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Quibi placed a Hollywood-style bet but is now 'iterating' like Silicon Valley

The service designed for mobile viewing added AirPlay to its app this week, with Chromecast support coming next.

Tom Conrad

Tom Conrad, chief product officer for Quibi, says of the service's launch and subsequent changes, "This is the life we've chosen. It's a game of risk-taking and iteration, and following the data. We'll put new versions of Quibi out into the world every couple of weeks and iterate our way through this opening chapter."

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

After launching with a singular focus on mobile short-form video, Quibi is starting to change its tune: The service added AirPlay support to its iOS app this week to let subscribers watch its shows on their TVs. Chromecast support is slated to go live next month, Quibi's Chief Product Officer Tom Conrad told Protocol this week.

"We've heard loud and clear from our users that they're, particularly in this environment, interested in being able to cast our shows to their television," Conrad said.

Some of Quibi's novel features don't easily translate to TV screens, but for the company, the addition of living room viewing is not just a technical challenge. It also marks a transition from placing Hollywood-sized bets based largely on gut feelings to a more Silicon Valley-like approach of product iteration, which may be key to the flailing service turning things around.

To say things didn't exactly go as planned for Quibi is an understatement. Helmed by Hollywood veteran Jeffrey Katzenberg and former HP CEO Meg Whitman, Quibi set out to reinvent mobile video with a subscription service focused on bite-sized entertainment. Quibi raised a whopping $1.75 billion, struck deals with major Hollywood stars and produced dozens of shows with episodes of 10 minutes or less that were meant to be viewed in line at Starbucks or during your morning train ride.

But when Quibi launched April 6, all of those scenarios had disappeared from people's lives. "We have spent the last couple of years building a bespoke mobile-video service designed for these in-between and on-the-go moments," Conrad said. "And we launched in this new world where we find ourselves at home."

Quibi's app was installed around 1.5 million times during its launch week, according to estimates from app intelligence specialist Sensor Tower. By last week, the number of new installs had declined to approximately 224,000. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that 1.5 million people had signed up for its 90-day free trial — far shy of the 7 million paying users the company was aiming to reach this year. As a result, some advertisers are looking to renegotiate their deals, according to the Journal.

Katzenberg made headlines this month when he blamed all of Quibi's struggles on COVID-19. Reflecting on the launch from a product perspective, Conrad struck a more upbeat note, saying, "Really, truly, we're exactly where I imagined we might be, six or eight weeks after our launch." He noted that many viewers are using Turnstyle, a Quibi-exclusive feature that allows people to switch between landscape and portrait viewing. "Turnstyle turns out to be like a really shining success point in what we've delivered so far," Conrad said.

Eventually adding ways to watch Quibi content on TVs had always been on the company's roadmap, according to Conrad, but it wasn't exactly top of mind. "We were really focused on getting the mobile use cases right," he said. "The COVID situation has changed the world enough that it's made us revisit some of those decisions."

To quickly add TV support, Quibi had to make some compromises. Turnstyle, for instance, won't be working with AirPlay or Chromecast for the time being. Instead, TV viewers will get to see the landscape cut of a show by default.

That's notable because Quibi didn't just pitch Turnstyle as a screen orientation feature. The company has been encouraging creatives to take advantage of Turnstyle, and other mobile phone features, to enhance storytelling. A reboot of "Reno 911" features a few scenes that use Turnstyle to let viewers switch between different camera angles. A thriller that's scheduled to launch later this year makes extensive use of the feature to augment its plot.

The company was still trying to figure out how to bring those features to the TV screen, Conrad explained. "This is all a learning process for us," he said. "We wanted to get something out there quickly, start to learn, and iterate as feedback comes back." The company was more "philosophy-driven" ahead of its launch, he said. "Post-launch, you have to be customer-driven."

It's no surprise that Quibi took gutsy bets on the future of video. The company is headquartered in Los Angeles, where studios frequently spend hundreds of millions of dollars on movies with hopes that some of them become blockbusters. Quibi is also, by all accounts, very much Katzenberg's idea. In other words: It's a child of Hollywood, not Silicon Valley.

Conrad argued that Quibi had to approach its launch differently than, say, a note-taking app that could have started more modestly, with a minimum viable product. "We launched with 50 shows, which meant that we had to make all of that initial content investment up front," he said.

With its focus on mobile viewing, Qubi didn't want to license cheaper catalog content, and with a huge content budget, it only seemed appropriate to also spend big on marketing — at least until the pandemic. Katzenberg recently told The New York Times that Quibi was dialing back its marketing expenses to weather the downturn.

Now that Quibi is live, it's all about refining that initial bet, Conrad said. "This is the life we've chosen. It's a game of risk-taking and iteration, and following the data. We'll put new versions of Quibi out into the world every couple of weeks, and iterate our way through this opening chapter."

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