Not enough people were doing this.
Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Quibi
Last April, I started my curtain-raiser for Quibi thusly: “Type the words ‘will Quibi’ into Google, and the third auto-complete suggestion is short and stark: Will Quibi fail?” Well, yesterday we got the answer: yes. Quibi has failed. Barely seven months after launching, the short-form video company Wednesday announced it was throwing in the towel and winding down operations. The spectacular crash predicted by so many internet pundits has come to pass, with perhaps the only surprise being just how quickly the whole enterprise collapsed.
In an open letter addressed to nobody in particular, Quibi chiefs Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman made it known they could have kept fighting into next year; they still had some money left. But they also admitted doing so would have been futile . (Hopefully the duo will spend some of that extra cash on extended severances for the couple hundred full-time Quibi employees now facing unemployment in the middle of a pandemic and at a time when media companies across Hollywood are slashing jobs.) Obits are already being written about “what went wrong” at Quibi, and there will no doubt be many autopsies to come in the years ahead. “We will spend more time looking back at what went wrong at Quibi than it existed,” one industry veteran I spoke with Wednesday afternoon said.
He also told me he still thinks the idea behind the service — premium short-form content — “is inevitable,” even if Quibi didn’t get it right. I tend to think that’s half-right: There is an audience for bite-size entertainment with production values closer to Netflix than what you’ll find on social media, but I’m not so sure there’s a market for it. In other words, while younger viewers in particular may be open to good shows that don’t require long time commitments, I don’t think a whole bunch of people will ever want to pay for them. On the other hand, if Apple TV+ or Peacock were to start doing Quibi-size programs and then offered them as part of their overall service, such content could very well help drive sign-ups and increase usage.
But even if there may be some place for so-called “premium” short-form, I still wonder if Katzenberg also fundamentally misread how folks under 35 — and maybe all of us — think of programming these days. The idea that “name” talent, either in front of or behind the camera, matters anywhere near as much today as it did even ten years ago may simply be wrong. Sure, celebrities still draw attention and bring eyeballs to projects, but we also live in a world where an Idaho skateboarder lip-syncing to “Dreams” on TikTok can become a star overnight, inspire dozens of copycats, and put Fleetwood Mac back in the Billboard Top 10. Audiences will of course always crave movies as big as Avengers or TV shows as lavish as The Crown. But there is now a massive supply of traditional-length “premium” TV programming and an even bigger array of massively compelling DIY short-form content on which audiences can feast. Katzenberg’s notion that he needed to bring his Hollywood wizardry to that latter category, when audiences seem quite happy with the no-frills versions of Quibi (TikTok, Snapchat Originals) that already exist, may well end up being his idea’s true fatal flaw. In that way, Quibi really was the New Coke of the streaming age: A product not enough real people wanted, a solution to a problem that didn’t really exist.
Netflix’s quarterly report card came out Tuesday, and the top-line news was mixed: The company is still growing (it added 2.2 million net subscribers over the summer), but its rate of growth has slowed substantially from the first half of 2020. Wall Street initially punished Netflix stock, even though the cooldown should not have come as a surprise. The streamer’s previous earnings report forecast that growth would stall over the summer, if only because pandemic-related lockdowns resulted in a spring subscriber surge — and that’s exactly what seems to have happened. Even with minimal growth over the summer, Netflix has already added more than 28 million subscribers in 2020 and seems very likely to break the 200 million mark by year’s end. Not bad for a platform that was supposed to get pummeled this year by a slew of well-financed new competitors.
But while Netflix’s overall outlook still looks quite healthy, the streamer is not exactly a picture of stability of late. The decision by co-CEO Ted Sarandos to ditch longtime day-to-day TV content chief Cindy Holland still has much of Hollywood slack-jawed, and the aftershocks of the move continue to reverberate. Late last week, news broke that Netflix comedy chief Jane Wiseman would be following Holland out the door, ending a seven-year run at the company. Also gone: Channing Dungey, the former ABC Entertainment boss who joined Netflix less than two years ago to focus on dramas and a few key showrunners, including Shonda Rhimes. Dungey departed to take a big job overseeing WarnerMedia’s TV studio operations, but whatever the reason for her exit, Netflix’s TV development team now looks radically different than it did at the start of the year.
