The race for the next great video format

There are countless examples of digital video genres that shouldn’t work. The popularity of unboxing videos took many people by surprise. After all, who would willingly watch a stranger open a box of toys or make up for minutes on end? Even with the depth of some parasocial relationships, who could have predicted the popularity of mukbang, or social eating, on livestreaming sites? For that matter, who would have foreseen the rise of video game streaming, and the millionaires created off the back of that hobby?

But as much as the content of some videos has shocked more traditional media companies, the actual video formats themselves have also seen some experimentation. YouTube, for instance, with the might of Google behind it, has been everything from a shortform UGC platform to a VOD service. Meanwhile Twitch, Mixer and other competitors have been at the forefront of integrating viewers’ live comments into the broadcast, and TikTok and the late lamented Vine have demonstrated the viability of shortform video content.

So, even with the aftermath of the great Facebook video metric scandal still ringing in our ears (see the recent sale of Unruly) we’re all still keenly aware that audiences are consuming more video. Consequently, the race is on to stay head of the tech trends that will change how they choose to view that video. 

New formats

A few years ago I was shown an example of ‘circular video’ at a tech conference; in which video was recorded using a circular aspect ratio, so that no matter which way a phone was rotated the centre of the video would remain in full view. It was a nice gimmick, if a little explicitly marketed at millennials, and has since appeared practically nowhere. It was a gimmick too far for the time.

Upwardly mobile

So it’s surprising that Quibi, the new mobile-focused streaming service from former Disney boss Jeffrey Katzenberg and CEO of HP and eBay Meg Whitman, appears to be built of nothing but gimmicks. The most prominent trick is similar to the circular video example; when you change from portrait to landscape mode, what you’re actually seeing changes. It might go from a wide shot of the actors talking to a close-up of their face. It’s effectively two different shots tied to a single soundtrack that you can flip together at any time.

Gizmodo’s Alex Cranz explains: “Director Zach Wechter said he was eager to experiment with the platform, and in his short Nest, the landscape version of the film is a traditional horror film about a woman being stalked in her own home and watching the intruder through her Nest cameras. But turn the phone to portrait mode and instead you have a view of her phone. So you see the grainy Nest cam footage or watch as she jumps out of the app and opens Facetime to call her dad in terror.”

That’s a fun gimmick in its own right, one clearly taking advantage of the rise in mobile video. However, the service will also include other gimmicks like only allowing you to watch shows at certain times of the day – such as only watching horror once the sun has set – and each show being only 10 minutes long.

What’s unclear is whether Quibi (short for ‘quick bites’, hence the short length of the shows) will be able to attract enough attention and carve out enough of a foothold in the streaming market, even with all those gimmicks. With all the talk of ‘subscription fatigue’, asking $5 per month for an ad-supported version and nearly twice as much for an ad-free version is a big ask, particularly considering its core Turnstyle tech is difficult to demonstrate. As we’ve written about before, the most likely guarantee of a streaming service’s success is the exclusive content it signs up, not a gimmick or functionality.

Luckily for Quibi, the connections of its founders have allowed them to sign up some fantastic content. Per The Verge, “Quibi’s already made big-name deals for this top tier of programming. Zac Efron, Idris Elba, Kristen Bell, Chrissy Teigen, Kendall Jenner, Tyra Banks, Steph Curry, 50 Cent, and Avengers: Endgame directors Anthony and Joe Russo all have original Quibi series in the works.”

Quibi’s bet, then, is to zig where others are zagging. Instead of relying on the tried-and-trusted method of creating or licensing longform content for traditional televisions and screens, it’s trying something that could only work on mobile devices. It worked for Nintendo and the Wii back in 2006, but it remains to be seen whether customers have the appetite for a mobile-only subscription service.

Chris Sutcliffe

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Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work across the media, information, technology, communications and entertainment sectors, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.