Quibi dies a final death as Roku kills many of its shows
Welcome to Lowpass, a newsletter about the future of entertainment and the next big hardware platforms, including smart TVs, ambient computing and AR / VR. This week: Roku gets rid of many Quibi shows, and an Amazon exec drops a truth bomb.
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Some Quibi content is on the way out at Roku
Here’s a service I didn’t think I would have to write about anymore in 2023: Quibi has been dead for three years now, but much of its content has lived on as “Roku Originals” on the streamer’s ad-supported Roku Channel – until now, that is.
This week, Roku announced that it would lay off another 10% of its staff, and remove “select existing licensed and produced content” from its Roku Channel streaming service to cut costs, resulting in an impairment charge of up to $65 million. Roku didn’t detail which titles it is removing, but I discovered that many of the titles the company had gotten its hands on as part of its Quibi content acquisition in early 2021 are already gone.
Some of the titles missing from Roku’s streaming catalog include a “Reno 911” reboot dubbed “Reno 911 Defunded,” “Dummy” featuring Anna Kendrick, “Memory Hole” starring Will Arnett, the horror show “50 States of Fright,” the “Gayme” show, Joe Jonas’ travel show “Cup of Joe,” high school basketball documentary “Benedict Men,” “Gone Mental with Lior” and “Elba vs. Block” starring Idris Elba.
Some other ex-Quibi titles remain on the Roku Channel, including “Die Hart,” which recently got renewed for a third season.
The removal of some of these titles isn’t surprising. Quibi may have been a $1.75 billion company, but when all was said and done, its content wasn’t worth all that much. Roku spent less than $100 million on Quibi’s shows; the company did make some additional investments into producing additional seasons for a few of those shows, including some that it now killed.
Quibi shows were always a bit of an odd match for Roku. Katzenberg’s streaming service was all about mobile, short-form viewing, with each episode lasting just 10 minutes or less.
Roku’s original shows have been available through its mobile app as well, but the company’s bread and butter is arguably big-screen viewing.
The transition from the small screen to the big screen also meant that Roku disregarded one of Quibi’s most elaborate innovations: The company had developed a way to watch its shows full-screen on phones held both vertically and horizontally through something it called Turnstyle. Basically, Quibi shows were shot and / or cut for two screen orientations, and turning the screen would instantly switch from one cut to the other.
Quibi’s marquee title for Turnstyle was “Wireless,” a thriller that allowed viewers to switch back and forth between the perspectives of multiple protagonists simply by turning their phone.
Being focused on TV viewing, Roku never implemented Turnstyle, and instead defaulted to the “horizontal” cut of each show. And as if to prove a point, the company has now removed “Wireless” from the Roku Channel.
Another problem with Quibi’s shows was that they were produced very much with an appointment-viewing mindset. Armed with his $1.75 billion war chest, Jeffrey Katzenberg went out to get some of Hollywood’s biggest stars for shows that were meant to be released episode by episode, and carried by the big names attached to them.
Roku on the other hand released entire seasons of these shows at once, hoping that viewers would burn through six or eight 10-minute episodes in one sitting.
However, it turns out that Joe Jonas drinking coffee in different cities around the globe doesn’t actually make for great and binge-worthy television.
The great content write-off of 2023 reaches AVOD. Roku isn’t the only streaming company removing shows from its catalog as a cost-cutting measure. WarnerBros. Discovery removed a bunch of shows from Max, and even killed unreleased projects, including the completed “Batgirl” movie, as a way to write down expenses and reduce its tax burden.
Disney followed in Warner’s footsteps this year by taking a $1.5 billion impairment charge after removing dozens of shows from Disney+.
However, up until now, it’s been primarily subscription services that have resorted to these kinds of write-offs. With Roku’s announcement, it’s becoming clear that ad-supported video services aren’t immune.
Ad-supported streamers have traditionally been more conservative in their spending on originals, but growing competition has led some of them to strike exclusive licensing deals, or even buy shows and movies outright.
Remember that there was even talk of Roku potentially acquiring a studio not too long ago? Good times!
Ad-supported originals may have been a good strategy when money was cheap and ad dollars were plenty. Now, with interest rates high and the ad market still in flux, many in the industry are rethinking their content plans.