During an investor call Tuesday, Sarandos and co-CEO Reed Hastings argued the exec upheaval below them was actually a good thing for the company. Holland’s exit was the result of Sarandos deciding to make the TV side of Netflix’s operations more closely resemble the structure of his film unit, and to install as boss Bela Bajaria, a former NBCUniversal studio exec who joined Netflix four years ago this month. Sarandos told investors he thinks Bajaria is “really well suited to take on” the full TV organization and minimized the exits that have resulted since he pushed out Holland. “Whenever you put new change at the top, there’s some downstream effects as well,” he said. Hastings was even less sentimental about the reorganization of the programming team: “No one gets to keep the job for free. You get to earn it every year, which is intensely challenging, and we all love that part of it.”
While the Netflix exec team didn’t make any major news Tuesday, I found their quarterly earnings interview filled with a ton of interesting insights about how the company views several aspects of its business right now. My five major (and minor) takeaways:
➽ A U.S. price hike next year sure seems likely. Netflix recently increased its monthly price in Canada, leading to speculation the U.S. market is next. Greg Peters, the company’s chief operating officer and head of product, said he would not “comment or speculate on any specific changes,” but his analysis of how Netflix decides when the time is right to raise prices seemed to suggest an increase is in the offing. “Instead of an algorithm, we’re just basically assessing, ‘Okay, how many new popular titles have we delivered? What are local language originals in that particular country looking like? What’s the slate that’s coming looking like? What [do] the fundamental metrics — engagement and churn — look like?’” Peters explained. He also noted that Netflix is likely to once again make more new originals in 2021 than it did in 2020. “If we do that, then we feel like there is that opportunity to occasionally go back and ask members where we’ve delivered that extra value in those countries to pay a little bit more,” Peters said. Don’t expect any such hike, if it comes, to be too big though. We very much want to remain an incredible value as we continue to improve the service and grow,” the exec said.
➽ Netflix is experimenting with new ways to lure new subscribers, including free preview weekends. The service ended the practice of giving folks a 30-day free trial to sample programming, but later this year, Peters said all consumers in India will be able to stream Netflix for free over the course of a few days, no strings or sign-ups attached. “We think that giving everyone in a country access to Netflix for free for a weekend could be a great way to expose a bunch of new people to the amazing stories that we have, the service, [and] how the service works,” he said. Will something like that happen in the U.S.? “We’re going to try that in India, and we’ll see how that goes,” he said. The idea is hardly revolutionary, of course: Premium cable networks such as HBO and Showtime have done free weekends for decades, though such deals usually require consumers to be paying cable customers.
➽ Don’t expect older Netflix shows to start popping up on other streamers or linear networks. Pluto’s recent acquisition of rerun rights to Narcos has prompted another wave of speculation about whether Netflix might start syndicating its shows outside its own platform, either to raise some cash or to raise awareness of lesser-watched shows. But Sarandos Tuesday all but put the kibosh on the idea. “It’s helpful for us to keep our original content on Netflix so people understand the value proposition of Netflix,” he said. “And [while] we have seen our ability to grow a show that was on another network or a smaller outlet pretty meaningfully, we’ve not necessarily seen it the other way around.” Indeed, Sarandos noted the only reason Narcos is on Pluto is because rights to the show are owned by indie studio Gaumont and not Netflix, a situation that exists on some older series (such as BoJack Horseman or Orange Is the New Black) but is much rarer with more recent ones. Netflix and Gaumont had previously licensed a run of Narcos to Univision in order to boost sampling on Netflix; similarly, Comedy Central bought rerun rights to BoJack Horseman a few years ago. “It’ll be interesting to see if [the Pluto deal] lifts the awareness and interest in Narcos, but it’s on a relatively small platform relative to Netflix,” Sarandos said.
➽ Peters was asked about how much viewing of shows happens because Netflix pushes audiences to sample shows via placement on its home pages, and his answer was: a lot! “A very significant majority is driven by the recommendations that we present,” Peters said. But while producers and outside studios clearly pray for Netflix to give their programs blanket promotion on the platform — and Netflix no doubt does promote some titles more widely than others — the streamer remains careful about what it recommends to subscribers. Rather than just pushing Hubie Halloween or Away to every customer in America, it still tries to customize a user’s experience based on past viewing. “We’ve realized there are no gimmicks,” Hastings said. “You can juice a given title if you wanted to, but you’re going to pay for it downstream because not everybody got the best title for them … The fundamental for us is member joy, which we look at [as], how much of your viewing time do you choose to spend with Netflix, how many repeat days, what’s retention, all of those aspects. So we’re really focused on the fundamentals … That’s how we grow.”
