Quibi: What is it, why did it fail and what comes next?
Quibi is a mobile-first streaming service for short-form video packed with stars. It failed. What was it and what went wrong?
Joan E. SolsmanFormer Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
ExpertiseStreaming video, film, television and music; virtual, augmented and mixed reality; deep fakes and synthetic media; content moderation and misinformation onlineCredentials
Three Folio Eddie award wins: 2018 science & technology writing (Cartoon bunnies are hacking your brain), 2021 analysis (Deepfakes' election threat isn't what you'd think) and 2022 culture article (Apple's CODA Takes You Into an Inner World of Sign)
Quibi, a mobile-first subscription video service in the US and Canada, launched in April after months of hype. It was yet another new streaming service vying for your money, but Quibi was a little different than the rest: Quibi staked $1.75 billion on ultraexpensive, star-studded shows -- all of which came in episodic nuggets shorter than 10 minutes and were designed to be watched on your phone.
Quibi would be a risky bet even in normal times. But Quibi, which launched April 6, rolled out a mobile-only concept just a couple weeks after the pandemic locked down large swaths of North America, trapping people in their homes. People can watch Quibi at home on their phones, of course, but Quibi's bet on exclusively mobile, short-form video was premised on people gobbling up these "quick bite" episodes while out and about.
After it launched without any support to watch Quibi's programming on televisions, the company scrambled as users complained about not being able to watch its shows on the biggest screen in the house. It also launched without simple, easy ways to share or meme its shows on social media, stunting virality and word of mouth (Golden Arm excluded.)
Quibi also ramped up in the middle of a wave of new streaming services, as tech and media giants all rush to shape the future of video. That means Quibi was competing for your subscription dollars against heavy-duty upstarts like Disney Plus, Apple TV Plus, Peacock and HBO Max, as well as established players like Netflix. This intensifying competition coincided with record unemployment, forcing families everywhere to re-evaluate how many services they pay for -- and which ones to leave out.
And of course, $5-a-month Quibi faced a Goliath in YouTube, the pioneer of free, short-form video that draws in more than 2 billion viewers every month.
Still, Quibi believed its unconventional strategy -- very expensive, star-packed programming released in 10-minute-or-less episodes that you can watch only on mobile devices like your phone -- would hit a sweet spot. It had the backing of all the major Hollywood studios and a seemingly endless litany of film, TV, music and sports stars making shows. It's also brought T-Mobile on board to offer free subscriptions to some wireless customers.
Quibi CEO Meg Whitman, the former chief of eBay and Hewlett-Packard, said before launch that Quibi was willing to change if need be. And as it struggled to sign up people at the pace it had hoped, some of those changes became reality.
The most significant was widening its device support beyond mobile. The company added support for Apple's AirPlay in May to stream its programming on some TV screens, and Quibi updated its Android and iOS apps to cast to Google's Chromecast and Chromecast-integrated TVs in June. In October, it added support for TV-streaming devices proper, releasing apps for Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV and Android TV.
Quibi also added the ability to screenshot its shows in July, which would allow viewers to more easily share and meme its programming.
Quibi founder Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was the head of
movie division in the '80s and '90s and co-founded Dreamworks Animation, initially believed the coronavirus' effect on people's viewing habits would be neutral to Quibi. But he later blamed the pandemic for "everything that has gone wrong." In the end, as he and Whitman announced their decision to shut Quibi down, they acknowledged the fundamental concept may have been flawed.
"Quibi is not succeeding. Likely for one of two reasons: because the idea itself wasn't strong enough to justify a standalone streaming service or because of our timing," Whitman and Katzenberg said in a joint open letter. "Unfortunately, we will never know but we suspect it's been a combination of the two."
They were also contrite about their failure.
"All that is left now is to offer a profound apology for disappointing you and, ultimately, for letting you down," they wrote.
OK, WTF is a quibi?
Quibi with a capital "Q" refers to the service, but all-lower-case quibi is the word the company invented for its short-form episodes, which all run about 10 minutes or less.
It's a mashup of the words "quick bites," since the videos are supposed to be bite-size morsels of video.
