Did 2020 Kill Quibi? Or Did Quibi Kill Quibi?

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photos Courtesy of Quibi

The year is 2020. Humanity has become inextricably linked to the internet and streaming video, anchored by immensely powerful and ubiquitous pocket-sized supercomputers. In a moment when the appetite for novelty and phone-sized video content seems unlimited, a company arrives, poised to take advantage of this massive, untapped market. Its short, nimble, punchily entertaining episodes fit perfectly into all the little unfilled spaces of the day — on a train ride, waiting for your Starbucks mobile order, in those couple minutes between meetings.

By October of 2020, that company — which is Quibi, of course — is reportedly dead.

But what if in this imaginary version of 2020, Quibi had launched into a spring full of news, but one without a pandemic? What if at exactly the moment that Quibi was released, the world it imagined it’d be entering still existed? What if at the precise second the app full of new, mobile-friendly content became available, people were still out and about? What if they were blithely filling their daily lives with short funny videos instead of grimly clenching a single roll of toilet paper while waiting in line at the grocery store? At a different time, in a different year, in a different timeline where 2020 looked very different, could Quibi have ever worked?

Maybe. Quibi legitimately had a lot of things going for it. They’d lined up an impressive list of people to make original shows for the platform, including people from the worlds of movies and news. More importantly for digital content, Quibi’s talent also included a roster of funny, smart comedians. By all accounts, Quibi wasn’t interested in dictating how people created content for the platform, either — unlike Snapchat, which has an intense, hands-on approach in developing original content, Quibi seemed open to letting its creators do whatever they liked. As a result, some of the Quibi shows were real stinkers, but there were a few, shining moments of truly funny, compelling stories. (My favorite will always be Nicole Richie’s highly odd musical docu-parody Nikki Fre$h, but I also enjoyed Gayme Show, and I have thought more than once about the Golden Arm woman over the last few months.) All told, the ratio of good-to-bad original content wasn’t that different from other newly launched streaming outlets.

A few decent titles and a list of big-name creators isn’t enough to guarantee a new outlet will work, but Quibi actually had even more working in its favor. It had an ungodly amount of investor money behind it. It was a subscription service that launched with an amply generous free trial window, and there was lots of press covering the company. Most importantly, I think, is that at least conceptually, there is actually a market for what Quibi wanted to provide. Quibi was meant to be a mobile-native streaming platform, and that fundamental idea is not bonkers. We watch a lot of video on our phones, and almost none of it was made to be watched on a phone. Quibi could have filled that fairly obvious gap.

Quibi died in spite of all those things, though, and so we are left with a fundamental question: Did 2020 kill Quibi? Or did Quibi kill Quibi?

As with any simplistic set-up that boils the complexity of the world down to two simple options, the answer here is probably “why not both?” I think it’s likely that 2020 killed Quibi much faster than it otherwise would’ve died. Founder Jeffrey Katzenberg infamously blamed the pandemic for Quibi’s failure to launch, and CEO Meg Whitmen cited the company’s decision to halt its marketing efforts during this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests as a factor in its slow growth. They’re both not wrong that this year made for some exceptionally difficult circumstances. It is hard to imagine what a big midsummer Quibi ad campaign would’ve looked like, but Whitman is probably correct that there was no way to do it in the middle of a global outcry over systemic racism in a way that would’ve seemed … uh … graceful. Likewise, a mobile video platform was always going to be a tough sell at precisely the time when many people suddenly found themselves with no opportunity to be mobile.

In the end, though, I’m extremely doubtful that a 2020 without unprecedented Black Lives Matter protests and without a pandemic would’ve been enough to save Quibi. It would’ve helped greatly if any of the shows had been significantly more appealing or popular. It also would’ve helped if the vaunted “turnstile” technology — an in-app feature that would automatically adjust the video frame depending on whether you held the phone vertically or horizontally — did something other than make all the horizontal frames feel sparse and all the vertical frames weirdly cropped. It probably would’ve helped if its name sounded less silly, and if Katzenberg and Whitman got along, and if anyone at the company had a vision for what the content should look like rather than just how big the money could be.

The thing I think truly killed Quibi, though, is that what was intended as a mobile-only video platform remembered the video part but forgot that it needed to exist on a phone. The videos we watch on our phones may not be designed to watch on tiny screens, but they are designed to be viewed on devices that are primarily intended for communication. We watch videos on social media platforms, on streaming services, sent to us over messaging apps or email, and we are immediately able to respond. We can reply to them, share them, send them to people, and crucially, we can also make our own videos. Quibi was a video outlet for your phone that forgot what a phone is for: communicating with other people. Until very recently, long after the initial launch glow had faded, there was no way to screenshot Quibi shows. You couldn’t take clips and send them to your friends, you couldn’t add your own comment, there were no immersive camera features, and it was almost impossible to even send a link of your favorite episode to someone else.

I will always think some version of Quibi could’ve worked. If it had abandoned the super-short episode restriction, or if the titles had been amazing, or if they’d launched with a robust social sharing infrastructure, I think it’s entirely possible that Quibi could’ve lived longer, and maybe even become popular. But with none of those boxes checked, there’s just no way Quibi could have ever made it.

It is a relief, though. It’s been a year of so much tumult and unpredictability, and all the rules we thought we knew about the world have been thrown into disarray. If nothing else, Quibi’s collapse proves that a few things still make sense. A scant few months after its launch, Quibi is shutting down. Some things work out exactly the way you expect.

Did 2020 Kill Quibi? Or Did Quibi Kill Quibi?