Back in 2018, Jeffrey Katzenberg had an idea. Katzenberg is a larger-than-life media guy who has produced some stuff you’ve probably heard of, like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Shrek, Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon, and also the best of these, Oliver & Company, fight me. The man has a good grasp of the entertainment world and he saw how many people were pulling out their phones to watch videos on YouTube and Facebook – and noticed it was a lot more than pulled out their phones to settle it for a night of Netflix.
Katzenberg’s big revelation – “people like to use their phones to watch short videos but not necessary long videos” – is not, like, a stunning discovery. But as a billionaire media mogul, he had the means to turn his revelation into an enterprise. He would create a Netflix for short video, quick bites of content you could consume on your phone in places where sitting down at your smart TV, Roku, console, or PC wasn’t viable. These “quick bites” became Quibi, which launched to much fanfare in 2020 and closed in spectacular disaster in 2020.
A lot of digital ink has already been spilled on the flash in the pan that was Quibi. Much of it centers on the same fundamental question: if you noticed that people often pulled out their phones to watch YouTube and not Netflix, how did you arrive at the conclusion that there had to be a Netflix designed specifically for phones? Was that not, uh, YouTube? And YouTube’s own efforts to monetize a la Netflix have seen mixed results, and many of the site’s popular creators simply went off to create their own successful streaming platform to escape YouTube’s uneven content restrictions. Others have noted that a year before Quibi’s launch, Verizon released analytics that suggested that most people who consume video on their phones keep the sound off because they’re not at home but rather in a public space, like a subway train or a Subway bathroom, where turning on the sound isn’t a great idea. When consumers were both in a place where they wanted to watch video on their phones and have the sound on, YouTube and TikTok are free. Quibi was not.
After all was said and done, Katenzberg turned on the Trolls soundtrack and announced the company would close after squandering nearly $2 billion. Since then, the content has shifted to Roku. Roku’s model is mostly about developing a technology platform you can watch other companies content on, but they do have their own ‘Roku Channel’ in which you can watch other companies content but there are ads, and the ads provide Roku with $1.2 billion in revenue. Given that Roku paid less than $100 million for almost the entire Quibi library, that’s probably going to turn out to be a good deal for them.
As someone with a Roku, I can confirm that opening up the Roku Channel and popping on a Roku Original is a lot easier than caring about Quibi was going to be. The top recommended show in the “Docuseries and Thrillers” category was Murder House Flip.
Just as I’m late to the party on Quibi, so too am I late to the party on Murder House Flip. Collider‘s 2020 piece “‘Murder House Flip’ Review: Guys, Quibi Might Be a Bad Idea” is honestly pretty close to how I felt watching Murder House Flip. The premise of the show is that it’s like an HGTV home makeover type program except all the houses being flipped are homes where gruesome murders took place. It’s almost a brilliant idea, combining true crime and home renovation into a single, surefire, can’t-miss-with-the-key-demo program.
“… what I do know is that I watched three episodes of Murder House Flip, totaling about 17 minutes of my life, and boy did I not feel great afterward. “Vinnie Mancuso for Collider
If you have any sense of human social interaction, you can already see how Murder House Flip is going to be extremely weird. Real human beings were killed in these houses, often in horrific ways. In one episode, the homeowners talk about how hard it is to stand in a certain spot in the house, knowing that’s the spot where a former occupant was found dead. Later, with a new floor and a slight rearranging of the living room furniture, the new owners happily proclaim that they didn’t even remember that a grisly murder took place there! A success!
There’s a strong undercurrent of sociopathy in Murder House Flip, and it only gets worse when you find out that producers called up local police departments and knocked on the doors of homes where murders had happened to see if the occupants wanted to be on a streaming service they’d never heard of.
But watching the show also demonstrates how Quibi was never going to work. To make Murder House Flip work, each house gets three six-minute episodes, or a total of around 18 minutes (compared to 22 minutes, the average runtime of a half-hour show). Episode one introduces you to the house and tells you about the murder plus what the current owners want (spoilers, it’s almost always “please change the murder site to be unrecognizable”). In episode two, it’s a normal renovation show, plus a token effort to mention the murder; in one episode, this includes the discovery of “blood” at the scene of a murder/dismemberment, but the “blood” is never tested beyond a spray of hydrogen peroxide. Then, in episode three, the owner comes home to their newly renovated house and says how nice it is that you won’t be reminded of the tragedy that occurred there.