But don't pronounce the end of quibi like the beginning of "bites." If you can rhyme it with the word "alibi," you're pronouncing this made-up word totally wrong. You're supposed to pronounce the end of quibi with a long e, like the end of "wasabi." Obviously.
When did it come out?
Quibi launched April 6 in the US and Canada.
Some other countries will be able to get Quibi's ad-free US version if it's available in their app store, without giving specifics. So if you live outside the US and Canada, check your Google Play Store and Apple App Store for the Quibi app to see what comes up.
Quibi's leaders said that Quibi was designed from the beginning to be a global service, with global rights to stream its shows. But that expansion obviously won't happen now.
How long will Quibi's service stay available to watch?
Quibi said it expects the service will stop streaming on or around Dec. 1. It previously said subscribers will receive separate notifications about the final date they can watch the service.
Quibi had already scheduled new programming to premiere next month: Among other titles, the second season of prank show Punk'd, its most popular title at launch, was set to come out Nov. 16. A week before that, Quibi was supposed to debut a new show from the Russo Brothers, known for directing Marvel blockbusters including Avengers: Endgame, the highest grossing movie ever.
What happens to all the shows Quibi released? What about shows made for Quibi that haven't come out yet?
The fate of Quibi's shows is unclear.
Even Quibi itself doesn't know: "At this time we do not know if the Quibi content will be available anywhere after our last day of service. We recommend following #Quibi on Twitter for any news regarding content," the company said on its customer support site.
Quibi doesn't own the programming on its service, according to reports. Under creator-friendly deals, many of its shows were made on Quibi's dime, and then Quibi licensed the programming it paid for under two-year periods of exclusivity. After two years elapsed, these deals would allow Quibi to continue streaming the programming on its service, but the creator could also then distribute the show elsewhere.
It's unclear if the two-year exclusive period for Quibi would still be enforced once Quibi shuts down.
However long it takes for content creators to regain the rights these shows, it's likely that this programming will be scattered to the wind, with some programs potentially popping up elsewhere for viewers. Some may disappear into the ether.
Does Quibi have stock? Who is losing money in this meltdown?
Quibi isn't a publicly traded company, so it doesn't have any shareholders outside of the people, groups and companies that privately invested the $1.75 billion it raised.
Quibi's investors included all the major Hollywood studios; tech giants like Google and China's Alibaba; financial services companies like JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs; European telecom Liberty Global; venture capital Madrone Capital Partners; and the billionaire investor Carlos Slim. Whitman and Katzenberg themselves invested in Quibi too. Quibi's entertainment-industry investors included Disney, NBCUniversal, Sony Pictures Entertainment, ViacomCBS, AT&T's WarnerMedia, Lionsgate, MGM, ITV and Entertainment One.
The Hollywood investors were among the ones feeling the gentlest sting. Entertainment companies that invested in Quibi got sweetheart arrangements known as "round-trip" deals -- their investments were essentially paid back to them by producing Quibi programming. That's one reason why Quibi has shows like Punk'd and Singled Out, reviving ViacomCBS franchises. (ViacomCBS is CNET's parent company.) It's a reason why #FreeRayshawn was produced by Sony Pictures Television and The Fugitive was produced by Warner Bros. Television Studios, for example.
The company reportedly has about $350 million in capital it can return to investors, and it's going to try to shop around its assets to generate more to hand back.
How much did Quibi cost? Can I get any money back?
Quibi's cheapest tier is $5 a month and includes advertising. Its ad-free tier is $8 a month. Quibi doesn't offer annual subscriptions; when it shuts down, it won't have unused longer-term subscriptions that it needs to refund. It recommended any subscribers with questions should contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Quibi offered 90-day free trials for people who signed up anytime before May 1. After that passed, Quibi's standard free trial narrowed to two weeks, which appears to still stand for anyone who wants to check out the service before it shutters.
To compare costs, Netflix -- the world's dominant subscription video service, which never has ads -- offers its cheapest subscription at $9 a month in the US, one dollar more than ad-free Quibi. Disney Plus costs $7 a month in the US without any advertising, a buck cheaper.
