Coronavirus Lockdown Will Boost Jeff Katzenberg's And Meg Whitman’s New Mobile Streaming Service Quibi

The cofounding brain trust of Meg Whitman and Jeffrey Katzenberg are betting big on their inventive streaming service, Quibi

4/10/2020 2:30:00 PM

The cofounding brain trust of Meg Whitman and Jeffrey Katzenberg are betting big on their inventive streaming service, Quibi

I’m a Los Angeles-based senior editor for Forbes, writing about the companies and people behind the biggest disruption in entertainment since cable TV: streaming video. I write about the tech juggernauts, the legacy media companies and the startups pioneering new ways to reach the consumer. I’ve spent more than 20 years covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. My work has appeared in some of the nation’s most prominent publications, including USA Today, U.S. News & World Report and the Los Angeles Times. As a senior editor at Recode, I won awards for coverage of the devastating cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment. Email me at dchmielewski [at] forbes.com or follow me at @dawnc331.

inutesafter Meg Whitman announced she was stepping down as CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise in November 2017, her phone rang. It was Jeffrey Katzenberg, whom she has known since they both worked for Disney in the late 1980s and early 1990s—Whitman was in strategic planning; Katzenberg ran the film studio. 

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“ ‘What are you doing?’ ” Whitman remembers her friend asking. “I don’t know,” she replied. “I’m the chairman of Teach for America. I’ll probably do stuff with my husband and travel.” She continues: “He goes, ‘No. What are you doingtonight?’ And I said, ‘Knowing you, Jeffrey, I’m having dinner with you.’ ” 

Tech veteran Meg Whitmandiscusses Quibi, her biggest bet yet.Katzenberg flew to Silicon Valley and, over dinner at Nobu in Palo Alto, pitched his idea for bringing high-caliber entertainment to mobile phones. For Whitman, the idea checked all her boxes: The potential market for the service was huge, prevailing trends were right, and it occupied a unique niche. 

“I ultimately said, ‘You know what? I think I have another startup in me,’ ” says Whitman, 63, who first got rich (she’s worth $3.2 billion) working with another visionary founder, Pierre Omidyar. She helped build eBay from 30 employees and $4 million in revenue when she joined in 1998 to more than 15,000 employees and $8 billion in revenue when she left a decade later. 

Meg Whitman with eBay founder Pierre Omidyar in 1998, just a few months after she joined the online auction company as CEO.Gettyimages“We’re pioneering into a space that only exists because of two things: YouTube, and Steve Jobs and the iPhone,” Katzenberg says. “Those two things have now created a new piece of real estate, and that real estate is 7 in the morning until 7 at night. . . . That’s the thing that’s exciting to me.” 

Two years after that dinner, Quibi (an awkward portmanteau ofquickandbites) is poised to launch its mobile streaming service offering original movies, reality TV, comedies and news edited into bite-size nuggets of ten minutes or less, optimized for viewing on phones. 

Quibi launches with 50 original shows, including 'Elba vs. Block,' 'Shape of Pasta,' 'Nikki Fre$h,' 'Survive,' Punk'd' and 'NightGowns.'QuibiMany in Hollywood think it’s a terrible idea. At a time when viewers are awash in entertainment options, many of them free, who is going to pay for another? “If I’m going to watch

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Game of Thronesin eight-minute chunks, what’s the difference between what he’s doing and me hitting the pause button?” scoffs one powerful Hollywood insider, who requested anonymity because his clients sell shows to Quibi. Barry Diller, perhaps the greatest Hollywood visionary of his generation, recently called Quibi a “gutsy speculation” for his former protégé (Katzenberg, 69, worked for Diller at Paramount in the ’70s). “He’s so naked out there with this.” 

This time around, Katzenberg raised enough money to play it out, including $1 billion in August 2018 from the likes of Alibaba, Disney and Sony. It fortuitously wrapped up a $750 million follow-on round in March, just days before the coronavirus froze the country. “I’ve never seen an environment change this fast,” Whitman says. “Every day is a new day, with new data and new concerns.” Luckily, Kevin Hart and Jennifer Lopez had already finished work on their shows, and Spielberg has a movie in the works, attracted by a “cash plus” deal that lets them retain rights to their material. After two years, they can stitch together their “quick bites” and release them as a full-length movie. 

Quibi’s signature feature,Turnstyle, displays full-screen video, whether the viewer holds the phone vertically or horizontally.Inadvertently, America’s lockdown might have created the perfect moment for Quibi. Nielsen projects media viewing will spike by as much as 60% due to COVID-19. People will certainly know it’s available: Quibi is spending a gargantuan $400 million to promote its new service and in mid-March announced that it will offer the service free for three months. 

“This is a moment in time in which we have a chance to do something that is putting some happiness and some joy and some fun and some laughter into people’s hands,” Katzenberg says. Quibi also has the advantage of being loaded with fresh content just as the production of all new shows and movies has been stilled by the pandemic. Quibi has been stockpiling programming since last September in anticipation of a possible writer’s strike, fearing a replay of 2008, when a union walkout halted new production for 100 days. 

Quibi has attracted a number of celebrities to its service, including Chrissy Teigen, Dwayne Johnson, Reese Witherspoon, Steph Curry and Jennifer Lopez.Getty ImagesThe service debuts on April 6, 2020, with 50 original shows, including movies offered in cliff-hanger chapters such as the thriller

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