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Haiku TV: is Jeffrey Katzenberg’s star-studded short-form streaming service the future of entertainment? 

Quibi collaborators Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg
Quibi collaborators Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg Credit: FilmMagic

You subscribed to Sky. You binged everything on Netflix. You’ve watched a sad transsexual comedy that was specifically made to increase your likelihood of purchasing items from one specific online retailer on Amazon Prime. And now the next stage of television evolution is upon us, in the form of Quibi.

Despite sounding like the noise you make when you wobble your fingers between your lips, Quibi is currently the talk of the television industry thanks to its huge-name signings and focus on short-form entertainment.

The biggest Quibi participant so far is Steven Spielberg, who has been writing a mobile-only horror series that can only be viewed once your phone has confirmed that the sun has gone down. But there are plenty of others lining up right behind him. Sam Raimi, Guillermo del Toro, Veena Sud, Steven Soderbergh and Paul Feig have all signed up as producers.

This influx of A-list talent can only really mean one of two things. Either Quibi is going to be such an overwhelmingly revolutionary game-changer that the most important filmmakers in the world are lining up to get in on the ground floor, or they’ve all realised that Quibi is run by Jeffrey Katzenberg and they know that they’d all junk their careers by turning him down.

Now, it’s hard to say which of these is true, given that nobody has seen any of these Quibi projects yet. However, it’s the second one. It’s definitely the second one. It has to be, right? Listening to these creators discuss Quibi’s potential is genuinely distressing. Sud, the creator of US version of The Killing, has already described her project in the making as a “haiku”, and if that doesn’t strike true fear into your heart then you’re a braver person than I.

Because, look, most normal people have an upper limit on how many platforms they’re prepared to subscribe to. Right now, for instance, I pay for Netflix, Amazon and Now TV. But next year there’s going to be a Disney platform, and it’ll host a number of original Avengers TV shows, and the threat seems to be that Marvel movies will simply stop making sense if you don’t subscribe and watch them all. And YouTube has started charging for original content. And then there’s Britbox, and god knows what else.

So, faced with all these platforms chipping away at your disposable income every month, the prospect of signing up for a mobile-only service that offers nothing but hit-or-miss experimental guff doesn’t exactly sound very appealing. And the day that anyone initiates a morning-after watercooler chat with “Did you see Veena Sud’s visual haiku on Quibi last night?” is quite frankly the day that I build a rocketship out of tincans and blast off for the freezing solitude of space.

But maybe – just maybe – I’m wrong. After all, Quibi (it’s actually short for “quick bites”) is no slouch in financial terms. As well as attracting all this big-name talent, which if nothing else signals that it isn’t mucking around, the platform has so far raised a billion dollars from investors. Clearly, its eyes set on nothing but a complete rewrite of how we consume entertainment.

Will Forte and Tim Robinson in Netflix's short-form comedy I Think You Should Leave Credit: Netflix

Katzenberg himself calls Quibi the “third generation of film narrative”, which is an overblown way of saying that all its shows will be quite short. Nevertheless, everything will be designed for mobile. Episodes – Katzenberg calls them “chapters”, because of course he does – will only 7 to 10 minutes long, allowing users to snack on them during the day.

And this is a good thing, because it generally tracks with how the industry is going. After years and years of doling out flabby, go-nowhere seasons of self-consciously prestige drama comprising of 13 meandering hour-long episodes, Netflix has finally discovered the benefit of cutting things down to the quick.

Its sketch show I Think You Should Leave, for example, will almost definitely go down as one of the best shows of the year, and that’s partly down to how brief it is. There are just eight episodes, running at a little over 15 minutes each, and as such there’s almost no filler whatsoever. It’s a concentrated, bulletproof way of delivering comedy, and the whole thing is magnificent.

If Quibi can make the next I Think You Should Leave, its success will be all but guaranteed. But then again, maybe it doesn’t need to. Right now, its commissioning strategy seems to involve just flinging any old idea at the wall to see what sticks. From a purely statistical point of view, one of these shows has to work. And if it does, it might change the way that television is made forever.

Guillermo del Toro and Doug Jones on the set of The Shape of Water

Spielberg’s show in particular sounds fascinating, because it deliberately uses your phone’s capabilities to restrict your access to it. Perhaps, if waiting until nighttime to watch a show catches the public imagination, other creators will want to try similar things. Maybe next there’ll be a show that you can only watch at a certain altitude, or at a certain angle, or when you’re tweeting. Or maybe Guillermo del Toro’s show will unlock the potential of mobile viewing in yet another unforeseen way.

Katzenberg has also been keen to mention users aged between 25-35 as many times as possible; and for good reason. That’s an audience young enough to welcome change but old enough to demand quality and be willing to pay for it (Quibi starts at $4.99 a month, for 125 “pieces of content” per week). By focusing on this demographic, he seems to be drawing a line between Quibi and the army of irritating vloggers who clog up most of the adolescent internet.

Quibi as a platform might sound horrible – seriously, even saying the name out loud makes me lose the will to live a little – but if it works, it could be enormous.

If Katzenberg gets everything right here, if he finds the magic centre between how we already use our phones and the various ways that we could use our phones, then Quibi’s selection of short, grabby, snackable content might be the next big thing. But if he doesn’t, then he’s just spent a billion dollars inventing YouTube.

What is your verdict on new streaming service Quibi, and its big-name directors - and do you think it will catch-on? Tell us in the comments below