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Navigating Quibi’s ‘Quick Bites’ and the New Streaming Service’s Place in the Media Universe (Column)

Variety's chief TV critics take a closer look at the new streaming service and debate the pros and cons of its mobile-only interface.

Chrissy Teigen - Quibi - Chrissy's
Quibi

Months in the making, new streaming service Quibi has officially debuted. With dozens of new shows to browse, Quibi is flooding its burgeoning audience with options ranging from news hits, to scripted “movies in chapters,” to deeply silly reality shows, and more, more, oh, so much more. It’s far too early to know how well the gamble on countless bite-sized episodes will pay off, especially with the platform offering subscribers a 90 day free trial to start. But on April 6, the day of the launch, Variety chief TV critics Caroline Framke and Daniel D’Addario took some time to explore the app and discuss what Quibi offers — and doesn’t — in the grand scheme of streaming entertainment. (You can find their capsule reviews of 12 of Quibi’s initial offerings here.)

Caroline Framke: Opening the Quibi app first thing this morning, it was hard not to think about the fact that this could not be a worse time to kick off a service predicated on the idea that people need entertaining in spurts of ten minutes or less. The coronavirus pandemic has rendered the idea of people only having time to waste between errands and commutes almost completely useless. Now, much of Quibi’s potential subscriber base wants nothing more than to waste enormous amounts of time while stuck at home and trying to keep their kids entertained or baking their fifth sourdough of the week. 

We did get to see and review some of the new Quibi shows before the app’s launch, but today was the first time we got to see how the app actually works on a phone (the only medium through which you can actually watch anything). And since Quibi has boasted of its stable of programming based the day’s news, we didn’t really get to experience the breadth of what it now has to offer. Scrolling through the “Daily Essentials News” category, the unexpected reality in which Quibi is premiering is inescapable. Not only does every news report center on the virus, but so do the daily shows that almost have no reason to exist right now. ESPN’s “The Replay” debuted with an episode called “The World Without Sports,” while TMZ’s “No Filter” (a generous stretch for the definition of “essential”) has to resort to reporting on Demi Lovato shopping for quarantine groceries. It’s not Quibi’s fault that this branch of programming has to scramble this hard right now, but it’s undeniably jarring. 

Dan, now that you’ve gotten a closer look at Quibi, what do you think of this initial content rollout? Is it as strange for you as it is for me to be browsing a platform right now that essentially feels like a selectively curated YouTube channel, or are you getting a better sense of what Quibi’s trying to do here?

Daniel D’Addario: The Quibi experience they intended seems both fairly comprehensible and millions of miles away — never more so than with that ESPN series you mention, which opened with a lengthy reel of sports highlights from past years, followed by its beleaguered-seeming host telling the audience “that’s the energy you can expect” from a show left with nothing to cover. (Is it…?) It seems apparent with the bulked-out selection of news shows (not made available pre-launch because, well, they’re covering news as it happens) that Quibi wants, among other goals, to get its hooks in people as part of a morning routine. Its individual short broadcasts covering all the elements of, say, “Good Morning America” — hard news, sports, celebrity chatter, even a “last night in late-night” recap.

Much of which has fallen away, and that which hasn’t is being covered on television broadcasts that much of the audience is newly captive to. If Quibi’s use value is providing news on the go (something of which I was dubious even in good times — don’t most Americans commute to work by driving their cars?), that value melts when we’re stopped.

As for the stuff you stay for once you’ve gotten your news and gossip briefing, it seems unsuited to this age too. One paradox of many Americans’ new routines is that even while hours lie before us waiting to be filled, attention spans have been fractured. (As someone fortunate enough to be asked to do my part simply by staying at home, I finally have the time to read the great Russian novelists or watch “The 400 Blows.” And yet…) If anything, many of the bites I’ve encountered while making my acquaintance with Quibi unfolded too slowly, as if simply cutting the running time was enough rather than adjusting and giving us more propulsive pacing. This is especially pronounced in the scripted offerings, like “Most Dangerous Game,” which only launches into said game in episode four after surprisingly many minutes of hand-holding flashbacks. It’s strange to watch a show with such a brief runtime and feel like one is just waiting for it to end.

But maybe that’s because I couldn’t do anything else with my phone during it! The group chat lay enticingly unavailable as I ran through some Quibis this morning, emphasizing how much I’d rather be doing other things than watching this. I watched the Quibi screeners in advance on my computer — an option unavailable to subscribers now — and found the phone aspect uniquely discomfiting. It kind of forces you to place shows meant as a loose, tossed-off distraction at the center of your consciousness, which is maybe not where they belong. Anyway, this response is becoming a very long bite, so I’ll ask: What’d you think of the mobile experience? 

CF: The phone of it all is, despite being Quibi’s ostensible reason for being, very frustrating. 

On a pure aesthetics level, the app’s relatively seamless ability to transition from a vertical to horizontal view is genuinely impressive, but it also makes clear how often the vertical shots are just slivers of the actual, horizontal view. This approach overall works fine for the unscripted stuff, but it’s an especially pronounced problem for scripted shows like “Survive,” which have clearly invested in cinematography only to be sliced in thirds should the viewer be holding their phone upright. And even if you do think to turn your phone to the side — something I still constantly have to remind myself I can do, my brain is broken, etcetera — there were still times I found myself exasperated that there’s no way to watch this #content on a larger screen. I don’t think seeing “Survive” on a bigger screen would change my mind about it, thanks to its clichés and narrative pacing problems like the “Most Dangerous Game” ones you mentioned, but seeing the show at more than a few inches tall would at least do justice to its production. It’s maddening to watch beautifully shot series like “Nightgowns,” in which drag phenom Sasha Velour gets a heightened budget to stage her eponymous show, while squinting at a tiny screen.

I’ll also be curious to see if users are similarly frustrated, and therefore how strictly Quibi may or may not stick to its “phone only” rule in the coming months. It currently blocks the ability to screenshot anything — an understandable impulse, though one that limits your ability to share particularly good moments with friends who might then consider downloading the app for themselves — and doesn’t allow for casting to a television like one could through a computer. This feels like a particularly big problem now that so many people are confined to their home and probably less likely to watch hours of content on their phone than they normally might be, but I’m not sure I’d want to do so even if I were out and about, anyway. 

Even if I don’t become a Quibi evangelist, though, there are some intriguing shows that I’ll be keeping an eye on in future. The “Singled Out” reboot with Keke Palmer and Joel Kim Booster is fun, and I was more amused by Nicole Richie playing into a(n even more) deranged (than usual) version of celebrity wellness culture in “Nikki Fre$h.” Are these enough to make me subscribe to an entirely new platform? Probably not, no, seeing as I have literally thousands of other options available to me on less bewildering platforms. But the more Quibi and its content creators figure out how to work this extremely specific new system to their more unique benefit, the better. 

DD: Crucially, those two shows you mentioned — which I liked well enough — both feel made at their proper lengths, as opposed to a pitch for a feature film or traditional TV series that has been inartfully fragmented. Similarly, “Flipped,” a series starring Will Forte and Kaitlin Olson as delusional would-be home-TV stars, manages to create seven-minute-or-so episodes that feel like individual steps within an ongoing story and not just random clips.

I’ll be honest, though, in saying that it’s hard to imagine returning to Quibi after sampling broadly. What clears the bar there faces down so many obviously annoying issues — most crucially, as you point out, not even being able to see the full frame of what are expensively-made, beautiful shows. Yes, this was a bad time to launch Quibi, but it’s hard to imagine when most people would have embraced this platform. For something so putatively revolutionary, it seems more defined by the rules it forces the viewer to obey than the ones it’s willing to break.