1.8.2020 8:53 PM

Tech

Quibi’s Turnstile format won’t make or break it, the content will

Can you name one unmissable IGTV clip?

ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Forthcoming short-form streaming service Quibi launches in April. Until now, its pitch has been HBO-style production values on sub-10-minute content designed for mobile. This week at CES it added to that by announcing “Turnstyle,” a mobile video format that lets viewers switch their devices between portrait and landscape modes mid-show without compromising content.

The Big Questions remain though: Can Quibi convince consumers to add another subscription service to their lives? Will the content rock? And does a unique format matter?

Swinging for the fences –– If you gave me the elevator pitch for Quibi (shorthand for “Quick Bites”) I’d dismiss it out of hand. People can already use Netflix, Amazon Prime and the other streaming services they’re paying for on mobile devices. YouTube has content of every length. And vertical formats exist, but either haven’t taken hold (IGTV) or trade in the ultra-concise (Facebook and Instagram stories, Snapchat and TikTok).

But Quibi has Spielberg, Soderbergh, del Toro, and Hardwicke onboard behind the cameras –– Turnstile requires shooting everything twice, or shooting wide and doing a second, verticle cut –– and J-Lo, Idris Elba and Kevin Hart in front of them, to name but a few. At the helm are fromer Walt Disney boss and Dreamworks founder Jeffrey Katzenberg, and ex-HP CEO, Meg Whitman. That's pedigree, in spades. Sure, they're decades older than Quibi's key demographic, but they understand content and the internet.

For news content, Quibi’s signed up BBC and NBC. For sport, it's secured ESPN. The service will add 180 minutes of fresh content daily at launch, the first year’s ad slots are filled and paid for, and it’s raised $1 billion from investors. But, as Apple TV+ has demonstrated, big names and big budgets don’t guarantee bingeability. Apple's problem, perhaps, is that it isn't offering anything truly new. Quibi thinks it is.

It’s going to need big hits –– The biggest challenge for Quibi might be asking consumers for another recurring payment, even only $5 a month for the ad-supported tier (ad-free costs $8). It’s weird for a fundamentally contemporary format to have to rely on the most legacy of TV fund-raising mechanisms. But, as Disney+ proves, if you’ve got exclusive content and it's the talk of the watercooler, people will suck up another $60 annual expense. The fear of missing out is a powerful wallet-opener.

Also, as anyone who takes public transport or wait out airport layovers will attest, people do watch video on phones and tablets. Quibi's target market already exists: it's generation YouTube. And while there’s great content on Google’s streaming platform, outside of its original fare on its paid tier, it can be exhausting to sift through the filler. Then, once you do, you have to endure the interminable ads. Not just the unskippable pre-roll ones, but the horrible overlaid banners. I can’t condone ads. They’re a time tax for the poor and like spending too much time on Instagram, they reduce the quality of my life and my mental health.

Few services remind me as acutely that I’m the product as much as free-to-watch YouTube. No other service makes me so inclined to fork out extra for ad-free Hulu. If Quibi succeeds, it could be because it combines a device-first format with viewer-centric content. If Quibi can respect that people stream not to be incessantly marketed to, but to be entertained, it deserves to succeed.

As long as there’s a free trial I’ll be sure to try Quibi. Not just because I’m professionally obligated to, but because I’m curious. The pitch has my attention. And I bet plenty of other people will try it too. Whether they or I hang around doesn’t depend on responsive formatting. It depends entirely on what’s showing.