Quibbling with Quibi: Considerations on the new platform of ‘quick bite’ entertainment

Quibi, which stands for Quick Bites—bursts of entertainment, none more than 10 minutes and most less, designed for mobile phone use on the go—launched in the U.S. in early April in the midst of the quarantine in what might be an inopportune time for its “Short (or No) Attention Span Theater.”

This is no fly-by-the-seat-of-its-pants startup enterprise. The service collected $1.75 billion in funding from not only all the major Hollywood studios (Disney, NBC Universal, Sony, Warner, Liberty, CBS Viacom) but also the tech industry (Google and Alibaba), chemical industry (Proctor and Gamble), and major retail (Walmart).

Quick bites

The head of this new streaming service, which like the others takes on the appearance of a major studio, is Jeffrey Katzenberg, former chair of Disney and then co-founder and CEO of DreamWorks. Katzenberg’s stamp is that of “pure” entertainment. At Disney his reign produced The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Lion King, and at DreamWorks, a Spielberg-Disney conglomerate, he oversaw Shrek, Kung Fu Panda and Monsters vs. Aliens. These were noxious and sometimes obnoxious (Shrek) overly media-savvy and -saturated American fairy tales with little real progressive or social content, or where the social content, though hewing to a general liberal line, was diluted or muted.

Quibi’s stars

Programming on Quibi follows the Katzenberg line, highly star-oriented—Jennifer Lopez, Queen Latifah, LeBron James, Steph Curry, Guillermo del Toro, Sam Raimi, Will Arnett—flashy, instantly grabbing but with little value other than diversion. Tales told, not by idiots but by highly skilled entertainers yet still “signifying nothing” except to grab and hold the audience for the required 7 to 10 minutes. The high end is scripted series but the majority of content is the much-cheaper-to produce second- and third-tier documentaries and “news” features, headlined in some cases by social media “influencers,” that is, online product pluggers who have fashioned themselves into smart consumer promoters at the moment when consumption, because of the coronavirus, is taking a dive as people instead struggle with how to pay the rent and feed their families.

Quibi, though, is not just a studio, reviving the worst aspects of cable (a flagship dramatic series with the rest of the programming reruns) and “reality TV.” It is also a digital conglomerate and as such is a participant in all aspects of the surveillance economy. Its most startling innovation is that it is only available on mobile phones and designed to fill in the short gaps in workers’ lives as they scurry to their now more dangerous jobs. At the moment, because of the amount of work being done at home, this “innovation” may have lost some of its potential to attract, though the app was downloaded 1.7 million times in the first week after its launch.

Katzenberg says Quibi is “the best of Hollywood and the best of Silicon Valley” but it’s also the worst of each. The company earns revenue through ads and offers a cheaper monthly subscription rate for no ads. At its launch it had already secured a year’s worth of advertising time.

Quibi also, though, will harness viewer information both for its own programming purposes like Netflix—it asks your age when you subscribe—and in addition it may also sell the data to advertisers. Indeed, it has already been accused of “leaking” email addresses to Google, Facebook, and Twitter, companies adept at harnessing participant data for commercial surveillance. The Quibi come-on was a message saying, “A whole world of quick bite entertainment awaits you. Please take a moment to confirm your email to better secure your account.” It’s through gimmicks like this, as one media analyst put it, that “companies are able to create such an all-encompassing profile.”

Quibi is also designed to take advantage of the coming 5G faster download speeds for mobile phones, and as such may also raise rates for mobile subscribers as well as pushing the much more extensive development of the network of 5G towers, which may have an environmental safety factor involved. In addition, harking back to the 2001 film Start Up about a tech company whose idea is stolen before it goes to market by a rival who visits the company and views their interface, Quibi was accused of stealing video technology demoed for Katzenberg and other Quibi employees.

Digital conniving in Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s ‘Start Up’

This is the underside of the smarmy “pure” entertainment ethos of the Disney-DreamWorks American dream—the intense competition that pits all against all and leads to an end game of big fish eating little fish, with the blood from the kill polluting the media waters.

“Innovation” destroying our capacity for empathy?

Let’s turn to Quibi’s formal “innovation.” The service is exclusively available and designed for mobile phones. It stresses what it calls Turnstyle technology, which allows the shows to be viewed in either horizontal (landscape) form which makes it more like a traditional though tiny screen or vertical form where presumably one could also run other applications underneath while watching the series. The service attempts to turn the limitations of mobile phone viewing into gimmicky bonuses so that, for example, the upcoming Steven Spielberg horror series After Dark can only be viewed at night. Of course, this also stresses the way that viewers are being monitored since their phones can only activate the show in the evening.