➽ It’s not just your imagination: There really are fewer old movies and TV shows on Netflix. Sarandos admits that the overall content offering of the service is “significantly lower than it was when we first started streaming,” even as the number of first-run originals has soared. “In the earlier days of Netflix, remember, we were trying to figure out what we could stream,” Sarandos said. “And we were licensing in bulk and volume — just a lot of content just to see what worked well versus today, where we’re much more deliberate. We really don’t focus that much on the title count … Ten years ago, we used to license an entire library of 800 films from somebody and nobody watched any of them.” Now the streamer’s strategy is to concentrate “on the titles that have a lot of impact and can aggregate big audiences and move the business forward and add a lot of value for our members,” Sarandos explained. “It’s really not a chase for how many titles, but are these the titles you can’t live without.”
➽ AT&T announced its third quarter earnings this morning, which means we got another update on how HBO Max is performing. The good news for the company is that many more people who have free access to Max via existing HBO subscriptions checked out the streamer over the summer: 8.6 million customers have now activated their Max accounts, more than doubling the 4.1 million who’d accessed the service by the end of June. The combined number of HBO and HBO Max subscribers also grew to just over 38 million, which is 2 million more than the 36 million AT&T had set as its year-end target for the service. Overall, the number of people paying for some form of HBO has grown about 10 percent since January, the company said. But AT&T’s upbeat assessment of those numbers glosses over the obvious challenges for HBO Max: Less than a third of the 28 million customers theoretically eligible to get Max have signed into the service during its first four months. It hasn’t helped that AT&T has yet to reach agreements with Roku and Amazon’s Fire TV unit to make Max available on those platforms. What’s more, AT&T says nearly 10 million of its combined HBO/HBO Max base is also still ineligible to get the service, mostly likely due to lack of agreement with cable partners. None of this is a disaster, particularly given Max has yet to roll out much first-run scripted series programming yet due to COVID delays. But at some point, AT&T is going to want to see more than just slow, incremental growth. New HBO Max boss Casey Bloys has his work cut out for him.
➽ Another week, another reorganization: The latest TV biz shuffling is over at ViacomCBS’s streaming division. Marc DeBevoise, the longtime head of the Eye’s digital division — home of CBS All Access — has been pushed out. His replacement: Tom Ryan, the CEO of ViacomCBS ad-supported streamer Pluto. Ryan will continue to oversee Pluto but will now take charge of the transformation of All Access into Paramount+. (Got all that?) DeBevoise was very well liked within the larger CBS family, and his exit could well lead to other departures at All Access (though, to be clear, I’ve heard of none in the works). But the move seems pretty logical to me. Pluto and Paramount+ are going to need to work together as seamlessly as possible, much the way Disney+ and Hulu are (trying) to do now. Ryan isn’t a veteran of either CBS or Viacom, and he brings a start-up mentality to the ViacomCBS streaming business. (Pluto operated as an independent company under Ryan before Viacom snapped it up early last year.) Most analysts consider ViacomCBS to be something of an underdog in the streaming wars, given the resources Disney and WarnerMedia have already poured into the space. Ryan’s job is to prove those doubters wrong.
➽ A Lacey Rose cover story for THR is almost always a must-read, but when the subject is Shonda Rhimes, it’s a “drop everything and read right now” must-read. I am still gobsmacked by the revelation that Disney-owned ABC lost its most profitable showrunner because an exec didn’t want to get Rhimes an extra Disneyland pass. But while not as newsy, I also loved that Rose got Rhimes to respond to the Netflix exec exodus covered earlier in this week’s newsletter. “The reason I came to Netflix is because I wanted to be able to make television without anybody bothering me,” Rhimes told Rose. “And as long as I get to keep making television without anybody bothering me, I’m happy.” If you haven’t already, read the whole juicy thing here.