Does Launching During a Pandemic Help or Hurt Quibi?

You are probably familiar with the Chinese proverb: “May you live in interesting times.” One could debate the meaning of that expression; it may well be intended as a subtle curse. Certainly, no one can dispute that we are now living in interesting times. Maybe topsy-turvy times is a better way to describe it. Things that formerly were good (hugging) are now bad, and bad things (wearing a mask in a bank) are now good. Similarly, people are wondering if formerly sturdy business models are now shaky. Which brings us to Quibi.

What is Quibi? Quibi is a streaming video service operated as a phone app. Its content is weighted heavily toward short programs (5 to 10 minutes) that can be used to pass short down times like waiting for an appointment. Quibi is a well-funded, big-deal startup; it is posting original content featuring big-name filmmakers and stars, purportedly budgeted per minute to feature-film levels. It costs $5/month (with ads) or $8/month (no ads). For a far more detailed look at Quibi, check out my colleague Barb Gonzalez's recent Smartstream blog.

Now, the question everyone is asking is — what will things be like in our new reality? Quibi is debuting right now, just as our reality is shifting under our feet. It is the perfect test case of whether an old business model will still be valid. Will Quibi succeed in our new reality? Let's consider some aspects.

Let's start by pondering the new-normal financials. The virus is adding mountains of debt to governments, companies, and many households. Generally, after adding debt, governments and companies can undertake all kinds of fancy schemes to ameliorate the debt. But it is natural to expect that individuals will enter a period of thrift as people try to rebuild lost wealth and savings. In that respect, now is a bad time to launch a new company. After sharpening your monthly budget pencil, do you really feel inclined to sign up for a new subscription fee?

Along the same lines, it is entirely possible that the virus will encourage people to get back to financial basics. We will always purchase “must have” things but perhaps we'll move away from “it would be nice to have” things. Yet another streaming service, in an already crowded field, might fall into the latter category of discretionary spending.

On the other hand, maybe we'll welcome another streaming service. At least for now, the majority of us are stuck at home. Whether working or not, we suddenly have an even more voracious appetite (if that's possible) for entertainment. If the content is novel, we might go for it especially if we've somehow exhausted everything that's “good” on our existing platforms. Hmm, but if pandemic disruptions linger, will Quibi be able to keep its young pipeline filled with novel content? Without the deep catalog enjoyed by its established rivals, will it too soon become stale?

The big wheels at Quibi might be rubbing their hands in glee. Most Americans are stuck at home, craving content. Surely they will be anxious or even desperate to try Quibi. And after the isolation period ends, surely they will just continue to subscribe. Perfect! Hmm, but if Quibi is targeted to phones, and this is the one time that we have ready access to big TVs, would its small-screen-centric content be a drawback, at least during the isolation period?

Quibi's content is specifically designed for quick consumption, with programs parsed in small chunks. In a short attention span world, when you are rushing from one appointment to another, Quibi might be just what the doctor ordered. When you are pressed for time, you only have time for small bites of entertainment.

But if I'm stuck at home for months, the last thing I want is 5-minute programs. Watching short videos, or even reading books with short chapters would only aggravate me because it would force me to constantly stop and start my attention. I want lose myself in long-form content like lengthy movies, watch entire seasons of TV shows, or immerse myself in books with lengthy chapters. I want something I can sink my teeth into, something I can use to get into the diversion zone. The best way to pass time is to lose track of time. Quibi offers the antithesis of this.

While Quibi might have been a perfect product before, is is still good? Will its launch amidst this difficult time help or hurt it? If current events hurt it now, would it still be fine once normalcy returns? What is the new normal? Will we still want to lose entire weekends with binge-watching, or will there be a huge new market for 5-minute chunks? Quibi's brain trust thinks it knows the answers. After what must have been years of planning, its bosses are not hesitating, At a moment when seemingly everything else is canceled, postponed, or on hold, they are going ahead with the launch.

So, will Quibi be a roaring success? We'll have to wait to find out. In the end, its success or failure will depend on whether our viewing habits will have changed, and of course, on the quality of the product itself. Our first data point will come from Barb Gonzalez, who will give us a hands-on review in her upcoming Smartstream blog.

So, here we are, hunkered down, trying to tell heads from tails. Trying to remember — did he fire six shots, or five? Or, maybe so far, he's only fired one. Do you feel lucky?