A few hours into Quibi’s much-hyped debut, people have expressed irritation over something that’s supposed to be one of the streamer’s key differentiating features: You can only watch its lineup of original movies and shows on a mobile device.
Why, amid the stay-at-home COVID-19 crisis, is Quibi limiting itself only to the smallest screens in the house?
Jeffrey Katzenberg, the movie mogul who founded Quibi, has maintained that the mobile-only approach — delivering premium content in snackable episodes of under 10 minutes throughout the day — gives it a use case and value proposition that’s very distinct from other subscription VOD players like Netflix.
“Mobile video is the white space,” he told me in an interview last year.
That may or may not be true (given the flood of free and popular short-form stuff on Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and Facebook). But by fencing itself off in that white space, Quibi is by definition limiting its addressable market. That was already true before the coronavirus struck, and the inability to stream Quibi’s programming to TVs looks like an even more acute shortcoming now.
Quibi launched April 6, with the app going live around midnight ET with a free 90-day offer for anyone in the U.S. and Canada (and free for one year to some T-Mobile customers). Consumers have come to expect subscription-video services to be available across all platforms — TV, web and mobile — and on social media, some were in disbelief by Quibi’s mobile-only restriction.
“I was excited about this platform and then I read it’s only to be viewed on your phone? Is this shit for real?” one commenter on Twitter said. “I don’t even want it for free now. What a waste. Reminds me of when I’d watch shows on my ipod. So backward.”
Another Quibi observer wrote, “It would be wise to allow TV or else playback via HDMI. It’s a shame to be limited by the size of the phone screen.” And then there’s this comment: “Like what the hell are you thinking? Adapt the business model and allow web access during the pandemic.”
It’s a good bet Martin Scorsese disapproves as well. “I would suggest — if you ever want to see one of my pictures, or most films — please, please don’t look at it on a phone, please,” he told an interviewer last year, while discussing his mob epic “The Irishman” for Netflix.
Quibi has invested somewhere around $1 billion on content (and raised $1.75 billion) so far, from big-name directors including Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Antoine Fuqua, Sam Raimi, Catherine Hardwicke and Peter Farrelly. And you won’t be able to watch their Quibi movies on a big HDTV, much less a movie screen. (Under Quibi’s licensing model, creator partners have the right to “reassemble” the episodes into a single movie for distribution in another window — after two years.)
Quibi execs, in explaining the mobile-only rationale, also have said that as a built-for-mobile streaming service, the content is designed to only be experienced on smartphones and tablets. The company has touted its Turnstyle feature that automatically adjusts the video stream to either full-screen portrait or landscape mode, depending on how you hold the phone (which, by the way, Quibi is being sued over). But it’s hard to see why Quibi couldn’t have produced some kind of director’s cut that you could watch on non-mobile screens.
On a separate front, others expressed frustration that Quibi appeared to be available only in North America, although in fact people worldwide can access the U.S. version of the app via Apple’s and Google’s app stores in other countries.
To be fair, those complaining about Quibi’s mobile limitation could amount to only a few squeaky wheels. Other early adopters of the app have posted enthusiastic comments about watching shows and movies like drama “Survive” starring Sophie Turner and Corey Hawkins, “Most Dangerous Game” starring Liam Hemsworth and Christoph Waltz, “Punk’d” hosted by Chance the Rapper, “Thanks a Million” from Jennifer Lopez, “Chrissy’s Court” starring Chrissy Teigen, and home-renovation comedy “Flipped” starring Will Forte and Kaitlin Olson. (See the lineup of Quibi’s 50 shows available at launch.)
At some point, Quibi CEO Meg Whitman told me, users will be able to cast shows from their phones to TVs. But that’s not in the product right now. The bottom line is that Quibi surely could have pulled in bigger audiences if it had gone cross-platform from the get-go.