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The Quibi and BBC Four Mysteries

18 May 2020  |  Stephen Arnell 
The Quibi and BBC Four Mysteries

There were two important media news stories over the last week or so, both with a pandemic connection, as is everything nowadays.

The first is the somewhat predictable failure of billionaire Jeffrey Katzenberg’s new mobile streaming service Quibi.

Many media commentators and industry experts had their reservations about the likely success of Quibi and expressed them well before launch.

Back in November 2018 a Thinkbox report stated (my emphasis):

'Online content is key to distraction. Short sessions (averaging 2-15 minutes) dominate and platforms are selected based on viewing context and time available.

'Short videos – generally under 5 minutes in duration – are actively selected based on the tastes and interest of the user rather than the passive serving of content. Humour, short TV, film or sports highlights, games and music dominate this need state.'

Still, you’d think that lockdown would be the ideal time for the launch of Quibi – y’know, when there’s nothing to do and Netflix and other streamers are gaining record levels of subscribers.

A platform offering new content from internationally known off and on screen talent would be a shoo-in, surely?

Nope. Two thirds of users have left after the free 90-day trial and legal problems with Quibi’s use of Eko’s Turnstyle tech are clouding the horizon.

Katzenberg’s response:

“I attribute everything that has gone wrong to coronavirus. Everything.”

In these straightened times we all need a laugh, and as along as staff and creditors are paid, it’s tempting to indulge in schadenfreude at the performance of the service, of which film producer Keith Calder noted on Twitter:

"Quibi made the biggest mistake in film/tv, and it’s a surprise given how successful the founders are. It’s ALWAYS better to be the top priority project for upcoming talent than the lowest priority project for big established talent. A huge strategic creative development error."

Of far more importance to me as a viewer is the rumoured shuttering of BBC Four at the end of this year.

Prompted by the curious departure of BBC Four boss Cassian Harrison to take a nine-month attachment at BBC Studios, this story has all the hallmarks of the BBC’s occasionally remarked inability to organise a piss-up in a brewery.

When The Corporation is gaining widespread kudos for its coverage of the pandemic and iPlayer levels are going through the roof, what better to time to antagonise the BBC’s staunchest supporters, i.e. the middle class viewers who happily pay the licence fee?

Well the answer to that would be not to goad them in the first place, but to do this in the midst of a pandemic when more people are tuning into BBC Four, it appears to be particularly ill-judged.

But, playing Devil’s Advocate, there is a scenario that this may be a good thing.

If BBC Four programming is folded back (as has been suggested) into BBC Two, there may be no need for the fourth channel.
As long as BBC Two brains up from its current incarnation, which is really neither fish nor fowl.

Reverting back to ‘BBC Two Classic’ (the channel up to around 2000) rather than the BBC One poaching ground of recent years (Line of Duty, Peaky Blinders, Sewing Bee etc) could actually be a win-win for viewers, given the much higher BBC Two budget (approx. £381m vs £44m for BBC Four).

But... I’d miss BBC Four, as, over the years, it has built a well-deserved reputation for expert programme curation and experimentation, with a pleasingly adult attitude to viewers.

Excepting, of course, presenter Lucy Worsley’s fetish for historical cosplay.

Stephen Arnell is a broadcast consultant

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22 May 2020 

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