Hole. Like the Food Network and Nickelodeon, but can’t decide? Well, you’ll love Dishmantled, which [takes deep breath] cannon-blasts begoggled home chefs with a mystery dish and then tasks them with deciphering and re-creating the fusilladed food based on what they’re able to taste by scraping it off the walls and themselves.
If these, in name and premise, feel like the sorts of shows that are playing in the background of other shows, you’re not wrong. There’s a distinct Due North-like uncanniness to it all, as though Quibi is less a creative enterprise than a world-building exercise for the simulation-glitch we’re all living through.
Even the comedy—Quibi’s most promising vein, given the vast online ecosystem for sketch and scripted shorts—feels like the sort of fare that slips into vapor over a season or two on Comedy Central. There’s Flipped, in which Will Forte and Kaitlin Olson, both sketch and sitcom veterans, play a deeply delusional couple who want to become home-renovation TV hosts, but stumble into deeply predictable trouble along the way. Mockumentary Nikki Fre$h stars Nicole Richie as a funhouse version of herself who decides to become a mommy-focused, eco-conscious rapper. This week brings Agua Donkeys, a sort of Workaholics-meets-Lodge 49 about two career pool cleaners in Utah (based on a 2018 Funny or Die short).
Somewhat disquietingly, all this only scratches the surface of the platform. Documentary series from LeBron James, Lena Waithe, and Reese Witherspoon. Celeb-studded human-interest shows. A robust news and news-adjacent category, with daily quick hits about everything from entertainment gossip to current events to gaming. Where Netflix was a flywheel of growth and Disney+ launched with a massive back-catalog play, Quibi gives you all the surfeit (and sense) of an aimless Wednesday night channel-surf.
Yet, for all this stuff, there’s little to set any of it apart. Waithe’s docu-series You Ain’t Got These is an enjoyable, if not groundbreaking, look at sneaker culture; Nikki Fre$h ably guts Goop culture with the dull blade of self-parody. But at large, Quibi falls into limbo between the fusty old world it’s fleeing and the shiny young user-generated paradise it’s running toward.
Some of that is the nature of the quick-bite proposition. In a WIRED feature earlier this year, founders Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman swore up and down that eight and a half minutes was the perfect narrative beat. Sure, 15 eight-minute episodes might add up to the equivalent of a two-hour movie, but even their tiny engineered cliff-hangers lose their propulsion over the 24 hours before the next installment. Some of it is the surprisingly linear UI of the product itself. Where YouTube encourages browsing, letting you peruse while you watch the show, Quibi’s all-or-nothing full-screen viewing leads to a hamstrung experience: Once you start watching something, there’s no way to know what the next episode might be, or really anything else, without backing out and then tapping your way into the show’s dedicated page. As for the platform’s much-vaunted “Turnstyle” technology, which responds to your phone’s orientation with optimized landscape or portrait views, the vast majority of shows reward vertical viewers simply with tighter close-ups. The result feels much more like the pan-and-scan compromise of showing a widescreen movie on a 4:3 TV.
Perhaps most troubling of all, Quibi’s basic-cable aesthetic adds to the streaming industry’s unwitting reenactment of “old” television’s balkanized sensibility. Apple TV+ is a gleaming, if risk-averse, paean to HBO-style storytelling; CBS All Access and Peacock, the latter of which launches this week, give you all the zing of an old-guard linear broadcast network; Amazon shoots for the FX-AMC prestige play. That leaves a lot of white space on a DVR’s “guide” view—which Quibi is storming in to fill. (It’s even stranger, then, especially when no one is anywhere but home, that there’s currently no way to watch Quibi on your TV; the app disables Chromecast and Apple TV mirroring, though Whitman has said that functionality was always part of the plan.)
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The thing is, Quibi doesn’t want you watching every single episode of every one of those 40-something shows. The way they seem to figure it, you’ll try a lot of them, and even settle on enough favorites during the 90-day trial period to pony up $4.99 a month ($7.99 for the ad-free option) to add yet another service to your streaming arsenal. The first week, Whitman told CNBC, 1.7 million people downloaded the app; how many of those will find it worth $5 or $8 is another question entirely.
Therein lies the central tension of Quibi’s premise. You can tell unconventional stories conventionally, or you can tell conventional stories unconventionally; the more you rip up the how-it’s-done playbook, the more likely those stories are to regress to a creative mean. (See: early VR filmmaking.) The company may be sitting on nearly $2 billion in outside funding and a year’s worth of presold advertising, but three commas are table stakes in today’s streaming wars, and that kind of cushion disappears fast. The development execs at Quibi might need to think less about how people watch and more about why they watch, because they need viewers to bite—and quick.
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