Only in the third set – episodes 7-9 – did I really think that was the case, because in that episode they so totally renovated the exterior of the house that people seeking it out probably couldn’t find it anymore. Unless they watched Murder House Flip, which documents not only the changes to the house’s exterior but also highlights what the interior of the house looks like.
Even then, the show falls way short. It neither sells the true crime aspect – no one really wants to talk about the murders – nor the home renovation aspect, as it isn’t like there’s anything really wrong with the houses. Some of them are a little dated or have unworkable parts, but the houses are basically fine. What materials should be used? Whatever’s handy, there’s no time to go into that anyway. What’s a good personal touch? Just write their names somewhere. We’re on a six-minute episodes, people.
Watching Murder House Flip reminded me of the incredibly awful Paranormal Home Inspectors. Paranormal Home Inspectors is a Canadian show where, each episode, a home inspector and a psychic visit a house that’s being haunted. Without fail, each episode has the psychic cleansing the home of its mysterious aura or vanquishing the spirit of a tragedy that happened three towns away, and this cures the home of its mystery – but the real cure comes when a home inspector is like “you’ve got faulty wiring and that’s why the TV turns on and off by itself, you’re lucky you aren’t the ghost haunting this place.”
The difference between Paranormal Home Inspectors and Murder House Flip is that PHI has the normal runtime of a television show to tell its story while MHF doesn’t. That’s a travesty, because PHI is documenting nonsense and MHF is about actual murders that really happened. I cannot stress this enough: these aren’t unsolved mysteries or ghost sightings, these are incredibly haunting murders. Without the normal runtime of a television program, though, Murder House Flip isn’t sure how to tackle its subject matter.
I don’t know if every Quibi show has this same problem, but the fact that even one does is amazing. Murder House Flip isn’t really meant to be broken up the way it is, and breaking it up into six-minute chunks cuts away at the show’s most interesting dynamic. There’s no reason for these middle parts, which begin and end weirdly. The show thankfully doesn’t cut into its extremely tight episodes with any intro explanation, but that makes it even weirder. I have to remember part one in order to enjoy part two, which means I’m probably gonna have to just watch all three parts at once, which means it probably could have just been a thirty minute long show. But then, that’s not a “quick bite.”
I just can’t fathom sitting on a public bus, headphones in, watching a six minute episode that introduces me to serial killer Dorothea Puente and then drops that, talks about a woman’s mosaic tile hobby, and ends.
It isn’t like the quick bites format couldn’t work for a lot of things. History Matters packs a lot of history into its 3-4 minute YouTube videos. Almost every episode of Drunk History is broken into three parts, each about eight minutes long. Rosanna Pansino puts out a ton of cooking videos that are 6-8 minutes long. Nearly all of these, though, are on YouTube, a platform that already existed for this kind of video. There didn’t need to be another one.
What Jeffrey Katzenberg identified wasn’t a need that had to be filled, but an opportunity he hoped could be filled. Netflix made $7.16 billion in 2020, a huge pile of cash for a company that sells one product, really. That pile of cash is obviously the same thing that’s driven the development of HBO Max, Disney+, Peacock, Apple TV+, Discovery+, ESPN+, BET+, Paramount+, and other services that have come out since Quibi development began. All of those services became Quibi competitors and that more than anything (especially more than the COVID-19 pandemic, which is why Katzenberg says Quibi failed) led to the service’s near-immediate collapse. Quibi’s dumb format meant that watching one episode of a show like Murder House Flip is no different than pausing after the first six minutes of HBO Max’s Harley Quinn. Which you can do, Jeff. You can pause a video and come back to it later.
“Pause” is the solution to this problem. It did not require billions in capital to engineer a new streaming service. It could have required billions in capital to create new engaging content – like I said, I’ve only watched this one ex-Quibi show – but it sure seems like that might not have been what happened, either. Capitalism does not always innovate the best solution. Sometimes, the best solution already exists.