During quarantine, streaming media represent our best chance of getting a glimpse of the outside world. You can find the latest statistics – infections, deaths, layoffs – through the news or on Twitter but, for narratives that take place further than 100 square feet away, many of us are still turning to that old standby, television. Non-essential workers have two principal choices to exert agency over their surroundings during lockdown: what to eat and what to watch on a screen.
Maybe we’re lucky that lockdown has come in the midst of a global content gold rush. As cable television continues to crumble, various streaming platforms compete for the eyeballs and mental space of as many viewers as possible. It’s not just Amazon Prime, HBO, Hulu and Netflix, with their cinematic miniseries and prestige shows funded by sprawling international collaborations. It’s streaming video games on Twitch, watching Instagram stories and mainlining TikTok videos. These algorithmic feeds recall how David Foster Wallace described ‘the Entertainment’, the mysterious missing videotape at the centre of Infinite Jest (1996): ‘terminally compelling’.
Into the arena has stepped a streaming service called Quibi, which launched on 6 April in the middle of quarantine. Quibi (pronounced kwi-bee) is short for ‘quick bites’: an ungainly phrase based on the notion that we’re primed to consume pieces of video around six to eight minutes long on our phones. The startup is a kind of entertainment conglomerate, with investment from studios including NBCUniversal, Sony Pictures, The Walt Disney Company and WarnerMedia. It raised US$1.75 billion before launching and costs consumers US$5 a month or US$8 without ads. In other words, the establishment has banded together to attempt to fight off the Netflixes and TikToks of the world with streaming of its own, deploying its chief assets in the form of celebrity actors and high production values. It’s television – for your phone.
At first glance, the timing seems perfect: content to fill the void. Downloading and opening the app recently, I felt vaguely optimistic. Maybe this new format would actually give me something to focus on, structural novelty outweighing the ennui of yet more video. Yet, the unfortunate experience of these quick bites is like the worst of daytime television chopped up into bits and served between even more commercials. The platform has fundamentally misunderstood what makes the internet appealing. Or maybe it even overestimated our shattered attention spans. Consuming six minutes of Quibi feels like an eternity.
The app presents itself like all streaming television. You pick a show to watch because you like the title or the thumbnail or the stars in it. The debut lineup is presented in a wash of topics and subjects so that scrolling through it feels like channel-flipping: documentary travel show, nostalgic reboot, police procedural. It’s familiar, even rote. I watched a rehash of the prank show Punk’d starring Chance the Rapper and Useless Celebrity History, a summary hosted by the figure skater Adam Rippon.
The non-reality content is more deeply horrifying, an uncanny valley of 21st-century media. The polished actors and high-definition camerawork make everything look like a cable sitcom, but designed for mobile viewing. The major aesthetic innovation is that you can watch anything in portrait mode or landscape, depending on how you’re holding your phone. It’s all shot and edited for both, but because of the variability it feels like neither is optimized. The stasis is clearly visible in Flipped, a satire of home-renovation shows, which mostly has the camera facing its two stars in a flat field, straight-on.
If Netflix deploys user data to drive its decision making, offering up optimized reality shows and perfectly tuned topical dramas, it’s harder to fathom the logic behind Quibi’s programming. Did anyone want to watch six minutes at a time of Anna Kendrick interacting with a talking sex doll (Dummy)? Or a mumblecore show about two pool cleaners competing to date their coworker (Agua Donkey)? Unsurprisingly, the company expects to lose over US$500 million in its first year.
Quibi’s ads, the principal business model, only serve to remind viewers of their current purgatory. Bud Light, Walmart, Pepsi, Google and Taco Bell all apparently want us to have enjoyable, safe quarantines. The brands are still here for us; in fact, it often feels that it is brands that the service is meant for. The ads are the pollen that the bright flowers of the high-budget minishows distribute. Our eyes are the busy, busy bees.
The service prompts the question of why we look at our phones in the first place. Particularly during quarantine, social media is just that – social. It’s a real-time connection to other minds, other lives being lived, action and change that we lack. Instagram is compelling not because its content is expensively produced but because it’s user-generated by people who either are literally or aspirationally our friends. It’s messy, haphazard, irregular and improvised – everything Quibi isn’t. We now rely on the internet more than ever for human connection; it’s harder to relate to Quibi’s glossy inhumanity, a reiteration of the mass media that social networks disrupted in the first place.
Main Image: Courtesy: Quibi