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Coronavirus quarantine may inadvertently boost audiences for new streaming services

Akron Beacon Journal logo Akron Beacon Journal 4/5/2020 George M. Thomas
a man standing in front of a window: LeBron James speaks at the opening ceremony for the I Promise School in Akron on July 30, 2018. The I Promise School has its first year chronicled in the Quibi series “I Promise.” [Phil Long/Associated Press] © Provided by Akron Beacon Journal LeBron James speaks at the opening ceremony for the I Promise School in Akron on July 30, 2018. The I Promise School has its first year chronicled in the Quibi series “I Promise.” [Phil Long/Associated Press]

Amid the backdrop of stay-at-home orders due to the coronavirus, three competitors will step into the streaming wars in the coming weeks and months with the latest debuting Monday – on smartphones only.

Quibi (short for "quick bites"), a service developed by Jeffery Katzenberg, a founder of DreamWorks Studios, and Meg Whitman, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, makes a $1.1 billion bet that those youthful faces constantly staring into the glare of their phones will want to watch documentaries, movies and reality shows 4-10 minutes at a time and on a daily basis.

To ensure it gets the proper blast off, it's partnered with filmmakers that include Steven Spielberg (the horror themed show "After Dark"), Kiefer Sutherland (a reimagining of "The Fugitive") and Akron's own LeBron James for "I Promise," a documentary looking in at the first year of the school for at-risk students that he established. Others involved include comedian Kevin Hart and Sophie Turner ("Game of Thrones").

Given the platform chosen and the length of the programming involved, it's not a stretch to view Quibi, which will cost $5 a month with ads and $8 without, as a curiosity.

"I don't see it as a major risk. We live in a non-traditional world of cross-platform media and fragmentation," said T.K. Gore, director of business development at Comscore, a media analytics firm. "People are watching so much content on their smartphones today via Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, YouTube and Twitch as well as social media platforms in Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and TikTok.

a person sitting in a living room: Jeffrey Katzenberg, left, and Meg Whitman pose at their startup Quibi, a digital studio creating bite-sized shows for millennials, in Los Angeles, Calif., on July 23, 2019. [Christina House/Los Angeles Times/TNS] © Provided by Akron Beacon Journal Jeffrey Katzenberg, left, and Meg Whitman pose at their startup Quibi, a digital studio creating bite-sized shows for millennials, in Los Angeles, Calif., on July 23, 2019. [Christina House/Los Angeles Times/TNS]

"Our smartphone is a personal and customized device — for many, it's the device that they turn to — and one that we enjoy streaming content on whether it's inside our homes or on-the-go."

Kim Owczarski, associate professor of film, television and digital media at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, is more skeptical of Quibi's prospects.

"I think the fact that they're using bigger talent might help, but honestly I think most people, if they're watching stuff on their phone, they're going to watch Netflix. You can download things from Netflix," she said.

"If you have 20 minutes to spare, why wouldn't you watch the show that you've been watching ... it's a very odd choice from my standing."

The difference may be in Katzenberg's stated target audience of Gen Z and younger millennials (ages 25 to 35) and the perceived willingness to use their phones as their primary source to consume entertainment.

Jim Parsons et al. sitting at a table: “The Big Bang Theory” is one of many shows that will find a home on the new streaming service HBO Max, which is set to debut in May. [Chuck Lorre Productions] © Provided by Akron Beacon Journal “The Big Bang Theory” is one of many shows that will find a home on the new streaming service HBO Max, which is set to debut in May. [Chuck Lorre Productions]

Still Quibi won't be the only new kid on the block in the coming weeks, as AT&T is set to unveil HBO on steroids – HBO Max (May debut for $15 a month) with more than 10,000 hours of programming. Then, NBCUniversal will launch Peacock (July 15 to the general public, while some customers will receive early access at a cost of $5 with ads, $10 without) with a library of 7,500 hours of entertainment for the basic service and 15,000 for the premium tier.

Mario Lopez et al. posing for the camera: A reboot of “Saved by the Bell” will find a home on Peacock, NBCUniversal’s entry into the streaming wars July 15. [Courtesy of NBC] © None A reboot of “Saved by the Bell” will find a home on Peacock, NBCUniversal’s entry into the streaming wars July 15. [Courtesy of NBC]

In other words, the field will get even more crowded given the number of players already on it.

In the current state of the nation, a crowded field may not matter as approximately two-thirds of the country remains under stay-at-home orders, and given the closure of restaurants, movie theaters and bars there isn't much to do other than get out for a walk in the neighborhood.

Streaming is up globally and, in the Americas, almost drastically, according to a new report by Conviva, a media analytics firm.

For the month of March, streaming climbed by 27 percent, a fact Conviva CEO Bill Demas attributes to people staying at home. In one respect, those services that have established a foothold already and the newcomers can take advantage of the circumstances the pandemic dictates.

"This is a very unique time given the unprecedented nature of the Covid-19 pandemic," Gore said. "Given everyone in the U.S. is staying home to shelter, stay healthy and flatten the curve, people are seeking more news to stay informed and educated as well as more viewing entertainment.

"There is a desire to find and discover new, fresh content therefore this will present an opportunity for new streaming services to get more eyeballs and sample new content."

Demas said for all the services, old and new, quality content will ultimately decide their fate, but he's also realistic in his assessment.

"I think they're going to get more eyeballs potentially because ... the quarantine, if you will, is going to be lasting certainly through May from everything I'm seeing," he said. "Their timing, again, nobody wants to take advantage of a tragedy, which this is, but their timing seems like it's certainly not bad."

George M. Thomas dabbles in movies and television for the Beacon Journal. Reach him at gthomas@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @ByGeorgeThomas

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