And YouTube, of course, is free with advertising.
On the ad-supported version, Quibi has said the service has about two and a half minutes of ads per hour.
Originally, Quibi launched with support only for mobile devices like
. No web viewing. Basically, Quibi was designed initially to be watched in an app only on devices with screens that can easily rotate.
But since then, the company has widened the ability to watch on television screens. It added support for Apple's AirPlay in May to stream its programming on some TV screens, and earlier in June, Quibi updated its Android and iOS apps to cast to Google's Chromecast and Chromecast-integrated TVs. In October, it added support for TV-streaming devices proper, releasing apps for Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV and Android TV.
What product features does the service include?
Quibi loudly touted its mobile viewing technology called Turnstyle. It lets a program dynamically react when viewers flip between portrait or landscape mode. That means that no matter how you're holding your mobile device, the video will take up the full screen, rather than minimizing to a small section. For most shows on Quibi, that means the program was shot and edited to crop well when you flip to portrait, the most natural way to hold a phone screen.
But some programs are using Turnstyle in clever ways: A thriller series called Wireless shows the filmed action of the story when you look at it in landscape -- but when you rotate into portrait, you can see what's happening on the character's device while the story is playing out.
Beyond Turnstyle, here are some of Quibi's more routine product details:
Quibi's highest image resolution is 1080p, so it lacks the Ultra HD or high-dynamic range formats that are very important for content you'd be watching on a television. Like most streaming services, Quibi has a ladder of lower resolutions that dynamically change to reflect whatever bitrate your device can handle.
Quibi is meant as a personal service, so it doesn't allow a single account to have different profiles for different viewers.
As such, Quibi also limits every account to one simultaneous stream. That's the same as Netflix's $9 basic account, but other services like Disney Plus allow as many as four people to be streaming from one $7-a-month account at the same time.
Quibi has unlimited downloads to watch anything on the service offline.
What kind of shows does Quibi have?
Quibi had more than 50 titles available at launch, and the catalog expanded from there. Every Quibi series will release new episodes every weekday until that series is complete -- and some ongoing daily shows have episodes drop on the weekend too. CEO Whitman has said Quibi isn't rigid about this release strategy. If subscribers demonstrate an appetite to binge, Quibi would be willing to drop full seasons at once, similar to Netflix.
Quibi has three categories of programming: Movies in Chapters, Unscripted and Docs and Daily Essentials. At launch, Quibi will have the first three episodes of its Movies in Chapters and Unscripted/Docs series available for mini-binges. Across these three categories, Quibi has said it will be releasing more than three hours of new programming every day.
Brand new series debut on Quibi every Monday. In the first year, Quibi originally planned to have 175 original shows, totaling about 8,500 episodes.
Of its three categories, Movies in Chapters are the service's scripted shows, typically big-budget projects with big-name talent. These are programs like #Freerayshawn, a drama starring Laurence Fishburne that earned Quibi two Creative Arts Emmys for acting. Another one is Most Dangerous Game, a thriller reimagining the classic short story starring The Hunger Games' Liam Hemsworth.
Quibi was making 35 of these Movies in Chapters this year, and the company has said it would release one new episode of Movies in Chapter daily on the service.
Unscripted and Docs are Quibi programming that are, well, unscripted shows and documentary series. It covers a range of reality-style shows; game shows and competitions; talk shows; food, travel and culture docs; and a variety of other genres.
Quibi has said it would release five episodes in the Unscripted and Docs category every day.
Finally, the company will drop 25 so-called Daily Essentials every weekday. They focus on news and information, as well as lifestyle programming like a daily horoscope, a recap of the previous night's late night shows and meditation videos. These are also shorter than Quibi's other kinds of programming; Daily Essentials are five to six minutes. The company has partnered with the likes of NBC News, the BBC, TMZ, Telemundo, Polygon and the Weather Channel to make Daily Essentials, as well as developing some originally.
Daily Essentials will have new episodes at least every weekday. Some titles release more than one episode daily, like an NBC News snippets that land twice daily; and other titles will drop new episodes on weekends too.