Quibi's biggest issue probably isn't the pandemic

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Even before the pandemic transformed nearly every facet of daily life, it was hard to imagine how Quibi could carve out space in an extremely crowded streaming landscape. The premise was simple enough: short episodes, lasting only 5-10 minutes each, to kill the time while you’re commuting or waiting in line at the store. Get it, a “quick bite,” but condensed and pronounced incorrectly. It’s become a sort of cliche at this point that Quibi sounds like a rejected 30 Rock joke, stuffed to the brim with nonsensical shows that also could be their own 30 Rock cutaway gags. The company’s short-term tumble seems to bear this theory out.

In an interview with The New York Times’ Nicole Sperling, Quibi founder Jeffrey Katzenberg fought this assumption, pinning all of the company’s woes on the pandemic. “I attribute everything that has gone wrong to coronavirus,” Katzenberg told the Times. “Everything. But we own it.”

The first month stats indicate that things have gone spectacularly wrong. According to the Times report, Quibi fell out of the top 50 free iPhone apps after its debut week. The most recent data from analytics firm Sensor Tower found that Quibi had slid to 125, right behind the mobile game Knock’em All and the language-learning service Duolingo. Just 2.9 million customers have downloaded the app, even with a 90-day free trial period, and Quibi says 1.3 million are active users.

Although the pandemic could be to blame for people streaming short-form content less — at least initially, the same was true of music streaming’s decline under quarantine — a certain degree of turmoil was unfolding separately. Besides the departures of several executives in the beta phase, Quibi faces a lawsuit from the tech company Eko, accusing the platform of misappropriating trade secrets and patent infringement. Quibi also reportedly gave away millions of customer emails without their knowledge, which Katzenberg claims the company fixed “as soon as we heard about it.”

Katzenberg and CEO Meg Whitman are scrambling to make the service more viable for widespread shelter-in-place orders, by relaxing the plan to make Quibi a smartphone-only app. Starting this week, iPhone subscribers will be able to watch segments on their TV screens, with Android functionality to follow in the coming weeks.

The piece rises to one final crescendo as Sperling asks Katzenberg if he’s worried about the success of TikTok, another short-form video app that people are devouring in their spare time at home. He snaps at the premise that one platform in which people watch brief videos on their phones is anything like his app with a similar delivery system, and invents a brand new idiom in the process.

“That’s like comparing apples to submarines,” he said. “I don’t know what people are expecting from us. What did Netflix look like 30 days after it launched? To tell me about a company that has a billion users and is doing great in the past six weeks, I’m happy for them, but what the hell does it have to do with me?”

It’s not useful or especially novel to compare any publicly failing entity to Fyre Festival, given how specific those circumstances were, but there is a distinctly modern sort of gonzo executive denial that seems to repeat itself. Few things are more appealing or voyeuristic than watching a company collapse in real time, when the warning signs were so apparent from the start.