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Quibi’s failure is a bad omen for T-Mobile’s video plans

The mobile carrier once heralded Quibi as "the next big thing" — and hasn't had much luck with other video initiatives, either.

Quibi CEO Meg Whitman and T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert

Better days: T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert joined Quibi CEO Meg Whitman on stage at CES this year.

Photo: Janko Roettgers/Protocol

Quibi's shutdown announcement this week has been widely panned as the inevitable end of a service that never made much sense to begin with, much less during the pandemic. However, the company's demise is also a notable failure for T-Mobile, which was one of Quibi's biggest boosters, and even footed the bill for some of its customers as part of a "Quibi on Us" promotion.

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"Quibi has been a strong partner with a unique mobile-first vision, and we're sorry to hear they will be winding down operations," a spokesperson told Protocol on Thursday. "Obviously, we will continue to monitor and ensure our customers with Quibi on Us are supported during this period and through any next steps needed."

T-Mobile's embrace of Quibi hasn't been the telco's only miscalculation in the media and entertainment space. It also comes just as T-Mobile appears to gear up for another video service announcement next week.

When incoming T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert joined Quibi executives on stage at CES this year, he was full of praise about the mobile video service. "Quibi's the next big thing, and we're delighted to be a part of it," Sievert told a few dozen journalists and industry insiders. Video, Sievert told the crowd, was already responsible for more than half of the data consumption on T-Mobile's network, and 80% of the video viewed by its customers was short-form content from services like YouTube and TikTok.

Quibi critics have long argued that this was essentially an argument against the service: Consumers were already busy watching clips for free, and there was little reason for them to pay for a premium version, walled off from the social networks that have become a daily habit for Quibi's target audience.

Quibi's execs on the other hand contended that the typical YouTube and TikTok fare wasn't good enough, and that a combination of recognized talent and big budgets would be able to win over millions of viewers. Millions that Sievers promised to deliver through a bundled partnership, complete with in-store promotions. "We're gonna go big," he said. "We're gonna bring it to our 68 million customers."

Financial details of the partnership were never disclosed. However, it's safe to say that T-Mobile did not deliver 68 million customers to Quibi. That's in part because the promotion, which promised T-Mobile customers free access to Qubi's $4.99 subscription tier, was only available to a subset of consumers who had two or more lines with the carrier. Consumers also had to seek out the deal and activate it through T-Mobile's app, adding further friction.

The telco's Quibi partnership was modeled after its promotional deal with Netflix, which first launched in 2017. Back then, the team-up was widely seen as disruptive, as it promised eligible T-Mobile customers free access to Netflix's HD plan, priced $10 per month at the time.

Things got a little more complicated when Netflix decided to raise its prices in 2019, and T-Mobile wasn't willing to cough up the difference. Since then, the carrier's "Netflix on Us" promotion features a hodge-podge of different plans and options, including a free standard-definition tier, and an option to pay $2 out of pocket to stream in HD.

T-Mobile's most puzzling foray into media to date has been its late 2017 acquisition of Layer 3, a small pay TV service that set out to reinvent the cable experience without changing the industry's core business model. T-Mobile shelled out $325 million for Layer 3, which at the time had just 5,000 paying customers.

The company has since rebranded Layer 3's service as TVision, a TV service that delivers a cable-like bundle starting at $100 a month plus taxes. In many ways, it's a very Quibi-like product-market-fit: Consumers have been ditching pay TV by the millions, and replaced expensive bundles with much more affordable combinations of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime. But T-Mobile chose to ignore those signs, and instead simply built a slightly-better-looking interface for its still very expensive service.

"TVision is #Undisruptive," noted Lightshed Partners analyst Walter Piecyk at the time. "Who would buy this?"

Now, T-Mobile is looking to take the next step on its journey to become a media company. On Thursday, the company teased an upcoming TV-themed Uncarrier announcement for next week, complete with a video of a customer, played by Rashida Jones, calling up her cable company to complain about fees, and Sievert quipping: "You know what? It's time."

T-Mobile's next iteration of its TV service is likely going to be based on an Android TV dongle that has surfaced in regulatory filings in recent weeks. There's been no word yet on the pricing of the new service, or the kind of programming it will offer — but if T-Mobile's big bet on Quibi is any indication, the company will have its work cut out to find a proper market fit.
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