Quibi aims to offer big stories in quick bites exclusively for mobile users. It is set to launch on 6 April for $4.99 a month with ads and $7.99 a month without. At CES in Las Vegas, co-founders Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman took to the stage to explain their thinking. The big idea is apparently to make short dual-format episodes of under 10 minutes each that work in both portrait and landscape orientation on a phone.
Jeffrey Katzenberg is the former chair of Walt Disney Studios who went on to form Dreamworks. The Dreamworks Animation arm was acquired by NBC Universal in 2016.
Meg Whitman was an executive at Walt Disney and later Dreamworks, before becoming chief executive of eBay and then Hewlett-Packard, until February 2018.
With time and money in hand, the pair first announced their plans for Quibi in late 2018, with investors including Disney, NBCUniversal, Sony, Viacom, and AT&T’s rebranded WarnerMedia.
Quibi stands for quick bites. The rationale is that people carry smartphones and are looking for something to entertain themselves in short periods between doing other things.
The next remarkable insight is that while most video is in widescreen landscape format, people often hold their phones in a vertical portrait position.
The Instagram solution is to use a square format, but that can be compositionally restricting and does not make the best use of phone screens.
The Quibi solution is apparently to make videos that work well in either aspect ratio, not by simply reformatting them on the fly to fill the screen, but by creating and editing two versions. These are then stitched together, encoded in a single package and the appropriate version is displayed depending on the orientation.
To make a virtue of this, Quibi is pioneering narratives that present different perspectives depending which way the phone is held.
The keynote presentation featured lots of demonstrations showing users flipping between the two orientations to follow the story.
At this point, a rational observer might suggest that if people are prepared to flip their phones around to follow the action, they might as well choose which way to watch in the first place.
So, this ‘Turnstyle’ technology may be more of a patent-pending gimmick than the breakthrough in storytelling that it suggests.
To complement the vertical viewing, Quibi has also developed a player with vertical scrollbars, with different versions for the left or right hand.
Perhaps more interesting, is the idea from Steven Spielberg, who co-founded Dreamworks with Jeff Kaztenberg and David Geffen, of thriller episodes that can only be seen after dark, although that rather works against the idea of mobile moments that can be enjoyed anywhere, anytime.
Another duality is that the business model is based on either a combination of monthly subscription with advertising, or paying more to watch without advertising.
Those in the cheap seats will experience a light load of adverts in 6, 10, or 15-minute pre-rolls.
The company has apparently sold out $150 million in advertising inventory for the first year. Impressive as that might sound, that is only the budget of a modest movie.
If Quibi has such potential, one might wonder whether it might have been more sensible to offer a free tier, supported by advertising, which they may end up doing if the platform achieves significant scale.
While other platforms have licensed libraries of content, Quibi is committed to commissioning original productions.
The company is promising one episode of premium programming every day, five episodes of episodic or unscripted programming, and 25 shows described as daily essentials. It adds up to around three hours of original programming a day, which is more than most television networks produce for prime time.
Jeff Katzenberg and Meg Whitman are both very smart people, so they may be onto something, but their presentation looked a little like the parents of millennials overexplaining how they were going to create something that would be hit with the kids.
The whole of Hollywood will be watching to see if it is a success.