And it’s not just Roku: Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment, which was on an acquisition spree not too long ago, just announced that it is “unwinding ‘millions of dollars’ in content deals,” according to the Hollywood Reporter.
What’s next for ad-supported video. There are good reasons for creatives and fans to be mad at big studios for killing movies, or removing entire seasons of fan favorite shows, just to do a bit of accounting black magic. But if we’re honest, there won’t be many people missing Quibi’s shows, or some of the other ad-supported originals that Roku and others are likely going to kill over the next couple of months.
Originals were a way for ad-supported streaming services to stand apart from the pack, and grow their catalog while studios kept most of their crown jewels for their own paid services.
With the accelerating erosion of the pay TV business, more and more shows are coming online, and an increasing number of those shows are finding their way to ad-supported services.
Many of those shows technically aren’t exclusive to any single service. But if you’re Samsung, Roku or LG, chances are that the users of your TVs are going to watch “Westworld” on your ad-supported service.
I predict that for the near future, we’re going to see ad-supported services focus a lot more on discovery, ad optimization and user acquisition than on originals.
Until interest rates come down, that is. Because, let’s face it: Once money is cheap again, some executive is inevitably going to suggest spending huge sums to get a big-name singer, comedian or actor to … just drink coffee somewhere, I guess.
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Prime Video’s Albert Cheng: Cable TV never stood a chance
How’s this for a pep talk: Prime Video US head Albert Cheng took to LinkedIn this week to declare that the pay TV genie is out of the bottle.
“There was the assumption - a wrong one - at traditional media companies that this generation would eventually subscribe to cable TV for its value when they ‘grew up’, started families, etc,” Cheng wrote. “I never thought that to be true.”
That’s perhaps not too surprising, coming from an executive whose company has been benefitting from the erosion of the traditional TV business, be it via Prime subscription income, revenue from paid standalone “channels” or the company’s ad-supported Freevee service.
However, Cheng isn’t exactly a TV industry outsider. Before joining Amazon, he worked for over a decade for Disney, where his jobs included overseeing the development of TV Everywhere and other digital products for ESPN, the Disney channel and other cable properties. He also sat on the board of Lifetime Networks, and at one point helped Fox with FX Networks.
In other words: He knows cable, and he realized its weaknesses early on — which is how he arrived at this conclusion:
“Linear TV never stood a chance against generational change, no matter what pricing or packaging changes are made.”
Some YouTube staffers apparently don’t like YouTube Shorts. Senior staff has reportedly voiced concerns that the service’s focus on Shorts could endanger longer-form videos. Then again, maybe it will actually be a good thing if all those folks who currently make videos with overly aggressive thumbnails switch to Shorts?
Lionel Messi is working for Apple TV+. The soccer legend is driving a surge in subscriptions, both for the MLS Season pass and Apple TV+ itself.
Meta may team up with LG for a new Quest Pro. The two companies are reportedly looking to debut a new high-end headset in 2025.
Apple’s Vision Pro is getting the App Store this fall. iPhone and iPad apps will be published to the Vision Pro App Store by default, which is pretty much the exact opposite of what Meta has been doing with its Quest store.
UK’s Channel 4 is coming to the US. The British broadcaster is launching a bunch of FAST channels on Xumo, Tubi and Plex.
Apple just bought a record label. Sweden’s classical music label BIS will help the company to build out the catalog of its Apple Music Classical app.
The second-gen Sonos Move has a 24-hour battery. The new $449 speaker also comes with stereo sound and line-in support, among other things.
Comcast, Disney to hash out Hulu’s future. Talks regarding Comcast’s Hulu stake will start before the end of the month, according to CNBC.
I used to be a big fan of Twitter bots that regularly surface random content, including gems like the Random Restaurant Bot, Bird per Hour and all of those “no context” bots based on popular TV shows.
Then Elon Musk bought Twitter and broke its APIs, making it much more challenging for bot operators. Plus, who wants to go to a Nazi bar just to see some birds?
The good news is that a lot of the bot operators have since migrated to Mastodon. One of my latest obsessions: The German Fernsehen bot, which posts random screenshots from German TV networks 24/7. A few of these screenshots come with closed captions, but honestly, you don’t miss much. Plus, some if this is truly universal …
Thanks for reading, have a great weekend!