Martin Scorsese’s comments on the era of the superhero film in the age of streaming apply here. He called these films, produced by Katzenberg’s former studio Disney, “theme parks” rather than “the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional psychological experience.” Quibi “series,” on the other hand, are just single rides, reduced, in their 7 to max 10-minute form, to the ride alone. No buying tickets, no getting in line, no anticipation, just the ride, with almost nothing to show for it when the ride is over.

The other “innovation” in the short form consists in possibly undercutting industry labor contracts, which have not caught up to this new technology and provide reduced rates for workers employed on Quibi’s “entertainment bites” as opposed to longer-form series. There is a possibility that this loophole is what allowed the service to launch and produce so many series so rapidly. As Shoshana Zuboff says, these new forms of surveillance capitalism partly rely on outwitting regulation by moving so rapidly they cannot be evaluated and countered. She adds, “In the absence of a clear-minded appreciation of this new logic of accumulation, every attempt at understanding, predicting, regulating, or prohibiting the activities of surveillance capitalists will fall short.”

As for the series themselves, it is important to emphasize that the high-end flagship dramatic series constitute very little of the total Quibi content, which is primarily what it calls “news” and features as well as short-form documentaries. One of Quibi’s “innovations” is raising the status of social media “influencers” so that their shows appear alongside recognized industry names. Prominent among these is The Rachel Hollis Show, where the host dispenses pithy advice to young mothers in the nature of “it’s not the quantity of the time you spend with your kids, it’s the quality.” Says Hollis, “As an influencer, what everyone dreams about, literally, is being an early adopter…the first person to step into the space.”

Hollis is the perfect Quibi representative, someone who values getting there first over making any positive social contribution and whose dream life, her interior psyche, is given over to nothing but visions of her own empty success. She is in the post-natal field what Trump is to politics.

As for the dramatic series, there is a possibility that the form could be valuable. The 20-minute podcast from which the Amazon series Homecoming was adapted made for very tightly constructed half-hour episodes of that series and enhanced its critique of the corporate over human values of the pharmaceutical industry. For the most part that does not happen with the overly “entertainment”-conscious preoccupation of founder Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Disney-Dreamworks imprint on Quibi.

Hunter and hunted in ‘The Most Dangerous Game’

So, the remake of The Most Dangerous Game, with The Hunger Game’s Liam Hemsworth a Detroit down-and-out denizen of a decaying city willing to sell his soul to get the money for his wife’s cancer treatment to corporate exec Christopher Waltz (Inglourious Basterds), who is sheltered in a gleaming tower, has some resonance with the contemporary situation. However, a more daring casting with an African-American actor in the lead might have resounded in the moment with the Georgia hunting and killing by an ex-investigator of the black jogger Aumaud Arbery, and might have highlighted the way this kind of hunting of African-American men not only persists in the U.S. but is rationalized by the system, as the murderers in Georgia were only arrested two months after in the wake of a national public outcry. But this kind of envisioning, the subject of the film Get Out, might have upset the mindless entertainment formula that in the end may doom Quibi to irrelevance.

Flipped, where two disgruntled workers decide to create their own Home Fixer Upper show, is simply Quibi nodding in its fictional series to the vapid decider and influencer mentality that it is also promoting in its non-fiction entries.

Sam Raimi’s 50 States of Fright in some ways shows the real limitations of the form. The first series of horror episodes, which will highlight all 50 U.S. states, takes place in Michigan and incorporates elements of Raimi’s own A Simple Plan, in this case centering around greed for gold with the more traditionally spooky elements of his Evil Dead. The problem is that once you figure out what the horror payoff is for each episode, even an eight-minute episode begins to feel about two-and-a-half minutes too long. Quibi may be the victim of its own abbreviated form. Since there really is little development, the audience may wander. But Quibi will have done its job of further destroying our capacity for empathy, reflection and commitment.

Queen Latifah in ‘When the Streetlights Go On’

The best of the opening round of Quibi series is the teen murder mystery When the Streetlights Go On, which, given the dark nature of its subject matter which concerns teen murders, really would have been much better titled When the Streetlights Go Off, and which features but does not star Queen Latifah. The mystery is compelling and the total length of the ten episodes clocks it at about the length of a film. Here the problem is the lack of development in each episode which must climax and then restart, retarding any actual character deepening because of the addictive imperative of forcing the viewer to the next episode.

As workers now are starting to de-confine, to come out of their homes, or for many, to continue to have to leave their homes to face unsafe working conditions and governments which do too little in the way of testing and screening, is their solace on the trip to and from their first and second jobs really to be Quibi? The lasting contribution of this service may be to convince more and more workers that they want more from the limited leisure time that is offered them than “quick bites” which are really just mental junk food.

You can read more reviews at Bro on The Global Television Beat.


Dennis Broe
Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe, a film, television and art critic, is also the author of the Harry Palmer LA Mysteries, the latest volume of which, The House That Buff Built, is about the real estate industry, dispossession, and appropriation in the shaping of “modern” Los Angeles.