Quibi’s Founder Blames Covid-19 for Platform’s Rocky Debut

Debuting during a pandemic was 'regrettable,' says Jeffrey Katzenberg

Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman
Quibi founder Jeffrey Katzenberg (with Meg Whitman) said the service's usage has been much lower than expected. Cannes Lions

A little over a month since the mobile-only short-form streamer Quibi debuted, it’s pushing out a decidedly non-mobile feature: a capability that allows viewers to cast programming onto connected TVs.

The function, which will be available on iOS devices beginning this week, comes amid a rough start for the streaming service, which is seeing far fewer downloads and less overall usage than anticipated. In an interview with the New York Times, Quibi co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg said that rolling out the platform during the Covid-19 pandemic was “regrettable.”

“I attribute everything that has gone wrong to coronavirus,” Katzenberg said in the interview. “Everything. But we own it.”

The New York Times reported that 1.3 million of Quibi’s reported 3.5 million downloads are “active users” of the service. A spokesperson for Quibi did not respond to Adweek’s requests for additional information.

Part of the challenge for Quibi, which debuted April 6, is that it arrived just as the use case executives posited would make the offering popular—on-the-go-viewing while commuting to work or waiting in line for coffee—was made almost entirely irrelevant due to Covid-19, which has prompted lengthy stays at home across the country.

Quibi CEO Meg Whitman has struck a more positive tone than Katzenberg, telling Adweek last month that the service was preparing for “a marathon, not a sprint,” and that users were watching from 6 a.m. through 11 p.m. throughout their days. The company previously said 2.7 million people had downloaded the app. Its first reported figures, 1.7 million in the first week of the service’s availability, were “higher than expected,” the company said last month.

Whether the company was just trying to put a positive spin on those earlier numbers, its position has changed considerably, just a month later. “Is it the avalanche of people that we wanted and were going for out of launch?” Katzenberg told the Times. “The answer is no. It’s not up to what we wanted. It’s not close to what we wanted.”

Katzenberg mentioned one part of Quibi’s content library that has had minimal interest from users: its Daily Essentials lineup of news programming from outlets like NBC, BBC, Telemundo and ESPN. “The Daily Essentials are not that essential,” Katzenberg said.

The company’s fast-tracking of the casting feature, which Adweek previously reported, is just one of several pivots the service has made to account for the pandemic’s widespread effects. The service recently opted to make pilot episodes of several of its star-studded movies-in-chapters available to watch for free on YouTube. It will also make it possible to share content on social media platforms soon, the Times reported.

While Katzenberg said Covid-19 is responsible for “everything” that has gone wrong with Quibi’s rollout, there have been other stumbling blocks even without the pandemic. One of those includes the inability to share Quibi content on social media platforms. “There are a whole bunch of things we have now seen in the product that we thought we got mostly right,” Katzenberg told the Times, “but now that there are hundreds of people on there using it, you go, ‘Uh-oh, we didn’t see that.’”

Quibi also shifted production of daily programming to in-home studios and executed a social and television-heavy marketing plan after glitzy premieres, promotional events and a March Madness sponsorship were put on hold.

“We’ve got to be flexible and on our toes, so that’s what we’re going to do,” Whitman previously told Adweek.

More changes are ongoing: The company has recently begun advertising around specific programs, instead of ads like its Super Bowl spot that focused on the platform’s general premise of short-form programming.

Quibi has raised $1.8 billion in venture funding, and it’s also attracted a slew of big-name advertisers who bought out the service’s first-year advertising inventory, comprised of short, non-skippable pre-roll ads. All of those advertisers are taking advantage of Quibi’s turnstyle feature, which lets viewers on mobile devices watch fullscreen in landscape or portrait orientation. (The interactive video developer Eko filed suit against Quibi for that tech, and the legal battle is ongoing.)

Quibi will begin having conversations about year two advertising in the fall, “if we get back to any kind of economic activity by the mid-end summer,” Whitman previously said.

@kelseymsutton kelsey.sutton@adweek.com Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.